Vulcan's ForgeCa. 1577. Oil on canvas, 250 x 407 cm.
It was Ballarin who discovered what is probably the Prado´s finest painting by Jacopo, and one of his most impressive late works, hanging in the Sala de Juntas of the Universidad de Barcelona, where it was deposited, having been attributed to a follower of Leandro Bassano. The painting appears to be a monumental refutation of Vasari´s description of Jacopo in the second edition of his Lives (Florence, 1568), as a painter of animals and small figures. The Forge is the result of a profound study of Titian´s late oeuvre, and one has only to glance at the figure of Vulcan´s young assistant on the left of the forge to realise that the elderly Jacopo was the true successor of the painter of Cadore´s technique of patches of colour. Few paintings better illustrate the differences between Jacopo and his Venetian colleagues. Jacopo was not interested in the possibilities the theme offered to demonstrate his knowledge of art and classical culture. Neither was he drawn by its expressive potential or erotic undertones. For Jacopo, who set the scene in a smithy populated with people in contemporary attire (only Cupid denotes the mythological nature of the painting), the theme was a pretext to show, with the forge as its centrepiece, how light modifies textures and the surfaces on which it shines, be they human bodies or copper, steel, glass and earthenware objects. Several bottega versions of this theme are known (one at the Museo del Prado), the finest being the one housed at the Louvre (inv. M.N.R., 258). Ballarin attributed the Paris version, which is smaller in size (137 x 191 cm), to Francesco Bassano, who was also responsible for what are presumably three preparatory drawings, one of which is in the Uffizi (n. 5.664), another at the Louvre and a third was sold by Christie´s of London on 7 July 1992. Ballarin dated the Louvre painting to 1577, when Jacopo collaborated most intensely with his eldest son and immediately before Francesco left Bassano del Grappa to settle in Venice. The discovery of the Prado painting calls for a re-examination of some of these opinions, as it is the original on which the other versions, including the Louvre´s work, are based. This would not alter the proposed date, 1577; indeed, the setting, part indoors, part outdoors, is reminiscent of the contemporary kitchen scenes. However, it does affect the assessment of the supposed preparatory drawings, which would be Jacopo´s, or else riccordi by Francesco.
The X-ray of the painting, taken by the technical department of the Prado, shows the changes made during execution, mainly in the lower half of the composition. These pentimenti are particularly noticeable in the group comprising Cupid and the dog, which was originally placed slightly higher, and the young man counting coins on a stool, who was originally looking towards the right. Small alterations are likewise visible in the outlines of Vulcan and the assistant dressed in green, and in the position of one of the tools in front of the stool. A comparison with the X-ray of the Louvre painting reveals the differences that lie between an original and a replica. Leaving aside the logical lack of pentimenti in the replica, differences can be seen in the technique with which each is painted, for whereas Jacopo applied colour directly on the canvas without using a preliminary drawing, correcting himself as he went along, Francesco merely transferred a previously worked out composition onto the canvas.
Nothing is known of the Forge prior to its incorporation into the royal collection, though the theme must have been fairly popular in Spain from the beginning of the 17th century. Lerma owned two, a smaller one (approximately 260 x 170 cm) which was listed in the 1603 Valladolid inventory and another purchased in 1608 at the sale of the Duke of Peñaranda. The size of the latter is unknown, and it could well be the Prado version, since other Bassano paintings that Lerma purchased in the same sale were incorporated into the royal collection in the mid-17th century and were first mentioned in the 1666 inventory, such as The Virgin in Heaven (P43). It was Bottineau who identified this Forge with the one attributed to Bassano that hung in the Hall of Mirrors of the Alcazar in Madrid in 1666, though he was unaware that it had been deposited in Barcelona and believed it had gone missing after the 1872 inventory of the Prado. In the Hall of Mirrors, the Forge was hung as a pendant to Paolo Veronese`s Christ among the Doctors (Prado, P491). The difficulty of establishing the iconography/subject matter of these paintings did not prevent Orso from interpreting Bassano´s work as Venus buscando las armas para Eneas, an allusion to the need of the virtuous prince to arm himself spiritually and physically against his enemies; or Cupido y los Cíclopes forjan las flechas de Cupido, in which case the link with the Veronese painting would be based on the presence of a child among adults. Without underestimating such theories, it should be recalled that the most commonly used criterion for hanging pictures in pairs was their size, and in this aspect the Veronese (236 x 430 cm) and the Bassano (250 x 407 cm) were indeed very similar (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Los Bassano en la España del Siglo de Oro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2001, pp. 240-241).