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Friday, April 16, 2004

Arts & Letters

Heroic Prints

Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, February 3-May 2.

In this fine show, viewers are treated to an entire world of legend and mythology, images made at a time when such mythology was nearly taken for granted as a lingua franca throughout Europe. Today, the retelling of myth, with its impersonal sense of boundary and fate, is not nearly so ubiquitous; the prominent figures in classical storytelling are not well enough known to support their existence as a common idiom of culture. The ancient tales of Apollo and Bacchus and the muses on Mount Parnassus are, unfortunately, connected to a much-attacked high culture when in fact they are wonderfully imaginative, often sensual, stories whose timeliness is ongoing, always present. Today, when the imagination has been made overly personal, too heavily joined to individual identity, a show such as Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints has a great deal to offer, often as a corrective to excessive introspective regard.

Mythologies, then, are publicly traded histories of excess and passion that comment in a general way on the human condition. They make for marvelous imageries, which are based on classical traditions and tend to epitomize the human, often humorous foibles of man. As narratives of the way we are, classical myths tend to privilege feeling for the sake of the story; this larger-than-life element is central to mythology’s ability to render accessible the morality implied by the tale, for, in many of the myths, events prove cautionary. For example, in the fate of Icarus, who fell wingless into the sea because he refused to heed advice and flew too close to the sun, we can see a clear warning against over-ambitiousness. Or in a bacchanal with the pot-bellied Silenus, we see something of the orgiastic ecstasy associated with wine and the transcendence of limits, which hopefully does not result in too much harm to its participants. It is perhaps an inevitable loss that we no longer reference the poets, lovers, and heroes of classical life — art is now heavily conceptual and specialized — and so no longer proceed as if these personages provided a common ground. It may be commented, however, that such a loss tends to isolate us all the more, for we cannot engage in a shared economy of culture.

The show, the details of which are helped greatly by Wendy Thompson’s monograph by the same title, is composed of Italian prints spread over three centuries following medieval times, which were generally not taken up with classical myth. Consisting mostly of engravings and etchings, some of which are directly done by the artist and some done by an artisan-specialist copying the artist’s painting or design, the exhibition possesses a marvelous grandeur and energy, based primarily upon the stories it relates. Sometimes the references are general, as in Tiepolo’s small, whimsical, and beautifully realized etching of a satyr’s family (ca. 1743-1757); or in the ornate and dramatic engraving, Apollo, Pan, and a Putto Blowing a Horn (1560s), done by Giorgio Ghisi after the Bolognese sixteenth-century artist, Francesco Primaticcio. And sometimes the classical reference is exact, as happens in the 1582 engraving, Apollo, Marsyas, and the Judgment of Midas, by the artist Melchior Meier (active in Tuscany, ca. 1572-1582). The work recalls a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the shepherd Marsyas, playing a flute, attempted to outdo Apollo in a musical competition but lost and was consequently flayed alive; the figure of King Midas, wearing the ears of an ass, also refers to Apollo’s judgment of the king’s uncouth preference for Pan’s pipes in another musical rivalry, between Pan and Apollo (and won by Apollo).

To a classically trained Renaissance audience, these stories were well-known, and great pleasure would be derived from the visual illustration of the myths. For a contemporary viewer, even someone unfamiliar with the stories, the graphic works amaze by the amount of information they are capable of bearing. One can see the accumulation of detail in The Drunken Silenus (1628), an etching by Jusepe de Ribera (a Spaniard who lived most of his life in Naples): as Thompson points out, Pan is true to literary description, with the pipes and crooked staff laid down beside his decidedly goatish foot. Pan, with his shaggy legs and small horns on the crown of his head, leans solicitously over the naked, huge-bellied figure of Silenus, crowning him with grape leaves. It may be that Pan is modeled as a muse of sorts — according to Thompson, he “was invoked as a source of poetic inspiration in the bucolic poetry of Theocritus and Virgil and was sometimes said to be the father of Silenus” (p. 29). But what the coronation was about exactly is uncertain, although the cast of the treatment is not, being broadly comic, with another satyr pouring wine into Silenus’ cup and a depiction of a spirited horse’s head on the right within the composition.

Eros plays a large part in these graphic works and is sometimes directly shown. Enca Vico, in his treatment of a work by Parmigianino entitled Vulcan at His Forge with Mars and Venus (1543), shows Mars and Venus in dalliance on a bed in the upper left of the composition while, on the right, Vulcan fashions an invisible web to capture the couple in mid-embrace. Once he had caught them, Vulcan, the Latin version of the Greeks’ Hephaestus, would exhibit the embarrassed couple to the other gods. According to Thompson, this engraving is based on a tradition of erotic prints “that began in 1516 with the set of images of Venus derived from the frescoes of the stufetta, or bathroom” (p. 32). This tradition, which became more openly ribald with the engravings of sexual positions in 1524 entitled I Modi (The Ways), was opposed by Pope Clement VII, who put their engraver in prison and had the prints and plates destroyed. Evading judgment, the publisher of I Modi had engravings made that depicted encounters between gods rather than human beings; the volume was highly popular, resulting in works of art influenced by it, as happened in the Vico work.

Not all the works were engravings or etchings; there is a marvelous woodcut by Antonio da Trento, after a drawing by Parmigiano, whose title is Narcissus (1527-1530). According to Thompson, the design is so faithful to Parmigiano’s hand that scholars believe da Trento drew on the blocks directly. The composition shows a back view of a naked Narcissus, bending over as he falls in love with his own image in a pool, beside a tree. The work is a chiaroscuro woodcut, with highlights on the right side of Narcissus’ back and on some of the leaves beneath the tree, to the right side of the image. As a study in self-absorption, Narcissus captures a telling psychological moment, with implied meaning for all of us. Here, the storytelling carries a universal significance; the events of the narrative bear meaning to all cultures, old and new, even if their source is based on the continuing history of a very specific Greek myth.

To save the best for last: in Andrea Mantegna’s Bacchanal with a Wine Vat, an engraving from the 1470s, one of the great Renaissance printmakers offers a heroic version of Bacchus, who is being crowned on the left-hand side of the composition, with a cornucopia beside him. A muscular nude, this Bacchus is affiliated with the art of poetry; he is associated with the Latin poets Virgil and Horace, both of whom address the crowning of poets in the Georgics and Odes, respectively. The crowded scene, with two babies asleep just in front of the wine vat and a man sleeping on top of it, with a tree behind the vat, gives the viewer the feeling of disorganized celebration, a theme that is also addressed in another print by Mantegna, Bacchanal with Silenus, also an engraving of the 1470s. In this image, a heavyset Silenus is being supported by three men, one of whom is crowning him; to the right of this central scene are two men, presumably shepherds, who play the Pan pipes. In these powerful prints, the richness of Mantegna’s studies of ancient culture is stunningly present. According to Thompson, there is controversy about whether the artist himself was responsible for the seven engravings attributed to him, but it seems that “the revolutionary character of these prints, technically as well as iconographically, argues in favor of authorship by a major artist” (p. 25). Mantegna’s greatness reiterates the achievements by the lesser artists in the show, whose works are given both energy and decorum by their quotations of the ancient myths. Today, in our regular substitution of the politics of identity for the common ground of classical tales, we lose the pleasure of the shared story.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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