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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints

Hercules and Perseus
By these arms the monster of Nemea lies crushed; upon this neck I upheld the sky!
—Hercules, in Ovid, Metamorphoses 9:197–198

Hercules (the Greek Herakles), one of the many sons born of Jupiter’s liaisons with mortal women, was the most admired of the classical heroes. In the Renaissance, he was revered for his wisdom and virtue as well as his superhuman strength. Considered a founder of Florence, he became closely linked to the Medici and also played an important role at such brilliant Renaissance courts as that of the Este in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantua, where more than one family member bore the name Ercole. Throughout the following centuries, rulers continued to identify with the hero and his deeds. Moreover, as mythology developed into a metaphorical language, Hercules was often employed as a convenient symbol for virtuous strength in allegorical programs—from theatrical presentations to fresco paintings—of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Further contributing to Hercules’ popularity were the numerous ancient works of art that represented the hero and served as inspiration to artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. For all these reasons, Hercules was one of the most frequently represented figures in Italian prints.

The exploits of Jupiter’s son Perseus, who beheaded the dread Medusa and rescued the lovely Andromeda, also provided material for many Italian works of art.

The Trojan War and the Founding of Rome
Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coasts of Troy,
exiled by fate, came to Italy and Lavine shores …

—Virgil, Aeneid 1:1–3

The history of Rome’s origins, which began with the mythological tale of the apple of discord, was of the keenest interest to Italian artists and their patrons. The vicissitudes of the Trojan War were known through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but far more popular with Italian readers was the Aeneid of Virgil, which told the tale of the Trojan hero Aeneas and his long journey to Italy, where he became the father of the Roman race. Just as the emperor Augustus had claimed descent from Aeneas, a son of Venus, so many Italian princes traced their ancestry to the participants in the Trojan War or sought to equate their own accomplishments with the deeds of these heroes. While many prints record the frescoes that were commissioned to adorn the public rooms of royal palaces, others are independent creations. At least three of the compositions Raphael designed as models for engraving illustrated episodes from Rome’s mythic past. The Mantuan sculptor and printmaker Giovanni Battista Scultori also designed three large engravings representing events from the Trojan War. The epic poems of Homer and Virgil continued to provide inspiration to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists such as Salvator Rosa, Pietro Testa, and Giovanni David, who drew on them to create etchings of their own design.