The Romei Sybils

Written by  Carla di Francesco
A proposal for a new interpretation of the function and meaning of the celebrated frescoes of the mid Fifteenth century.
The house of Giovanni Romei, a wealthy merchant related to the ducal family through marriage with the young Polissena d'Este, is the only building in which it is still possible to view the architectonic and decorative elements typical of aristocratic houses in Ferrara of the mid Fifteenth century.
A thrilling exemplification of this is the Sala delle Sibille, which only in recent years has attracted the attention of experts and public alike thanks to recent restoration work completed in 1996.

On the walls of the room twelve standing female figures - the Sybils - hold fluttering scrolls announcing the coming of the Saviour: the message is repeated in the niche in the southern wall, on which there is depicted a Nativity. Elegant in their fashionable clothes, the twelve Sybils are linked by a high continuous espalier of while and pink-white roses, which encloses them within a well defined space, delimited at the bottom by the ground on which they rest and by the edge of a high plinth, today completely lost.

Above the rose garden a series of festoons including oak, rowan and other species with fruit and flowers follows the horizontal alignment from which there stands out a frieze of playful cherubs frolicking with branches laden with fruit. The room also has a large polygonal fireplace edged in finely worked terracotta with traces of colour and gilding: the hood of the fireplace still sports the master of the house's sumptuous armorial bearings, a symbol frequently repeated in this room too and visible on the boards of the wooden ceiling.
There are also other symbolic figures, such as a blindfolded Cupid and a Virgin with a unicorn. Giovanni Romei's house was begun around 1442; the Sala delle Sibille, together with the neighbouring room, dedicated to the Prophets, was part of an extension commissioned during the following decade in view of the forthcoming marriage with Polissena, Borso d'Este's niece: in expectation of this event the already handsome home was redoubled in size.

At the time of his marriage to Polissena, his second, Romei was a man of great social prestige who could receive illustrious personages and organize parties attended by the dignitaries of the city. But the Sala delle Sibille was not the first of its kind in Ferrara. There was an illustrious precedent, the "gran chamara delle Sibille", which Niccolò Panizzato had painted for Leonello d'Este at Belriguardo in 1447.

But the theme of the prophecies had a more distant prototype, the cycle painted for Cardinal Giordano Orsini's palace in Rome in 1434: now unfortunately no longer extant, the memory of this room was handed down through contemporary descriptions and was to codify the type. All successive realizations were hugely successful and also influenced the examples in Ferrara.
As we have said, the prophetesses are inserted within a rose garden, an authentic hortus conclusus allusive of the Virgin Mary (white roses symbolize purity and humility). Alongside this overt significance there are other symbols of chastity such as the blindfolded Cupid and the Virgin with unicorn on the ceiling; the allusion is clearly to womanly virtues, which find fulfilment in conjugal love. The cycle therefore appears like a precise plan on Romei's part, aimed at gratifying his future wile Polissena.

When he died in 1483 Romei left the house to the nuns of Corpus Domini, who remained there until 1872. Purchased by the State, since the end of the last century the house has been restored on several occasions and is today a museum; a series of reports dating from the middle of the Nineteenth century report that the Sala delle Sibille was in a disastrous state of conservation due hugely to the nature of the techniques and materials with which the cycle was created.

After various attempts at restoration, the paintings were detached and transferred to panels in 1950; the legibility of the figures has been partly corrected in the recent restoration, which involved a huge task of pictorial integration.