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Tapia, Pedro Juan

This artist was active in Valencia during the last third of the 16h century. Beginning in 1563 various of his works are mentioned in documents that already refer to him as a "painter." Around 1585, he was working with his brother and fellow painter, Martín, in the province of Zaragoza and in 1590, he was contracted to make an Altarpiece of Saint Leonard for the convent church of La Paridad in Valencia. The last known date from his biography is 1597, when he signed the only work at the Museo del Prado: an enormous and extraordinary late 16th-century portrait of a striped leatherback sea turtle in Denia. The work includes a large cartouche with details provided by the artist himself, although rather than describing the event, he focuses on the animal's characteristics: This peregrine fish caught in a tuna net in Denia this year of 1597 on August 28, of the same size, color and shape shown here, is the other species of sea turtle called leathery by Latin authors, as it is covered with a sort of battered leather, and also Mercury turtle, as [the god] Mercury is said to have drawn on its shape to invent the lute. It's body tube is formed by its spinal ridge and ribs, and inside is everything possessed by perfect animals, so it is of the genus of fish that breath and have voices, being amphibian, oviparous and omnivorous.
This description coincides with the painting's destination, as it was commissioned by the Duke of Lerma and Marquis of Denia to be sent to King Philip II's cabinet of curiosities. In fact, this work reveals one characteristic of such cabinets: when it was not possible to obtain a specimen of the desired extraordinary creature, a painted or engraved image was used instead. Philip II more than made up for his father's relative disinterest in natural history. His collection at El Escorial contained not only masterworks of painting, but also curiosities of nature and productions from overseas, including a multitude of exotic animals, some alive—his menagerie had rhinoceroses, elephants, jackals, lions, lynxes, cheetahs, camels and ostriches—and others stuffed or represented in images.

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