Picture for discussion – frontispiece to the 4th edition of Bisaccioni’s “Historia delle gverre civili” 1655

Bisaccioni Historia delle guerre civilis 1653 Titelblatt

© Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

The engraving serves as frontispice in the 4th edition of Mailolino Bisaccioni’s Historia delle gverre civili de nostri tempi (History of civil wars of our times), published in 1655 in Venetia. The edition is dedicated to the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, Ranuccio II Farnese. The emblem that figures prominently in the picture seems to be a hybrid that combines three major elements:

Alongside five fleurs de lis as symbols of the House of Farnese, the heraldic depiction also contains the family crest of the Florentine Medici (central section) and the emblem referring to the Cardinal Chamberlain’s office (keys of St. Peter crowned by an umbrella).

This raises questions. Why an ecclesiastical emblem and the Medici’s coat of arms in a book dedicated to the duke of Parma?

Relations between the Holy See and the Farnese were far from being friendly at that time. Since the mid-16th century the Duchy of Parma had been in on-going territorial conflict with the popes, culminating in the sack of Castro in 1649, the ultimate humiliation.

So why did Bisaccioni use the emblem of the papal camerlengo in the frontispiece and then dedicated the book to the pope’s enemy? – When the book was published in 1655, Innocent X had just died. This is why the emblem of the Cardinal Chamberlain denotes a papal interregnum here. In January the Conclave was being held – with Duke Ranuccio’s grand uncle Carlo di Fernando de Medici as Dean of the College of Cardinals presiding over it.

This complex blend of several coats of arms might therefore reflect hopes for a more convenient papal successor shared by the Medicis and the Farneses. And it might also explain the unusual combination of the depicted figures, Mars scrunching on a buckler and being offered a leaf – not by Venus but by a Medusa holding a smoky goblet in her hands.

What do Mars and Medusa represent? Are they allegories of abstract political ideas, or is there a connection to the politics of the day?

For further reading:

Italian biography of Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma

Italian biography of Carlo di Fernando de Medici, Dean of the College of Cardinals, on the Palazzo Medici website

Italian Biography of Odoardo I Farnese, Duke of Parma

Italian biography of Margherita de Medici, Duchess of Parma and wife of Duke Odoardo I Farnese


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2 Responses

  1. Hubert Meeus says:

    Maybe the woman with the snakes on her head is not Medusa but an allegorical representation of discord and/or malice. Cesare Ripa’s, Iconologia, can help to find an interpretation of this figure.

    • Monika Barget says:

      In order to understand the full range of the Bisaccioni frontispiece, it is important to take a closer look at the earlier editions of the book. Apart from cover illustrations showing no one but Mars, we have also discovered a very detailed engraving of Athene and Medusa. In this frontispiece, the element of the magical mirror which makes it possible to look at Medusa without harm seems to be the central theme of the allegory. I think it very likely that the artist of the 4th edition frontispiece knew about the older engravings and deliberately re-arranged their content. Malte Griesse is going to post more information soon.

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