(b. ca. 1458, d. 1516, Ferrara)

The Birth of Athena at the Forge of Vulcan

Marble, 83 x 107 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Alfonso d'Este assembled some of the most sophisticated decorative ensembles of the early sixteenth century at his castle in the centre of Ferrara. Here he asked Antonio Lombardo, elder son of Pietro Lombardo and Tullio's brother, to create a "Studio of Marbles" (Studio di Marmi), a private study lined entirely in marble. Antonio was responsible for narrative reliefs, friezes, inscriptions from classical authors, and even the marble floor. For the most part he adopted the calm and idealized manner of ancient Greek and Augustan art, underlining the room's function as a meditative retreat intended for the duke's leisure and tranquility; but for the dramatic subject of The Birth of Athena at the Forge of Vulcan Antonio turned to the pathos of Hellenistic sculpture. At the left a writhing, bearded figure representing Zeus is one of the earliest surviving direct quotations from the recently excavated (1506) Laocoon group.

The quotation served to enhance Alfonso's reputation as a patron and collector who had up-to-date knowledge of ancient art. It also gave expression to the pain Zeus must have experienced after Vulcan's axe (being forged by the nude figures at the brazier, in the centre of the relief) released Athena, fully formed, from his head. The leg of the priest who performed the act can be seen behind Zeus, while Athena, calm patroness of wisdom and peace, stands sedately in the niche above.