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The Continence of Scipio

Pieter Codde (Amsterdam 1599 – Amsterdam 1678)
ca. 1630–35
oil on panel
54.6 x 75.6 cm
inventory number

Nogrady, Elizabeth, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. “The Continence of Scipio” (2024). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed July 13, 2024).

Pieter Codde (1599–1678), best known for his portraits and interior scenes of soldiers, musicians, and elegant merrymakers, also painted compelling history paintings, among them The Continence of Scipio. This scene from Roman antiquity depicts a celebrated moment in the life of Scipio (ca. 236–183 BCE) that epitomizes the ideal of a good and just leader. Scipio, whose full name was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, was the young Roman commander of the Spanish provinces during the Second Punic War. As recounted by the ancient historians Polybius and Livy (Titus Livius), Scipio led his troops in a successful siege of New Carthage (today Cartagena, Spain) in 210 BCE. Among the hostages Scipio’s troops took after their victory was a “maiden of a beauty so extraordinary that, wherever she went, she drew the eyes of everyone.” His men subsequently presented the maiden to Scipio as a captive. Upon discovering that this young woman was engaged to Allucius, the leader of the conquered Celtiberians who inhabited that region, Scipio summoned her fiancé and her parents and informed Allucius: “Your betrothed has been in my camp with the same regard for modesty as in the house of your parents-in-law, her own parents. She has been kept for you, so that she could be given to you as a gift, unharmed and worthy of you and of me. This is the only price that I stipulate in return for that gift: be a friend to the Roman people.” Scipio then feigned accepting the ransom of gold and precious objects that the young woman’s parents had brought with them to present to him in exchange for their daughter’s safe return, while in fact giving these treasures to Allucius as a wedding gift. The bridegroom subsequently told his countrymen that the Roman general conquers through “arms and especially by generosity and favors.” For centuries, and notably in Renaissance Europe, Scipio’s actions were perceived as a model of restraint, judgement, and leadership.

Scenes from Roman history were of particular importance to the Dutch, who believed that Roman heroes embodied virtues that should serve as models for leaders of the Dutch Republic. Because of Scipio’s renowned qualities of equanimity and justice, depictions of the Continence (or self-restraint) of Scipio were often commissioned for town halls and other government buildings. In the late 1630s, for example, the city of Leiden commissioned Jan Lievens (1607–74) to paint this subject for the council chamber of the town hall. As with Codde’s painting, however, a number of representations of this narrative were modest in size, indicating that such works were painted for private patrons. Many cabinet-sized depictions of the Continence of Scipio were portraits historiés in which the artist’s patrons were shown in the guise of the bride’s elderly parents or, as in Codde’s painting, the young betrothed couple. In such domestic settings, the story of Scipio and the bride of Allucius could have served as an exemplar of a number of virtues, including personal equanimity, self-restraint, loving relationships, and depth of allegiance to a wise leader.

Codde drew from well-established compositional prototypes to compose his Continence of Scipio. Scipio wears a luxurious knee-length red woolen tunic under a long red cloak clasped at the neck and a laurel wreath, all of which signify his status as a triumphant commander. He points his black ceremonial baton toward the kneeling father, who, in gratitude for the Roman’s benevolence, offers him expensive metalware, including platters, tazze, pitchers, and urns. Meanwhile, as the bride’s mother fervently clasps her hands in supplication, three men bring even more treasures to present to the victor. The young couple, dressed in shimmering robes, tenderly hold each other’s hands while looking thankfully toward Scipio.

This overall design, and particularly Scipio’s pose, evokes classical imagery of the adlocutio, an address given to troops by the emperor. Depictions of this act—such as that found on Trajan’s column, the Roman monument erected in 106–13 CE ()—feature an emperor standing with one arm extended, often surrounded by onlookers. Karel van Mander (1548–1606) recommended a related arrangement in Den Grondt der Edel Vry Schilderconst (The Foundation of the Noble, Free Art of Painting) of 1604. In chapter five (“On the Ordonnance and Invention of Histories”), he indicated that a variety of figural types should be included in the crowd, writing that those personages central to the historical narrative should be portrayed standing amid onlookers who focus on them.

Codde likely based his depiction of the Continence of Scipio on a lost composition by Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), the preeminent history painter in Amsterdam in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century. Lastman was Codde’s neighbor, and his works served repeatedly as a model for the younger artist. As Peter C. Sutton has emphasized, Lastman’s portrayal of the Continence of Scipio had great resonance with later Dutch artists who depicted this subject, including Nicolaes Moeyaert (1592–1655) and Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–74), the latter of whom painted this episode in the life of Scipio multiple times in the 1650s and 1660s (). These artists’ depictions of the Continence of Scipio suggest that Lastman’s prototype similarly portrayed Scipio standing on a raised surface with key figures in the narrative kneeling near the Roman commander, against a backdrop of antique ruins.

