My blogs on Italian gems aim to give a snapshot of what it is like to tour fascinating sites in Italy for the first time. I try to give a broad and simple overview, to provide ideas and inspiration for interested travellers. But sometimes I’d like to delve deeper. Every now and then a particular painting or character catches my eye, and I’m encouraged to research further.
I’d like to take my first moment to pause in front of Raphael’s fresco of the red-robed Galatea in the Villa Farnesina, and discuss what I found out about this character from mythology, and the way she has been portrayed by the artist.
According to my research into classical mythology, Galatea (meaning milk-white) was one of the Nereids, or daughters of the sea god Nereus. Nereids were young pretty nymphs who lived in the Mediterranean sea and were generally friendly towards mortals. Galatea lived in the waters around Sicily, according to the tales. In the Metamorphoses narrative poem, written by Roman poet Ovid around 8 AD, Galatea falls in love with a Sicilian shepherd called Acis. Their love has been immortalised in many paintings and sculptures, including the Medici fountain in the Luxembourg gardens in Paris.
Sadly Galatea and Acis’ love was doomed. The cyclops Polyphemus was also in love with Galatea, and so he killed Acis with a rock in a jealous rage. Acis’ blood flowed into a stream at the foot of Mount Etna, but was turned into a river of water when Galatea begged the Gods to take pity on him. The river flowed all the way to the sea, reuniting Acis, transformed into a river god after death, with his beloved Galatea.
Here is an interpretation of their love, painted by Alexandre Charles Guillemot in 1827.
If we go back to Raphael’s fresco of Galatea, painted in the Villa Farnesina around 1512-1514, we can see that the love story is not in fact its central theme. What Raphael is actually depicting here is Galatea’s apotheosis, or her elevation to god-like status. The triton (a half-man half-fish) to the far-left is celebrating the moment by playing a shell like a trumpet.
The painting is apparently inspired by a poem by Angelo Poliziano which described Galatea riding across the sea in a shell chariot driven by two dolphins, surrounded by other sea nymphs and creatures. To the left a triton is abducting a pretty sea nymph. To the right a centaur is being embraced by an amorous nymph. In the skies, two cupids are pointing their arrows at Galatea, while the third appears to be pointed at the nymph to the left. Another cheeky cupid is hiding in a cloud, ready to pounce.
According to Raphael’s contemporary Giorgio Vasari, the painter wanted Galatea to represent ideal beauty, based on the idea he had formed of beauty in his mind. Some art critics say the fresco is also a celebration of platonic love, the pure and non-sexual kind. This could be conveyed by her upward gaze– despite all the scenes of lust around her, she is focused on this higher, purer form of love.
As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I like the sense of movement Raphael has conveyed in this painting, I can imagine the sound of the choppy seas lashing against the side of Galatea’s chariot. I also like the dynamic positioning of the bodies, and the impact of the arrows about to be unleashed by the cupids above. The whole composition projects the triumphant climax of the moment when Galatea becomes a divine being!
I hope you make it to the Villa Farnesina so you can also see the real version of this wonderful fresco. For more on the villa, please read my previous post here