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Defiant Dido

Shaking up the Italian Renaissance sculpture collection
Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
September 3, 2021
Dido, c. 1525. Aurelio Lombardo (Italian, 1501–1563). 2021.2

Aurelio Lombardo’s commanding marble Dido is poised to present a note of feminine challenge to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s august collection of classically inspired Renaissance portraits of great men by Mino da Fiesole, Girolamo della Robbia, and Gregorio di Lorenzo. Dido is an exquisitely carved marble relief with an arresting presence that belies its modest size. Created at a pivotal moment in the birth of Mannerist sculpture, it depicts the legendary queen Dido, who was customarily portrayed as a forlorn lover abandoned by the Trojan hero Aeneas. The sculpture’s inscription identifies her as the queen of Carthage, and she is represented drawing aside an oxhide curtain, a reference to Virgil’s description of the mythical founding of Carthage in the Aeneid.

Dido is depicted nude, and her wavy hair is worn in loose knots, an allusion to Hellenistic images of Aphrodite. The relief has much in common with ancient Roman funerary stele, but instead of their typically low relief and draped figures, Dido’s nude form twists dynamically. Active and defiant, she is the ideal figure to usher in a newly vibrant period of Italian sculpture. Usually depicted swathed in luxurious drapery, Dido’s nude body is shown rotating, her elbow and knee breaking free from the marble surface. Aurelio’s handling of the marble ranges from the delicate, low relief of the oxhide-draped altar to the arm carved fully in the round. The Mannerist penchant for intense emotion is conveyed in Dido’s parted lips and wide eyes with articulated pupils. The softness of her flesh is contrasted with the taut folds of the draped and stretched animal skin. Dido exemplifies a crucial transition in Italian sculpture from Renaissance clarity to the Mannerist play of movement and proportion.

Aurelio was part of a dynasty of sculptors from the north of Italy, including his uncle Tullio Lombardo and father, Antonio, who was an innovator and master of the medium of small marble reliefs, into which his son Aurelio introduced animated drapery and figures with distinctive expressions. Dido is among a handful of marble sculptures attributed to the artist, and was likely created for display in a , a place of study featuring refined works of art appreciated by humanist scholars and aficionados during the Renaissance. Ancient Greek and Roman works of art were most coveted for the studiolo, but reliefs such as Dido, created in the stylistic language of ancient sculpture and illustrating key figures from ancient texts, were highly sought after, particularly in northern Italy.

Often part of princely collections that passed to museums during the 1800s, such works seldom come on the market. The sculpture’s distinguished provenance most recently includes the celebrated New York private collector Hester Diamond, who died in January 2020. The CMA purchased Dido at the Sotheby’s New York sale of Diamond’s collection on January 29, 2021. Diamond’s astounding assembly of Old Master paintings and sculpture was acquired during the second half of her life, following the death of her first husband, Harold Diamond, with whom she had assembled a world-renowned collection of modern art. 

Aurelio Lombardo’s Dido represents the highest degree of sophistication and innovation of an art form rarely encountered on the market. Working at the dawn of Mannerism, with a fresh interpretation of a time-honored subject, Aurelio captures the beguiling beauty and defiance of a heroine who will shake up the CMA’s pantheon of heroes and breathe new life into a vital part of the collection. Following a light cleaning by our conservation team, Dido will make her debut in the Renaissance galleries later this year.