Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints

In the investigation and revival of classical antiquity that characterized the Italian Renaissance, the new technology of printmaking—which allowed hundreds of images to be generated from a single matrix of carved wood or incised metal—played an important role. Mantegna and Raphael were among those who employed prints to circulate novel designs derived from their study of ancient art and literature, spreading enthusiasm for mythological subject matter throughout Europe. For more than three centuries, the medium provided artists such as Agostino Carracci, Salvator Rosa, and Giambattista Tiepolo with an ideal forum, free from the constraints of official commissions, for exploring the subjects that intrigued them—from erudite allegories couched in the language of mythology to evocative pastorals inhabited by satyrs and bacchants. While many artists collaborated with professional printmakers, some learned to make their own engravings, etchings, and woodcuts. In addition, mythological designs in other media, particularly frescoes and oil paintings, were recorded in prints that fueled the fascination with pagan antiquity into the early 1800s.

The preferred mythological themes of Italian printmakers, drawn from the works of Greek and Latin poets (especially Latin—hence the bias here toward the Roman names of the gods), were those that were relevant to everyday life. The prints are grouped into three broad categories: the gods as patrons of the arts (Poets); the power of love (Lovers); and the deeds of the exemplary heroes of antiquity (Heroes). As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—the classical text most frequently consulted by artists—the narrative begins with the early days of the earth and concludes with the legendary history of Rome.