The Discovery of Coral
(Ippolita Scarsella Scarsellino)


This small copper represents a particularly refined example of Scarsellino’s output as a painter of mythological and profane subjects. The story of the discovery of coral is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The text, available in many editions both of prose and verse, proved to be one of the most favoured sources for Italian sixteenth-century artists. Niccolò degli Agostini’s 1522 edition was closely followed by Ludovico Dolce’s much reprinted 1553 edition, which is embellished with ninety-three illustrations by Giovanni Antonio Rusconi. Ovid’s text was further elaborated and expanded in Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara’s massive 1561 free translation, which introduced new stories. These publications were intended to serve as iconographic manuals and provided the inspiration for artistic inventions by painters, writers and sculptors. They culminated in Vincenzo Cartari’s 1571 Le imagini de i dei degli antichi, which contains ninety-eight plates by Bolognino Zaltieri and which, in its later 1556 edition is dedicated to Cardinal Luigi d’Este.

Mythological subject matter had been favoured at the Ferrarese court ever since Alfonso I’s celebrated ‘camerino d’alabastro’ in the Este Castle and from an early point in his career Scarsellino frequently interpreted mythological themes. The Discovery of Coral adheres closely to the Ovidian text, which tells how Perseus brings the head of the recently vanquished Gorgon to a beach. In the painting Perseus strews the ground with a bed of leaves, in turn covered with seaweed in order to protect the head’s crowning glory of serpents from the rough pebbles of the beach. Blood seeping from the head’s severed veins permeates the seaweed which, tinged red, in turn absorbs the monster’s fading power and ossifies, turning into blood-red stone or coral. The bathing nymphs desport themselves by repeating the trick with fresh seaweed again and again.

Scarsellino employs a subtle range of pale blue and grey tones for both the water and the distant landscape, while the sky is suffused with pink. The rocky cliff is shown contrejour, while high in the sky one glimpses the white form of Pegasus, flying with his head arched backwards as he glances at the scene below and the Gorgon’s blood from which he sprang. The nubile, well-rounded forms of the nymphs are delicately rendered in chiaroscuro and may be closely compared to Dosso Dossi’s female forms. Indeed, the nymph in the right foreground, who is so intent on gathering up the branches of coral, is a direct quotation from the figure at the centre of the Idyllic Pastoral Landscape by Dosso in the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome.

Charles McCorquadale drew a parallel between this The Discovery of Coral and Scarsellino’s much larger Bathing Nymphs in the Minneapolis Art Institute. The handling of the landscape, the placid interlocking forms of the nymphs and the general typology of the figures have much in common. The nymphs, with their lost profiles, can also be compared to similar figures which fill Scarsellino’s famous mythological compositions in the Galleria Borghese in Rome and again share a very similar lyrical relationship with the landscape space. The felicitous handling and freshness of the painted surface suggest a dating before 1590, since Scarsellino’s documented work after 1590 shows different characteristics and style. This small copper combines the lessons the artist learned from the flowering of Venetian painting earlier in the century – Titian, Schiavone and later Veronese and Tintoretto. His re-use of earlier forms and his ability to render the scene in an uncontrived and naturalistic way stands in complete contrast to the maniera of the mid-sixteenth century art and marks him as an artist who, in parallel and maybe even in advance of the Carracci, returned to naturalism.

From early times coral was considered a precious material and until the late middle ages it was believed that red Mediterranean coral, used for ornament and the speciality of Trapani, had beneficial healing properties as well as the ability to ward off the ‘evil eye’. It was often made into necklaces and hung round the necks of small children and is sometimes shown as worn by the Christ Child.

16 ¼ x 19 5.8 in. (41.5 x 50 cm.)
Oil on canvas

Julian Stock, London;
Private collection, England.


Da Borso a Cesare d’Este: La Scuola di Ferrara, Ferrara, 1985, (Italian edition with additions to the Matthiesen catalogue), pp. 117-8, no. 53, colour pl. LI and cover illustration.
J. Bentini, ‘’Il fascino della pittura veneta: il caso dello Scarsellino’,’ La Pittura in Emilia e in Romagna. Il Seicento, Bologna, 1993, vol. II, p. 272.
I. Miarelli Mariani, Immagini degli dei: mitologia e collezionismo tra ‘500 e ‘600, Lecce, 1996, p. 196.
M. A. Novelli, Collezione di antichi maestri emiliani, exh. cat., Bologna, 1996, pp. 40 & 42.
A. Morandotti, ‘’Scarsellino fra ideale classico e maniera internazionale’,’ Arte a Bologna: Bolletino dei musei civici d’arte antica, 4, 1997, p. 42, no.4.

Coral: Something Rich and Strange, exhibition catalogue, Manchester Museum Liverpool, 2013, p.8, fig. 2.


London, Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., From Borso to Cesare d’Este: The School of Ferrara 1450-1628, London, 1984, pp. 99-100, no. 53, pl. 51 (on loan).

London and New York, The Matthiesen Gallery and Stair Sainty Matthiesen Inc., Fifty Paintings 1535-1825, London, 1993, pp. 36-8 and colour pl.

London, The Matthiesen Gallery, 2001:An Art Odyssey, no.11, pp.130-135, ill.

Manchester, Manchester Museum, Coral: Something Rich and Strange, 29th November 2013- 16th March 2014, pg. 8, fig. 2, illus.

Where is It?
Historical Period
Mannerism & Cinquecento - 1530-1600 & Baroque - 1600-1720
Italian - Other Regions
1984-From Borso to Cesare d'Este, 1450 - 1628: The School of Ferrara.
An exhibition in aid of The Courtauld Institute Trust Appeal Fund. Ten introductory essays on Ferrara and aspects of Ferrarese art by Cecil Gould, Lanfranco Caretti, Claudio Gallico, Vincenzo Fontana, Thomas Tuohy, Emmanuele Mattaliano, Giorgio Bassani, Giuliano Briganti, Alastair Smith, with charts and Concordat of Ferrarese paintings in British public collections. 200 pages, 50 colour plates, 84 black and white illustrations. £15 or $23 inc. p&p.

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