Printmaking revolutionized artistic production in the fifteenth century by allowing artists to create numerous impressions from a single matrix and distribute their work to a wider audience then ever before. Italian artists from Mantegna to Canova embraced the medium, focusing their efforts largely on depictions of scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's collections, this exhibition explores the Italian passion for mythological prints that started in the Renaissance and lasted into the early decades of the nineteenth century, showcasing more than one hundred woodcuts, engravings, and etchings, as well as illustrated books, by such artists as Jacopo de' Barbari, Marcantonio Raimondi, Ugo da Carpi, Agostino and Annibale Carracci, Salvator Rosa, and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, among others.
Artists, including devoted students of ancient art such as Andrea Mantegna and Raphael, led the way in the investigation and revival of antiquity that characterized the Italian Renaissance. To publicize the results of their research, many artists turned to printmaking—some collaborating with master printmakers, others creating their own engravings and woodcuts. These inexpensive and portable works were among the earliest to illustrate pagan tales in a style derived from the study of ancient art and served to generate enthusiasm for mythological subject matter throughout Europe.
In the seventeenth century, artists such as Pietro Testa and Salvator Rosa found the medium ideal for the dissemination of novel mythological allegories derived from their reading of classical sources. Eighteenth-century artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Giovanni David also found an artistic outlet in printmaking, creating original etchings that evoked a mythical pastoral world or narrated pagan tales of love and heroism. In addition, from Pollaiuolo's Labors of Hercules to Raphael Morghen's Parnassus, mythological designs in all media were recorded in prints that fed the fascination for such subjects and helped to maintain the central role of the classical gods in Western art into the early decades of the nineteenth century.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, focusing on subjects favored by Italian artists including the ancient gods as patrons of music, poetry, and painting, and as participants in music competitions, along with the festivities surrounding Bacchus and Silenus. Several prints in the exhibition illustrate the popularity of Silenus, the tutor of Bacchus, known for his drunkenness and obesity, yet also for his wisdom, prophetic powers, and poetic gifts. An engraving by Mantegna, Bacchanal with Silenus (ca. 1470s), dating from the first decades of printmaking in Italy, is remarkable both for its technical innovations and as one of the first Renaissance works in any medium to depict a pagan subject in a thoroughly classical style.
A large section of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of love—the power of Cupid's arrows to make fools of even the most august gods. The exhibition concludes with the heroic exploits of Hercules and the legendary history of Rome, from the apple of discord that initiated the Trojan War to the rape of the Sabine women.