Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Italy
61 in. x 47.5 in.
Funds from T. Edward and Tullah Hanley and Mr.and Mrs. Carl M. Williams by exchange, 1998.39
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Born in Genoa, Italy, Giovanni [joe-VAHN-knee] Benedetto Castiglione [cast-eel-lee-OH-nay] was one of the most influential Genoese artists of the 1600s. Castiglione’s eclectic style can be partially attributed to his many teachers and his travels to nearly every major artistic center of Italy. He is known for his prints, monotypes, extraordinary drawings in pen and ink, and oils on paper. The most distinct and praised features of his art are his brilliant colors and highly skilled execution. His subjects were drawn from a variety of sources: the Old Testament, classical mythology, ancient history, and 16th century Italian literature. He received commissions for large altarpieces for churches throughout Italy, as well as for paintings for many major clients. Additionally, he and his workshop produced a number of ready-for-sale works for any number of clients during his lifetime. It might be argued that his work was far better appreciated after his death.
What Inspired It
This painting is based on a Greek mythological story called the “Flood of Deucalion,” which comes from the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story goes: After the Greek god Zeus witnessed human arrogance and impiety, he decided to destroy the entire human race with an immense flood. Deucalion [do-KAY-lee-on] was warned by his father, the god Prometheus, of the imminent doom and was told to build an ark, which he and his wife Pyrrha [PEER-uh] floated upon for nine days before settling safely on Mount Parnassus. It was now this pious couple’s duty to repopulate the earth, so they went to the oracle of the goddess Themis to learn how to accomplish this. Themis responded, “Depart from my temple, veil your heads, loosen the girdles of your garments, and throw behind you the bones of our great mother.” Unsure of the meaning of this cryptic response, Deucalion suggested that “great mother” implied Mother Earth, and that “the bones” were, in fact, stones. As they threw the stones behind them, Deucalion’s stones turned into men and Pyrrha’s turned into women.
The upper and lower halves of this painting are quite different. Deucalion and Pyrrha are the only figures in the relatively calm upper half, sharing the space with the temple column and the clearing sky. The chaotic lower half is filled with a mass of newly created human beings with no ground line to support them. The figures all churn towards the center of the painting, making it difficult to match faces with limbs.
When depicting the new human race, Castiglione seems to be more interested in portraying human types rather than portraits of individuals. A few speculations on the depictions: a soldier, a drunk, an artist, lovers, a muse/intellectual, and possibly a scientist.
Scholars suspect that some of the objects depicted in the lower half may be clues to the human types that may have been portrayed. It has also been suggested that the objects allude to the senses: taste, hearing, touch, and sight. The objects include: a dagger (for the soldier), a lidded metal urn (held by one of the lovers), a document (possibly some form of literature for the intellectual), an astrolabe (an astronomical instrument for the scientist), a glass orb, and a hunting horn.
It was not uncommon for an artist during this time to include a picture of himself within a painting. There is one person amid the chaotic mass who seems calm as he reaches out with a paintbrush to sign the underside of a vase. The face of this figure, as well as his hat, resembles Castiglione’s known self-portraits. This hat is consistent with 17th century fashion and differs from the laurel wreaths worn by the others, as if Castiglione has nestled a modern image of himself into an ancient scene.
The stormy skies in the background show evidence of the recent flood that brought Deucalion and Pyrrha to this scene. The darkest clouds seem to be clearing behind them and could be symbolic of the new day of humanity.
The name Pyrrha means flaming, flame-colored, orange. Deucalion’s burnt orange robe whirls upwards like a flame and dominates the upper half of the composition. A similar color used on several areas in the lower half unites the two parts of the painting.
Castiglione used several strategies to heighten the drama in this painting. He chose bright colors that not only add excitement to the painting but probably also helped when it was hung in a dimly lit room. Dramatic lighting makes spot-lighted figures pop out of the darkened background. Deuacalion and Pyrrha’s arms stir up action with pinwheel motions. The artist has created a turbulent composition in which everything seems to be in motion except for the large sturdy column.