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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Poets in Italian Mythological Prints

Apollo and the Muses
Next comes Apollo with his flowing locks,
… And there appears
the sacred laurel, green and gold, …
cooling the bowers where the Muses nine
Seem with alternate song and sweet refrain
To charm the stars and halt them in their course.

— Petrarch, Africa 3:188; 204–10

In classical mythology, Apollo, god of the sun, was also revered as the god of poetry, while the Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), were invoked as a source of inspiration for the poet’s song—music takes its name from the choir of sisters. In antiquity, the Greek mountains of Helicon and Parnassus were both cited as haunts of the Muses, but by the Renaissance their home was firmly established as Parnassus, where they danced to the music of Apollo’s lyre or accompanied him on other instruments. The link between the poet and the laurel wreath, regarded in ancient Rome primarily as a token of victory in war or athletic games, owes much to Petrarch, whose crowning on the Capitoline in Rome in 1341 set the pattern. The image of a Parnassus where Apollo plays his lyre in a laurel grove, surrounded by the Muses, was given memorable form by Raphael in his Vatican fresco, a design that became widely known through Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving (17.37.150) and had great influence on subsequent representations of the subject. Apollo, the Muses, Parnassus, and Pegasus (the winged horse whose hoof brought forth a spring of poetic inspiration), appeared often in both paintings and prints from the Renaissance through the Neoclassical period, where they served to honor poetic gifts, literary patronage, or—due to the association between poetry and painting—the talents of an artist.

Pan and Silenus
With me in the woods you shall rival Pan in song.
Pan it was who first taught man to make many reeds one with wax …

—Virgil, Eclogues 2:31—33

Pan, the Arcadian woodland god, and Silenus, the drunken and obese tutor of Bacchus (the Greek Dionysus), were both associated with poetry. Pan was credited with the invention of the syrinx or panpipes, and many shepherds’ songs were dedicated to him as the patron of pastoral verse. The poetic gifts of Silenus who was believed to possess great wisdom and prophetic power, were celebrated in Virgil’s sixth Eclogue, where his song of the origins of nature and the loves of the gods is favorably compared with those of Apollo and Orpheus. Frequently represented in ancient art, particularly on the Roman sarcophagi that were so assiduously studied by artists from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century, Pan and Silenus were favorite subjects of Italian prints.