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Jupiter and Ganymede: an immense passion for the ancient world - Rome Sweet Rome Guide


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Jupiter and Ganymede: an immense passion for the ancient world

1700 was an incredibly vibrant century in Rome from the artistic point of view; crossroads of artists, intellectuals, connoisseurs and art lovers, the Eternal City was an incubator of ideas that, developing, have shaped our vision of classical aesthetics.

(another post about neoclassic art is here)

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Questo post è disponibile anche in italiano.

Cet article est disponible en Français.

For artists and art lovers Roma was one of the milestones in the journey to the discovery of classic. Here stayed or resided almost every major Neoclassical age protagonist. They established relationships which would then merged in the most beautiful pages ever written on the classical art.

Jacques Sablet – Elegia romana (1791)

Rome and the ancient world. Capital of Beauty.

Rome, used to being the cultural capital, during the 1600s had lost its leadership and its political centrality. In the second half of 1700, however, became again important for the European culture.

Johann Heinrich Fussli – L’artista schiacciato dalla grandezza dei resti romani (1778-1779)

Heir of the Greek aesthetic values first, the center of the revival of figurative culture after the medieval decadence then, the city of the popes represented the headlight towards which anyone looking for answers was attracted. Artists and intellectuals saw Rome as the center of a renaissance, not only aesthetic.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein – Goethe nella campagna romana (1786-1788)

Rome was the the spiritual homeland for all those who were looking for grandeur and beauty. The trip to Rome was a real initiatory voyage; only there one could immerse in the ruins of classical civilization and take up the values of magnificence, morality and beauty.

Art history becomes a new discipline.

If the production of art (strictly intended) was inevitably influenced by cultural settings, even the discipline of art history were influenced from the new sentiments, inspired by the increased knowledge of the ancient world.

Anton Raphael Mengs – Ritratto di Winckelmann (1768-1777)

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, author of the History of the ancient Art (1764), lived in Rome. Here he was first librarian for the Cardinal Alessandro Albani and then, from 1764, the Commissioner of Antiquities of the Papal States. He was a great scholar of classical civilization, and sided in favor of an art permeated with ethical content, with a simple and severe style, and able to express the moral and ideological ideals of a civilization that he believed been higher.

Ne cities and new researches.

Jacob Philipp Hackert – Pompeii’s Ruins (1799)

Not only the city of Rome was the favorite destination of several travelers and scholars interested in the classical civilization. The rediscovery of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii (in 1738 an 1748), led to a mania for research that did not experience similar intensity. The exceptional finds of wall paintings sparked intense curiosity and discussions about executive methods.

The diffusion of models resulting from these ancient paintings was widespread. Everywhere in Europe, the Pompeii and Herculaneum frescoes soon became an object of desire; the large demand made flourish the production of replicas, compositions in style and even fakes!

Jupiter and Ganymede.

In this context is inserted the fresco of Jupiter and Ganymede, by Anton Raphael Mengs. It is a fake, made by the artist to mock his friend Winckelmann.

Mengs pretended, in fact, the discovery of the fresco in an excavation put on stage in Portici (near Naples). Winckelmann was very impressed by the work which he considered ancient, so much that he treated in terms too enthusiastic in the first edition of the History of design at the old (1764).

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Ganimede abbevera l’aquila di Giove

The reason that led Mengs make that fresco was not, however, a playful one. The artist was determined to “prove” as the theories of Winckelmann on ancient painting were incorrect. The art historian, in fact, claimed that the Romans did not know the fresco technique, but they painted in tempera on the wall. Winckelmann never knew of the treat he was victim, because only on his deathbed in 1779 Mengs confessed to the sister of the deception payed behind his friend.

The biographer of Meng in 1780 wote about this story, but not everybody believed, and still in 1812 Goethe, curator of the new edition of the works of Winckelmann, mentioned this fresco among the ancient works.

A deeper story.

The fresco with Jupiter and Ganymede represents much more than a simple “game” between intellectuals. It fully reflects, in fact, all the complications and implications of this age.

