This fresco is ground upstairs in the Villa Farnesina, Rome. The Villa Farnesina was the villa of Agostino Chigi, the banker to Julius II and the richest man in Rome. His first wife had died childless and his mistress, a Venetian woman, Francesca Ordeaschi, bore him five children. The pope leaned on Chigi to legitimise their relationship, which he did, making his sons his heirs. Much of the decoration celebrates his love of Francesca and their forthcoming wedding, including Raphael’s Loggia di Psyche on the ground floor. He died in 1520 and she died seventh months later, either from poisoning or suicide. A liebestod is considered to be more romantic. The fresco, by Sodoma, following a design by Raphael, shows an elaborate carved wooden bed in the antique manner, with carved columns, cornices, fabric valances and expensive red curtains.
Alexander the Great married the daughter of a Bactrian princess in 327 B.C. The roman writer Lucian created an ekphrasis about this event. (An exphrasis is a poem purporting to be a description of a painting.) Ekphrases were of particular interest to Renaissance painters, who had seen no monumental antique paintings, and some of the greatest Renaissance paintings, like this one, were reverse ekphrases — attempts to recreate what the painting in the poem would have been like.
Sodoma (and Raphael) followed Lucian’s ekphrasis closely:
[Lucian, 7.1] The picture is in Italy; I have seen it myself and can describe it to you. The scene is a very beautiful chamber, and in it there is a bridal couch with Roxane, a very lovely maiden, sitting upon it, her eyes cast down in modesty, for Alexander is standing there. There are smiling Cupids: one is standing behind her removing the veil from her head and showing Roxane to her husband; another like a true servant is taking the sandal off her foot, already preparing her for bed; a third Cupid has hold of Alexander’s cloak and is pulling him with all his might towards Roxane. The king himself is holding out a garland to the maiden and their best man and helper, Hephaestion [the clothed man at the right], is there with a blazing torch in his hand, leaning on a very handsome youth I think he is Hymenaeus (his name is not inscribed) [i.e. Hymen, the god of marriage].
[7.2] On the other side of the picture are more Cupids playing among Alexander’s armor; two of them are carrying his spear, pretending to be laborers burdened under a beam; two others are dragging a third, their king no doubt, on the shield, holding it by the handgrips; another has gone inside the corslet, which is lying breast-up on the ground—he seems to be lying in ambush to frighten the others when they drag the shield past him.
[7.3] All this is not needless triviality and a waste of labor. Aetion is calling attention to Alexander’s other love – War – implying that in his love of Roxane he did not forget his armour.
Sodoma plays down the militaristic theme of the last paragraph, as being inappropriate to Agostino Chigi.
In a convex mirror within the bed can be seen another bed, this time fully covered with black draperies, implying a bed behind the viewer. In the inventory made at his death the room of Alexander was listed as Francesca’s bedroom, and there are payments for two elaborate beds with black and red draperies and expensive inlays.
The painter, then, is clearly making a connection, not only between the coy Roxane and Francesca Ordeaschi and between the love-struck Alexander and Agostino Chigi, but also being the marriage bed of the greatest general of antiquity and the real bed in this room.
Where would the bed have gone? Mostly beds in palaces went on one of the two side walls. The right side wall has a fireplace, but the left side wall has a comical fresco of Alexander on his horse Bucephalus, which was added later, and this is where the bed would have been. Seated in this bed, the couple would have looked left out of the bed to the parallel illusionistic world of the bedroom of Alexander and Roxane.