Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Gaetano Gandolfi (Italian, San Matteo della Decima 1734–1802 Bologna)
Oil on canvas
26 7/8 × 18 in. (68.3 × 45.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 2015
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 622
This oil sketch for a ceiling in a room of Palazzo Gnudi Scagliarini in Bologna takes its subject from the great Greek playwright Euripides (ca. 480–406 BC). Agamemnon's daughter is about to be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana, who at the climactic moment appears and substitutes a deer on the altar. A flying putto stays the hand of the priest while the warrior Achilles, who had attempted to intervene, lies on the ground, astonished at the turn of events. Brilliantly staged, the picture is painted with extraordinary verve and liveliness. The frame was specifically designed for the picture.
Together with his older brother Ubaldo (for whom, see 2014.566), Gaetano was the outstanding painter-decorator of eighteenth-century Bologna and was active throughout northern Italy. He had a solid training in the academic tradition in Bologna that extended back to the Carracci, studying together with his brother at the Accademia Clementina under Ercole Lelli (1702–1766), who was a specialist in anatomy, and the older Felice Torelli (1667–1748), learning to sculpt as well as to paint. In 1751—when only seventeen years old—he gained recognition with a sculptural relief. A brilliant draftsman, his drawings from posed models earned him further recognition. Like all Bolognese painters, he studied the frescoes of the Carracci and their pupils, especially in the cloister at San Michele a Bosco, and, following their example, he made a study trip to Venice in 1760. There the work of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo proved to be decisive. Like Tiepolo, in his palace decorations Gaetano often worked with a specialist in architectural painting (quadrature) and a professional in stucco work. His paintings are characterized by their fresh, open brushwork, combining brio with elegance. His work does not fit easily into the conventional labels of Rococo and Neoclassicism—barocchetto (a lighter, more decorative baroque), is the term sometimes employed. His most ambitious fresco project was in 1776 for the dome of the church of Santa Maria della Vita (an oil sketch for the project is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). Ubaldo and Gaetano painted both religious and secular themes, but whereas Ubaldo was especially admired for the emotive character of his altarpieces, Gaetano’s facility with the brush, his inventive fantasy and sense of fluid composition are especially evident in his paintings with mythological themes. (For a detailed biography, see the entry by D. Biagi Maino in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 52, Rome, 1999.)

The MMA picture is a modello for the ceiling of a small room in Palazzo Gnudi Scagliarini in Bologna (via Riva di Reno 77), the decoration of which was commissioned from the artist in 1789 by Antonio Gnudi, apostolic treasurer for the papal state of Ferrara-Bologna (he was appointed to the position by Pius VI in 1781). Antonio’s father Raffaelle had purchased the palace in 1747. Following Raffaelle’s death in 1758 the palace was divided among his three sons. Antonio acquired additional property and between 1786 and 1789 undertook extensive renovations (the façade is by Francesco Tadolini); in the latter year he commissioned the highly cultivated sculptor/poet Giacomo Rossi (1748–1817) to decorate the long Gallery of Mirrors with classicizing stuccos of exceptional richness (see Anna Maria Matteucci, I decoratori di formazione bolognese tra Settecento e Ottocento: Da Mauro Tesi ad Antonio Basoli, Milan, 2002, pp. 337–40). The fee for Gaetano’s work in the saletta was 600 lira, as recorded in an account book in successive payments of 200 and 400 lire made on September 30 and December 9, 1789; by the latter date work was complete (for the documents, contained in a quaderno di cassa in the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Fondo Gnudi, see Donatella Biagi Maino, Gaetano Gandolfi, Turin, 1995, p. 395). In addition to the ceiling, Gaetano also painted monochrome allegorical figures in feigned niches that have been variously identified as Pride/Fortitude, Humility/Meekness, Obedience, and Justice (see Prisco Bagni, I Gandolfi: affreschi, dipinti, bozzetti, disegni, [Bologna], 1992, p. 710; Biagi Maino 1995, p. 395). Additionally, there are two figures over the doors. The palace was badly damaged in World War II and the frescoes are poorly preserved. A drawing for one of the overdoors is in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; there are two preparatory drawings for the ceiling composition (Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, inv. 36184, and private collection; see Bagni 1992, pp. 711–13).

The MMA modello, unknown prior to 2010, is an outstanding example of Gandolfi’s pictorial imagination and facility with the brush. It is also in exceptional condition and is in a highly original frame that was specially designed for it, quite possibly by Giacomo Rossi, since its proto-Neoclassical character and decorative motifs, combining scallop shells with delicately carved laurel leaves, have close analogies with the stuccowork in the gallery (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Nothing is known of the picture’s ownership prior to its publication in 2010, so it cannot be said whether Antonio Gnudi retained the modello for himself, but this would be the obvious explanation for the unusual design of the frame.

