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Work Tapestry depicting scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses

Department of Decorative Arts: Renaissance

The Fall of Phaeton

© 1993 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

Decorative Arts

Marie-Hélène de Ribou

These two tapestries, made by the Ferrara workshop, were part of a famous five-part wall hanging representing Ovid's Metamorphoses. They reflect the 16th-century Italian taste for gardens and the Este court's predilection for complex, sophisticated themes. The iconographic program combines allusions to the power of the House of Este and ancient myths, both from Ovid's Metamorphoses (which gave their name to the tapestry) and from other ancient texts.

Myth and reality

Originally, the five or six parts of the tapestry were designed in the same overall format: a row of figures-half-human, half-tree-dominated the scene, whose background featured a view of Ferrara and its surroundings or one of the Este family's villas. The border was formed by a portico decorated with vine branches, with the Este eagle on the architrave.
The scene is the Fall of Phaeton. At the top left, the young hero, struck by a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter, falls, dragging with him the chariot that carries the sun. His sisters, the Heliads, come to weep over his body and are transformed into trees. In the foreground, King Cygnus, who was very fond of Phaeton, has changed into a swan, while on the right, Argus, in the form of a peacock, is watching the nymph Io in the shape of a heifer.
The iconography of the second tapestry is less clear. Three men and a woman are changing into trees. The inscription MELIA on the trunk topped with a woman's bust and branches of ash seems to be an allusion to the myth of the Meliads. In the background are the gardens, which lent their name to the tapestry, laid out around the famous artificial mount commissioned by the Este family.

Ferrara tapestries

Tapestry workshops were founded in a number of Italian towns in the course of the 15th century. Tapestry weaving had been an important, albeit intermittent, industry in Ferrara for a century when Duke Ercole II d'Este decided in 1534 to set about reorganizing the workshops in his duchy. He was aware that tapestry was an impressive, not to say ostentatious, art form, and he fully intended to control its production to further his own power.
There were already two Flemish weavers, Hans and Nicola Karcher, working in Ferrara, mainly as tapestry restorers. The duke enticed eight others to join them, including Jean Roost, to form an important new workshop run by Hans Karcher. The duke's initiative went no further in Ferrara, but it inspired other Italian princes, particularly in Florence, where Cosimo I de' Medici founded a workshop in 1545 that was to produce high-quality tapestries for two centuries.

Flemish tradition and the modernity of the Italian Renaissance

Contrary to earlier workshops, the workshop set up by Ercole II d'Este employed weavers who were familiar both with a range of tapestry techniques and with the art of the Italian Renaissance. This meant that the weavers were able to follow with great fidelity the cartoons produced by artists. Meanwhile, the artists, who were often decorators, had learned to take the constraints of tapestry-making into account in their designs.
The cartoons for this series of tapestries were by Battista Dossi (c.1490-1548), who drew inspiration from the frescoes by his brother Dosso Dossi in the Sala delle Eliadi in the Villa Imperiale in Pesaro. As was customary in the Flemish tradition, Hans Karcher used a narrow range of colors, playing on contrasting tones.


- FORTI GRAZZINI Nello, L'Arazzo ferrarese, Milan, Electa, 1982, pp.104-108.

- GIBBONS Felton, Ferrarese Tapestries of Metamorphosis, in The Art Bulletin, t. XLVIII, 1966, pp. 407-411

- OVIDE, Les Métamorphoses, traduction, introduction et notes par Joseph Chamonard, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1966, pp. 62-75, livre I/751-779 et livre II/1-400.

- Une Renaissance singulière. La cour des Este à Ferrare, Exposition, Bruxelles, Palais des beaux-arts, 3 octobre 2003-11 janvier 2004, Éditions Snoeck, 2003, p. 329.

Technical description

  • After Battista DOSSI (died in Ferrara, 1548)

    The Fall of Phaeton

    Woven for Ercole II d'Este in the workshop of Hans Karcher at Ferrara in 1545

  • Tapestry, wool and silk

  • Loaned by the Mobilier National, 1946

    Tapestry from the series of the "Ovid’s Metamorphoses"

    Gob 124

  • Decorative Arts

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