Dosso Dossi was Alfonso I d’Este’s court painter from 1514, expressing the ruler’s artistic, literary, and chivalrous ideals.
Ingenious and amiable, he was dearly loved by the duke. As Vasari says, “…. first of all, for his talent in the art of painting, and then for his pleasantries, which greatly delighted the duke.”
The (so-called) Sorceress Circe – Dosso’s most famous painting – was created at Alfonso’s court, which was intensely engaged with artistic and other cultural activities and saw the birth of one of the greatest poems in Italian literature, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso dedicated by the poet to Ippolito d’Este,
Alfonso’s brother. The painting portrays a woman characterized without doubt as a sorceress. Wearing a turban and a rather bizarre dress, she is seated inside a magic circle with runic inscriptions. Next to her is a brazier with which she is lighting a lantern, and she is holding a tablet with incomprehensible cabalistic signs. The presence by her side of a suit of armor and a dog with a strangely human look led to the identification of the figure as Circe, the sorceress in the Odyssey who transformed men into animals. The first mention with this name dates from 1790.
Actually, there are few iconographic elements in the painting that refer to the Homeric Circe. As early as 1900 a substantial number of scholars tended to identify the woman as the sorceress Melissa, the protagonist of crucial episodes of Orlando Furioso.
Melissa is the good enchantress who frees Christian and Saracen knights from the evil spell of the sorceress Alcina, who had transformed them into animals, stones, and plants. This interpretation better explains the presence of the armor, the dog (and not Circe’s pigs), the bird, and the puppets hanging from the tree, which recall the “images” – the symbolic figures used by Alcina for her spell: “to Melissa […] gave full ease/to move around looking for each thing in its place,/burning images, removing seals,/and undoing knots and rhombs and whirls” (canto VIII, 14).
In the third canto of the poem, Melissa is described while drawing a magic circle (similar to the one in the painting), the beginning of a white magic spell and a prophecy. In effect, she is also the one who predicts to Bradamante that her marriage to Ruggiero will give birth to the Este family. With originality and a taste for the fabulous, Dosso offers a summary of the passages of Orlando Furioso in which the sorceress is mentioned, and portrays her while she is performing a liberating enchantment.
Executed in 1516/18, right after the publication of Ariosto’s poem, the painting shows the same eulogistic intention with regard to the Este family and its sophisticated court.
Its restoration revealed numerous pentimenti. In particular, the X-rays showed that initially a knight was portrayed standing next to the sorceress. This may have been the English paladin Astolfo, of whom Ariosto writes: “Before the others the English leader/regained his human face”, that is, was the first to be saved by Melissa. Dosso apparently changed his mind later and reworked the painting, replacing the figure with the human-eyed dog and the trees.
The canvas arrived at the Villa on the Pincio together with other works sent to Scipione Borghese by the papal legate in Ferrara, Cardinal Bentivoglio, and is mentioned for the first time in Manili’s 1650 inventory.