The subject of the modello is the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. She lies on the ground near the altar at which she is to be sacrificed as punishment to her father, who had angered Artemis/Diana by killing a deer sacred to the goddess. A priest (Calchas) stands over Iphigenia, his left hand grasping her left arm while in his raised right hand he holds a knife he will use to sacrifice her. A winged cherub, or putto, restrains the priest’s action while above, reclining on a bank of clouds, Artemis/Diana points to the deer that, at the crucial moment, the goddess has provided as a substitute for Iphigenia. The foreground is defined by the helmeted figure of Achilles, who had attempted to intervene to save Iphigenia. His confusion at the goddess’s intervention is expressed by his prostate position, his body twisted backwards with one hand raised. Agamemnon, covering his face with his hand to avoid seeing his daughter sacrificed, is shown in the background. The placement of the figures no less than the foreshortening of the altar beautifully articulate the space with a view to the function of the composition as a ceiling decoration.

Literary Sources: The story of Iphigenia was treated by a number of Greek poets, but it was the two plays by Euripides (ca. 480–406 BC)—Iphigenia in Aulis, which narrates the story up to the sacrifice, and Iphigenia in Tauris, which treats Iphigenia’s life after her removal to Tauris—that enjoyed special prominence in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, from Jean Racine, whose Iphégenie dates from 1674, to Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose Iphigenie auf Tauris was first performed in 1779. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) composed two operas around the theme: Iphigenia in Aulis (1774, revised 1775) and Iphigenia in Tauris (1779). It is Euripides’ earlier play that provided the inspiration for the intervention of Artemis/Diana at the climactic moment and the substitution of a deer on the altar; the goddess then transports Iphigenia to Tauris. In keeping with the conventions of Greek theatrical performance, the substitution of the sacrificial deer is narrated by a messenger. The goddess’s intervention—minus the offering of the deer—appears as the frontispiece of Winckelman’s influential 1756 treatise on Greek art, the Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke, and it is also the climax of the libretto of one of the most genial polymaths of the eighteenth century, Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764), in his treatise promoting a reform of operatic performance, published in 1755. In Algarotti’s libretto, Achilles intervenes at the point when the priest Calchas is about to sacrifice Iphigenia. The warrior’s attempt to rescue Iphigenia is aborted by Diana, who charges him to save his courage for another time. The stage direction notes that at this point a deer, bleeding but still alive, should appear on the altar intended for Iphigenia. Achilles is directed to raise his hands heavenwards while Calchas and the chorus exclaim "Ah prodige!" (Oh marvel!). The inclusion of the deer as a substitute sacrifice was fairly common in painting: Francois Perrier (1590–1650), in the seventeenth century, and Felice Torelli, in the eighteenth, both included it, as did Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in a canvas of the 1720s in Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati. Algarotti’s ideas may well have influenced Tiepolo’s masterful fresco of the subject in the entrance hall of Villa Valmarana outside Vicenza (1757), in which, however, Tiepolo continued to show the deer being brought to the altar on a cloud rather than lying on the altar. (For a study of the intersection of theater practice and painting in the art of Tiepolo, see K. Christiansen, "Tiepolo, Theater, and the Notion of Theatricality," Art Bulletin 81 (1999), pp. 665–92.) It is also possible that Algarotti’s libretto was suggested to Gandolfi as a source for his depiction.


The relevant portion of Euripides’ play (translated by George Theodoridis, © 2007;

