Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints

See works of art
  • Bacchanal with Silenus; a frieze composition with ten figures around Silenus who is carried by two satyrs
  • Apollo & Diana
  • Hercules and Antaeus
  • Fall of the Giants
  • Fall of the Giants
  • The Dream of Aeneas
  • Fall of the Giants
  • Sleeping Cupid
  • Psiche Curieuse

Works of Art (10)


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.

Wendy Thompson
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004


Thompson, Wendy. “Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mypr/hd_mypr.htm (October 2004)

Further Reading

Freedman, Luba. The Revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thompson, Wendy. Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. See on MetPublications

Additional Essays by Wendy Thompson