This is a beautiful engraving on paper made from a copper plate created by the hand of Italian artist Raffaello Sanzio Morghen (1758-1833). The engraving was created after the artist’s death in circa 1870 by the Regia Caleografia di Roma and is stamped with the company’s insignia in the left corner of the engraving. Regia Caleografia di Roma reproduced multiple fine engravings from the original copper plates of masters from the years of 1870 to 1945.
Morghen’s engraving is a study and recreation of an earlier work by Domenico Zampieri, more commonly known as Domenichino (1581-1641). This Italian Baroque Painter is known for his frescoes and paintings in Rome and Naples, and Domenichino achieved great success among artists of his time. This particular work by Morghen is an engraving of Domenichino’s “Diana with Nymphs at Play” (1616-1617) which today is on display in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
The scene is complex, and Morghen’s engraving brings to life the Baroque painter’s masterful figures and sense of depth. To the left center of the painting we see the main protagonist, Diana with her half moon crown and bow and arrow, symbols of the Goddess of the moon, the night and the hunt. Arms outstretched, she is proudly witnessing her Nymphs (to the left of her) partaking in a riveting game. One Nymph holds a pole dangling prizes: sandals, ribbons and a horn. The others are crouched down and are competing to take a shot at the target: a dangling bird tied to a pole that in this very second has been shot both in the head and in the rope that secured it! The great fun and excitement of the scene is further heightened by the figures to the left of center. A woman attempts to restrain her hound, who apparently hearing the pluck of the bow and arrow leaps in the air with mouth open. It is an exciting scene of a joyful game of hunt.
However, the hound and his excited movement brings to life another important part of the scene. The pointed nose of the hound throws the viewer’s eye to another less immediately noticeable scene: two male faces hidden in the bushes, one with a finger pressed to his lips.
These two men are not gazing on the game, but rather the two bathing Nymphs in the foreground. It is there that Domenichino and Morghen recall the early Latin story of Ovid in “Metamorphosis,” Diana and Actaeon.
The classic story is summarized as follows:
Diana and her nymphs are bathing in a stream. The mortal Actaeon stumbles upon her and gazes at her nudity. The nymphs scream and attempt to cover Diana (known also for her chastity) from view and Diana in a fit of fury splashes water into his eyes. This turns the mortal into a deer with a speckled hide and long antlers forever, robbing him of his humanity and ability to speak. Actaeon as a deer scampers away, only to be found later by his own hunting dogs, who rip the deer apart and kill him.
The modern art historian Paul Barolsky makes sense of these visual allusions to Ovid’s work in his article “Domenichino’s ‘Diana’ and the Art of Seeing.” Barolsky writes,
“Domenichino does not literally picture the conventional tale of Diana seen bathing by Actaeon according to the story told by Ovid. Rather, in a variation on the theme, the artist metamorphosis the familiar myth into his own story. The painting also evokes Actaeon’s transformation into a stag and the death by his own hounds– hounds like the dog in the foreground, straining both in the direction of Actaeon, and, no less suggestively, in the direction of the slaughtered deer in the distance.” (Source: Notes in the History of Art 14, no. 1 [Fall 1994]: 18-20.)
Barolsky goes on to argue that Domenichino’s painting does more than remind the viewer of Ovid’s story, but directly involves the viewer in the drama. The nude figure in the foreground is contorted towards the viewer and, albeit innocently, makes direct eye contact with us. We are the ones caught gazing. Barolsky writes, “The beautiful body of the exposed nymph is so immediately projected towards the viewer-voyeur, ourselves, that we necessarily discover our own implication in the narrative, for we become conscious that in gazing upon Diana’s invitingly nude nymph, we assume a role like that of Actaeon himself.” In this brilliant contortion of the original narrative, Domenichino and Morghen involve us in the painting, and warn us of the consequence of our lustful eyes. The cyclical format of the work leads us inevitably to the consequence of the slaughtered deer in the background, a reminder of the fate of Actaeon.
In Morghen’s engraving, we see impressive technical skill in reproducing Domenichino’s painting. The figures are so expressive and detailed and the artist’s masterful use of the chisel to the copper plate makes this feat even more remarkable. He captures the sensuality of the nudes, the action of the game of hunt, and even the foliage of the original painting beautifully, and it seems no detail, from the reflective water of the pool to the muscles of the excited dog is left out. In some respect, Morghen’s version is more beautiful in its meticulous use of line and greyscale than the original. Morghen’s talent as an artist is truly realized in this engraving, and the delightful subject matter makes it all the more engaging.
This engraving is beautifully framed behind period glass and an exquisite burl walnut and red velvet Victorian frame. The frame beautifully enhances this playful scene from Antiquity and will ensure this engraving will be a piece to treasure for many years to come.
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Updated by The Bohemians on August 7, 2017.