My dear lady…You’ll soon hear it all. That is, if my brain doesn’t falter and make my tongue trip over its words!
We took Iphigeneia to the forest of Zeus’ daughter, Artemis. It’s a meadow full of bright and beautiful flowers.
The moment we got there with your daughter all the Greek soldiers gathered around us. Agamemnon saw his child on her way to her slaughter and immediately groaned with horrible pain. He lifted his cloak up and dug his face deep into it, trying to hide the tears that flooded his eyes.
Still, the girl came up close to him and said, "Daddy, here I am, ready to do as you say. I offer my body to my country and to the rest of Greece, willingly. Come, take me to the altar of the goddess. Sacrifice me. It is the wish of the Heavens. On my part, I wish you all happiness and may you return to the land of your fathers victorious. Let no Greek touch my body with his hand. I offer my neck quietly and with no fear for the knife."
That’s what she said and every man there was amazed at the bravery and the virtue of the young girl.
Then Talthybius stood up amongst them all and told them to be silent. He was the one responsible for that job.
Then Calchas, the priest, took out a sharp sword out of its sheath and placed it in a basket made of gold. Then he placed a garland upon the girl’s head and sprinkled holy water on her hair.
Then Achilles, Peleas’ son, took the golden basket and the holy water in his hands and ran around the goddess’ altar, chanting:
"Oh, Artemis!
Oh daughter of Zeus!
Oh, killer of wild beasts!
Oh, goddess who lets her brilliant light roll along through the gloomy darkness of the night!
Accept this sacrifice which we, the Greek army and Agamemnon, offer to you!
Accept the pure blood from this girl’s lovely neck!
Accept it and grant us a safe journey!
Accept it and let our spears sack the tall towers of Troy!"
The whole army and both the sons of Atreas stood there in silence, their eyes downcast.
Then the priest took hold of the sword and, after a few words of prayer, began searching the girl’s neck looking for the best place to strike.
I… I felt a sharp pain cutting into my heart, my lady and I looked down onto the earth. But then, suddenly a miracle happened, my lady!
All of us –we all heard the awful thud of the striking sword but when we looked up, we could not see the girl anywhere! She had vanished, my lady! Gone!
Then the priest lets out a huge roar and the whole army roared with him as they saw the most unbelievable sight, a sight that must have been sent by Heaven, a sight that made them question their very eyes.
There, my lady, there, upon the ground, lay a large animal, a beautiful stag, letting out its last breaths. Its blood spattered about, saturating the goddess’ altar!
You just can’t imagine Calchas’ joy, madam!
He spoke and he said, "Chiefs of the Greek army, can you see this offering? Can you see what the goddess has placed upon her altar? Can you see this stag, this animal that walks about in the mountains? The goddess would much rather have this animal offered to her than the girl so that her altar would not be defiled by shedding the blood of a human. She has accepted this offering gladly and has granted us a safe journey for our expedition against Troy. And so, soldiers, take heart and head for your ships because today we must leave behind the deep harbours of Aulis and cross our way through the vast Aegean sea!"
And when the animal was thoroughly burned in the flames of the god of fire, Hephaistus, and when the holy rites were completed, Calchas prayed for our safe return.
Then Agamemnon came to me and ordered me to come here and tell you what Fate the gods have granted to your daughter. It is a glory that will never wither in the minds of the Greeks.
Let me make it absolutely clear, my lady: I was there and I saw it with my own eyes! The girl is with the gods! She has flown away to the Heavens!
Be sad no more!
Be angry with your husband no more!
The gods do strange things, madam, things that baffle us mortals but they save those they love.
Your daughter, my lady, has today seen both death and life!

Exit Second Messenger

The relevant portion of Algarotti’s libretto (from the 1783 Livorno edition):

Scene derniere

Les memes, Achille, & Diane en l’air


C’est Achille qui defend ses droits


Achille, arrétez, gardez votre courage, & cette soif de sang contre les Troyens. Puisse le Pere des Dieux empécher toujours, que la colere n’anime Achille contre les Grecs, & ne retarde la chute d’Ilion. Pour Iphigenie, elle est a moi [Elle s’envole]

[On voit une biche palpitant, & toute ensanglantée a la place d’Iphigenie: Achille leve les mains au Ciel.]


Ah Prodige!

Le Choeur

Ah prodige!


Le sang d’Iphigenie a paru trop precieux a la Déesse, pour le repandre sur ses autels. C’en est fait, Agamemnon, Ulysse, Achille, Grecs, la Déese exauce nos voeux: elle facilite notre course, & nous ouvre le chemin de Troye

[On entend le sifflement des vents, & le bruit de la mer, & l’on voit remuer les vaisseaux]

[Keith Christiansen 2015]
Sassoli Tamburri, Palazzo Sassoli de' Bianchi, Bologna (until 2010; sale, Wannenes, Genoa, November 30, 2010, no. 113, for €295,200); [Fabrizio Moretti, Florence, New York, and London, 2010–14; sold to MMA]
Bologna. Fondantico arte e antiquariato. "Il bel dipingere: dipinti e disegni emiliani dal XV al XIX secolo," October 27–December 22, 2012, no. 33.

Donatella Biagi Maino in Il bel dipingere: dipinti e disegni emiliani dal XV al XIX secolo. Ed. Daniele Benati. Exh. cat., Fondantico arte e antiquariato. Bologna, 2012, pp. 130–32, no. 33, ill. (color).

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