(b. 1560, Bologna, d. 1609, Roma)
The Choice of Heraclesc. 1596
Oil on canvas, 167 x 273 cm
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
This imposing canvas originally decorated the ceiling of the "Camerino", the study of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, on the second floor in Rome's Palazzo Farnese. Its basic idea agreed with the purpose of the room; thus it became the central piece of decoration. In the oval and semicircular flat fields of the vaulted ceiling decorated with frescoes were depicted episodes from Heracles' life, other mythological stories with morals, and the allegories of virtues.
The Prodicusian story tells of the maturing Heracles, who had to choose between virtue and sin, between the difficult path of duty and decency, and the temptation of irresponsibility and pleasure. The story had several classical versions: Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana had the most relevance in sixteenth-century Italy, because its Latin translation was published there in 1501. Though it had been altered somewhat, the text of this work served as the basis for Annibale Carracci's tradition-creating painting.
In the picture the ideal of virtuous life is represented by the pursuit of fine arts or sciences. The dual classification of virtues, according to merits achieved in war or in the cultivation of the sciences, was a Renaissance method based on classical examples (e.g. Macrobius; Commentarii . . .). Wearing a laurel wreath and reading a book, the man who reclines in the left foreground like one of the classical river gods is the "poeta laureatus", while in the background Pegasus is visible. Based on these references, it is implied that the dull and winding road of virtue in fact leads to the hill of the Muses, Mount Helicon.
Contrasting with this image is the frivolously dressed, beautiful personifier of sin, who entices one with the symbols of a playful life toward the depths of the flowery, green forest. The presence of playing-cards, a tambourine and a stringed instrument represents the arsenal of Voluptas. The two theatrical masks on the opened sheet of music are placed there to imply that every sensual pleasure is false. These symbols do not appear in Philostratus' text, but the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa prescribes that these specifically represent pleasure and shame (scandalo) in painting.
The fresco series of the Palazzo Farnese, this impressive creation of Rome's Baroque painting, continued to exert great influence on the subsequent interpretations of "The Choice of Heracles" theme. (For example, at the beginning of the eighteenth century Sebastiano Ricci used the same approach in preparing the frescoes of the Marucelli Palace in Florence.)