DOMENICHINO
(b. 1581, Bologna, d. 1641, Napoli)

Diana and her Nymphs

1616-17
Oil on canvas, 225 x 320 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

The story of how this festive picture came to be painted is very unusual. Cardinal Aldobrandini commissioned it as a sequel to Titian's Bacchanals which he had recently added to his collection. The comparison with such an illustrious model brought out the best in Domenichino, especially his ability to handle light, and spurred him to take a fresh approach. Unlike Titian, the Emilian painter was willing to avoid explosive use of colour and movement. Instead he seemed content to concentrate on a serene contemplation of the beauty of girls, animals, and the countryside.

In his Diana Domenichino revived antique themes and the depiction of nymphs. The subject derives from Virgil's Aeneid (V, 485) where warriors are described competing in an archery contest and shooting a tree with their first arrow, a ribbon with their second and a falling bird with their third. It was probably Mons. Giovanni Battista Agucchi, major theorist and adviser on iconography at the time, who suggested transposing the subject matter into the realm of the nymphs led by Diana. The archery theme was adopted as a metaphor for shrewd arguments that hit the mark, which was topical at the time, as the dedication of the 'Dicerie sacre' by the poet Giovan Battista Marino to Pope Paul V indicates.

In capturing nature in clear compositions that predominate over the use of colour, Domenichino nonetheless adopts Venetian tones now and then in the flowing draperies, and there are extraordinary passages from green to yellow, white to blue and various shades of purple. But what opens up a new chapter in the rendering of atmosphere are his gradual and calculated changes in tone towards the pale blue mountains by using increasingly subtle glazings, which indicate a new interest in Leonardo's theories on aerial perspective (studied and taught by the Theatine monk Matteo Zaccòlini, who taught Domenichino perspective in the 1620s).




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