(b. 1504, Bologna, d. 1570, Paris)

A River God

Pen and brown ink, with brown wash, on light brown paper, 240 x 353 mm
British Museum, London

To rebuild and decorate a ruined medieval castle in the forest of Fontainebleau as his primary residence and the centre of court life, the French king François I sought the services of leading Italian artists. With the arrival of Rosso Fiorentino in 1530 and Primaticcio in 1532, an international team of Italian, Flemish and French artists and craftsmen was assembled to execute a series of decorative ensembles. In this collaborative milieu a distinctive style, referred to as the School of Fontainebleau, was forged that set elegant Mannerist compositions within rich and dense compartmentalized schemes of high stucco relief and painted ornament, harnessing a classical vocabulary to a playful and erotic sensibility.

Primaticcio spent his entire mature career in France working for a succession of French kings on various projects for the Château de Fontainebleau. While very few of these interiors survive, the innovative designs that influenced a generation of artists are recorded to some degree in the large body of extant drawings and reproductive prints. One of the most spectacular spaces must have been the Appartements des Bains on the ground floor below the Galerie François I, a series of richly decorated rooms devoted to bathing and relaxation, in which were displayed masterpieces from the royal collection, such as Leonardo da Vinci's 'Virgin of the Rocks' and Andrea del Sarto's 'Charity' (both Louvre, Paris).

From descriptions it is known that the fifth room contained a small pool and was decorated with scenes from the story of Jupiter and Callisto. The present drawing was the design for the right half of a lunette depicting Diana banishing Callisto after discovering her pregnancy. Primaticcio's attention is focused on the figure of the river god anchoring the right corner of the lunette. Aged and muscular, he is embedded, almost imprisoned, in the rocky grotto that surrounds him.