Monday, August 23, 2010

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea, 1512

In 1512, Italian Renaissance painter Raphael created this masterpiece celebrating the European embrace of the classical Greek imagination for a wall in the villa owned by one of the richest men of the age. Its subject is the Nereid (ocean spirit) Galatea, a daughter of Poseidon. The beautiful nymph had the misfortune of being married to the ornery and jealous one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who threw a giant marble pillar on top of her illicit shepherd lover, Acis, when he caught them exchanging devotions.

Raphael chose the moment of Galatea's apotheosis, that is, her transformation upon death into one who shall dwell among the eternal gods as a reward for her patient suffering in life. With two conspicuous cupids (called by art historians putti) aiming "love darts" directly at her head, Galatea (the only one actually wearing clothes) rides upon a shell borne by two dolphins. To her left a lusty icthyocentaur (torso of a man, body of a horse, tail of a fish) abducts a choice sea nymph (the target of the third putti's arrow, so we know she'll soon give in, gladly, to his entreaties), while to Galatea's right a (winged?) centaur is overtaken by an amorous (and of course nude) nymph whose intense gaze freely confesses adoring love.

Amidst all this, Galatea's face is turned toward Heaven with a mild, innocent expression that suggests she's unconscious of all the lusty goings on about her. Attendant ocean spirits (sometimes referred to as "tritons") trumpet Galatea's transformation on their seashell horns. Galatea serenely rides the waves upon a seashell chariot drawn by paired dolphins in a perhaps deliberate echo of Botticelli's c. 1486 Birth of Venus, which would be sure to associate Galatea with the Goddess of Love. 

The painting celebrates love, but specifically it highlights the triumph of ideal or Platonic love, as described by Plato in his dialogue Symposium, the highest love, love of the spirit rather than the flesh. At the time, some thought Galatea was modeled on a famous courtesan (i.e. high-class prostitute) who called herself Imperia (and who just happened to be the lover of the rich guy who paid for the painting), but Vasari, an insider who wrote the lives of the Renaissance artists for posterity, decorously insists Raphael represented not any specific woman but "Beauty herself."

Raphael designed the image using a series of diagonals in the upper register that continue in corresponding lines in the lower half of the painting. The drawn arrows of the two putti on either side of Galatea form an "x" when the eye connects them with the dolphin reins she holds on one side and the axis of slanted bodies that her own torso completes on the other. In the center of this x, in the middle of the fresco, her fair face turns its eyes toward Heaven, forming the still center of a turning wheel of lusty figures very much in motion all the way 'round her. And while Raphael may have borrowed some of the muscularity for his figures' volume from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had just been unveiled to universal amazement, the softness, light, and beauty of that Madonna-like nymph in the center is all his own.

Indeed, Raphael painted dozens of  madonnas, depictions of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. In his day these were very much in demand for their happy marriage of classicism and realism (his models were Tuscan country girls) and their elegant chastity, all of which also radiate from Galatea. In another similarity between Galatea and Mother Mary, Raphael painted all his madonnas wearing red (albeit with a blue mantle). So we have a pagan playgirl (remember, Galatea's myth is about how she was caught cheating on her one-eyed hubby) depicted as a chaste Madonna amidst over-sexed sea  deities, being used to symbolize Love. Surely this points to an ironic joke that the artist and Farnesi shared? Or perhaps my boat wanders off course.

Lauding the human body and soul, this painting celebrates the kinds of spiritual and philosophical ideals that Renaissance thinkers discovered in the Greco-Roman classics of antiquity.


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