Making this fresco, Mengs lives up to the ancient artists; Wickelmann himself, implicitly, recognizes him as the greatest modern artist, being able to paint like the ancients did.

The German art historian bought the work for the Albani collection, but after 1811 one lose its track. The italian state bought in auction in 1895, as a copy by Raphael. Only around 1950 this painting was finally put back in connection with all its story; in 1972 were found some documents proving the paternity of Mengs.

Philipp Hackert – Veduta di Villa Albani

A neoclassical state of mind.

The choice of the subject seems unusual. In 1500, scenes depicting Jupiter and Ganymede were fairly frequent, but then were quickly abandoned.

Raffaello – Giove e Ganimede (fresco in the Villa Chigi)

The space is completely filled with the two figures, related to two different models.

The figure of Jupiter is clearly derived from the so called Capitol Jupiter model. The statue was very famous at that times, and copied several times by the artists in 1700. The god is usually shown seated on a throne with a scepter and a thunderbolt in the hands, a blanket covering his hips and legs.

In this case he is young, carrying a cup in his hand, with curly hair and beard, muscular. The swarthy complexion is of a grown man. His attitude towards Ganymede is very tender.

Ganymede, on the contrary, has a very pale skin like a boy. The shape is inspired by the Greek vase painting: the perspective is incongruous, and he is seen from the back but the face and legs are in profile, as mentioning a dance step.

This way, Mengs combines two ancient and different iconographies, and highlight the age differences between the two characters.

The reals greatness of Mengs, however, is choosing to represent not the moment of the kiss between Jupiter and Ganymede, but the one sooner; thus, he embodied in his painting everything Winckelmann considered ancient better than the best of modern. The greatness of the ancient artists not only takes place through the technique, but thanks a number of elements, such as the choice of the moment represented in the scenes painted or sculpted. All these information are not immediately recognizable with the simple observation, but are the ones really important and the ones the modern artists has to be able to learn from the study; only through the appropriation of the modus operandi of the best artists, the modern can be alble to speak directly to the viewer’s head. It is no longer a trite narration of the events, but the beginning of a much deeper reflection.

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  1. Goethe, Italian Journey, Rome, Nov. 18, 1786.

    “I must now speak of a wonderful problematical picture, which, even in the midst of the many gems here, still makes a good show of its own.
    For many years there had been residing here a Frenchman, well known as an admirer of the arts, and a collector. He had got hold of an antique drawing in chalk, no one knows how or whence. He had it retouched by Mengs, and kept it in his collection as a work of very great value. Winckelmann somewhere speaks of it with enthusiasm. The Frenchman died, and left the picture to his hostess as an antique. Mengs, too, died, and declared on his death-bed that it was not an antique, but had been painted by himself. And now the whole world is divided in opinion; some maintaining that Mengs had one day, in joke, dashed it off with much facility; others asserting that Mengs could never do anything like it, indeed that it is almost too beautiful for Raphael. I saw it yesterday, and must confess that I do not know anything more beautiful than the figure of Ganymede, especially the head and shoulders: the rest has been much renovated. However, the painting is in ill repute, and no one will relieve the poor landlady of her treasure.”

  2. Ganymed (Goethe)

    How, in the morning brightness,
    You all around shine at me,
    Springtime, Beloved!
    With thousandfold love-bliss
    The holy feeling
    Of your eternal warmth
    Presses itself upon my heart,
    Unending beauty!

    Could I but embrace you
    In this arm!

    Ah, upon your breast
    I lie, languish,
    And your blossoms, your grass
    press upon my heart.
    You cool the burning
    Thirst of my bosom,
    Lovely morning-wind!
    There calls the nightingale
    Lovingly for me from the misty vale.
    I come, I come!
    Whither, ah whither?

    Up! Up it surges.
    The clouds are leaning
    Downwards, the clouds
    Bow down to yearning love.
    To me! To me!
    In your lap, clouds,
    Embracing, embraced!
    Upwards to thy bosom,
    All-loving Father!

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