”The Landing of Scipio Africanus at Carthage” is part of the cardboard or cartoon (a drawn design equal to the size of the artwork to be produced) for a tapestry from a series depicting the history of Scipio, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal and managed to enforce peace with the inhabitants of Carthage (today’s Tunis). The moment depicted, is Scipio’s landing in Africa in 202 B.C. After the Romans had been humbled for quite some time by the triumphs of Hannibal during the Second Punic War in Italy, the great Carthaginian general was defeated at Zama in Africa by the Roman general Scipio. The destruction of Carthage (as is well known, frequently and forcibly recommended by the Roman senator Cato) did not take place until later, in 146 B.C., during the Third Punic War. In the tapestry series, in addition to ”The Landing in Africa”, The ”Battle of Zama” is depicted, as well as Scipio’s exemplary fortitude (that in Spain he returned a captured princess to her betrothed was considered exemplary of ‘Continentia’ and has been frequently depicted by artists). Because of his courageous and selfless behavior, Scipio Africanus was seen as a good example for a monarch, who, after all, also had to combine heroism, generosity and fortitude. The reason that The Landing in Africa was depicted in the series is likely to have been in the aspect of daring, Scipio’s audacity in attacking the enemy on his own territory.
The first Scipio series must have been woven in Brussels shortly after 1532 for the French king, Francis I. The designs for that series came from Giulio Romano, Rafael’s collaborator who had taken over the running of his studio after the master’s death. In time, a second series was made, partly identical, partly supplemented with new subjects. It must be assumed that these additions were not designed by an Italian but by a Flemish master. It must also be suspected that Charles V’s campaign in Tunis in 1535 was the reason for the creation of this second series.
Michiel Coxcie, at the time court painter to Mary of Hungary, Charles’ sister, and later called ‘Pictor Regis’, painter to King Philip II, as the most important Flemish artist working in the Italian style, is the main candidate for authorship of the designs for the additions to this second series. Incidentally, only half of the composition in question was prepared in the cardboard, as the known versions show two ships approaching Africa side by side. The drawing also shows how the artist, apparently not satisfied with an earlier result, cut away a large part of the cardboard and replaced it with a new piece of paper with a different composition. Several versions of the tapestry design, which could be woven several times, are still known today.
The oldest of these dates back to the 16th century and is located at Hearst Castle, the fairytale palace of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in California, near the village of San Simeon.
This tapestry was executed by the Brussels weaver Jan Mattens and, as is usually the case with weavings where the cardboard is laid under the loom, it displays the composition in mirror image. This is certainly not the first weaving.
It is usually assumed that this series was created very late in the sixteenth century. Imperfections in the execution also make it clear that this must be an inferior quality version. In the seventeenth century the design was woven again, in the same direction now, by the Parisian Manifacture des Gobelins.
The designs of Italian artists for the Brussels weavers, especially Rafael’s with his famous series with the Acts of the Apostles, revolutionized tapestry art. Until recently, however, there has been little appreciation of the Flemish masters who were impressed by the designs of Raphael and his Italian followers. At the Rijksmuseum, the beautiful tapestry designed by Coxcie, “The Covenant of God the Father with Noah,” had been making a great impression for some time. With this board, which shows convincing similarities to Coxcie’s paintings, the energetic working methods and creative possibilities of this Flemish follower of Raphael can be well demonstrated.