Codde carefully modeled the figures of Scipio, Allucius and his fiancée, her father, and the sparkling treasure of expensive serving dishes to emphasize these key compositional elements. The mother of the young woman, who beseeches Scipio for clemency, is somewhat more broadly rendered. Codde modeled the attendants at right with thinly applied ocher paints to indicate their distance from the main figure groups. Codde also used color to emphasize connections among his figures. For example, the red garments worn by Scipio and the young woman’s father create a visual link between them. Similarly, the silken, gold-colored garments of Allucius and his bride unite the young couple.

Numerous texts featuring the story of the Continence of Scipio fueled the popularity of this episode from classical antiquity for the Dutch. Codde, who was active in Amsterdam literary circles early in his career, was likely familiar with Scipio’s deeds from such written sources as the 1614 Dutch edition of Valerius Maximus’s Factorum et dictorum memorabilitium (Memorable Doings and Sayings). Valerius, who organized his historical anecdotes thematically, placed Scipio’s magnanimity under the heading “Of Abstinence and Continence” and argued that lust and greed can be “repelled by good sense and reason from the hearts of famous men.” Van Mander—who painted The Continence of Scipio in 1600 ()—echoed Valerius’s praise for Scipio’s valor in Den Grondt der Edel Vry Schilderconst.

Other seventeenth-century accounts of Scipio based on Valerius Maximus appeared in well-known publications in the 1630s. Among these texts were J.L. Gottfried’s world chronicle, published in 1630, with illustrated plates by Matthäus Merian I (1593–1650), as well as a collection of actions and quotations ascribed to virtuous figures, including Scipio, compiled by Franciscus Heermans in 1634. In his introduction, Heermans notes that the descriptions of virtue he included in his text were meant to provide examples of moral behavior for his readers.

Given that history paintings were somewhat rare in Codde’s oeuvre, his Continence of Scipio can enhance our understanding of both his own professional trajectory and his place within wider artistic trends occurring in Amsterdam. It is likely that Codde painted Continence of Scipio, and another undated version of the subject (), in the 1630s. In this decade, the artist began populating in his merry company scenes with a greater numbers of figures in more complex compositions, often featuring notably elaborate garments made of luxurious and varied fabrics. Coinciding with these personal artistic developments were external factors, particularly the pronounced influence on Dutch history painting in these years of both the work of Lastman (who died in 1633) and the written recommendations of Van Mander regarding compositions suitable for this esteemed genre. Beyond artistic circles, another possible factor was the Dutch political landscape of the war against Spain, namely the positioning of Frederick Hendrick, Prince of Orange, as a hero in the guise of classical exemplars like Scipio. This confluence of circumstances produced an ideal moment for Codde to experiment with applying his skill at painting faces, figures, and objects to the discipline of history painting. In this instance, Codde employed many of his typical elements, such as a closely gathered crowd of individuals displaying a range of interactions, sumptuous garments, and carefully rendered still-life elements, but he reimagined them for a particular historical moment in an outdoor setting reminiscent of Lastman. In subsequent years of intense activity, Codde opted to maintain his focus on portraits and genre interiors—perhaps to find success on a market moving away from history painting, rather than to assuage his personal artistic ambition. Nonetheless, The Leiden Collection’s Continence of Scipio confirms that he did indeed possess the skill, knowledge, and passion for depicting celebrated figures from the past in a manner that spoke, in the present, to the aspirations of his Amsterdam clientele.

- Elizabeth Nogrady and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., 2024
  • (Sale, Christie’s, London, 25 October 1985, lot 84.)
  • (Sale, Christie’s, London, 6 July 2006, no. 102.)
  • [Jack Kilgore and Co., Inc., New York.]
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2007.
  • Borger, Ellen. Geschilderde wachtlokalen: De Hollandse kortegaard uit de Gouden Eeuw. Exh. cat. Naarden, Nederlands Vestingmuseum. Zwolle, 1996, 17.
  • Sluijter, Eric Jan. Rembrandt’s Rivals: History Painting in Amsterdam 1630–1650. OCULI:  Studies in the Arts of the Low Countries 14. Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2015, 306, fig. no. 60.
  • Rosen, Jochai. Pieter Codde (1599 –1678): Catalogue Raisonné. Newcastle upon Tyne, 2020, 37, 441, no. 142.
  • Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. “Pieter Codde, Continence of Scipio.”  In Rembrandt and His Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Caroline Van Cauwenberge, 36–39, no. 5. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Hermitage Amsterdam. Zwolle, 2023. [Exhibition catalogue also published in Dutch.]
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