Archive for July 28th, 2013

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting

For this exercise we are asked to analyse an artwork with the following properties:
* Sixteenth century
* Italian
* painting
* mythological subject
* if possible from an original picture.

I have found one object in Sydney which meets all the above criteria.


Plate: Europa and the bull
Pesaro, workshop of the Zenobia painter
c. 1552-60
Diameter 23.6 cm

The above photo is actually a composite of a number of less than satisfactory shots I took in the Art Gallery of NSW. There is a much better image (both in focus and better colour) available on the Gallery website at

I hesitated over this selection. A more obvious choice would be Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62), held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (see – a “blockbuster” image by a big name painter, with a link to my previous work on Arachne (8-July-2013) having been quoted by Velázquez and Rubens, and even discussed and illustrated in the course textbook (Honour and Fleming, 2009, pp. 491-492).

On the other hand one could argue the textbook puts too much focus on the achievements of a few greats and very little on crafts such as ceramics (points made by my tutor in response to my total misread of the Assignment 1 question). “Art” goes far beyond sculpture and paintings on canvas, board or walls – something I should be very conscious of given all the research points on craft, design and art in Textiles 1: A Creative Approach (see Ceramics also have the advantage of appearing very much as they did when new, unlike paintings and frescoes that have darkened and undergone multiple cleanings. I have decided to use the plate for this analysis, and to include some additional material about maiolica in the Italian Renaissance.

The plate shows the abduction of Europa, told in Book II of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The myth of Europa’s abduction and rape

Jupiter saw and desired Europa, the daughter of a king, who was playing by the shore with other maidens of Tyre. Jupiter asked his son Mercury to drive the royal herd of cattle towards sea, then took the form of a beautiful white bull and mingled with the herd near the young women. The bull was so beautiful and gentle that Europa gradually overcame her fear, petting him and garlanding his horns with flowers. Finally she even sat on the bull’s (Jupiter’s) back. The deceitful god slowly moved from land to sea, then was carrying Europa over water before she realised her danger. Terrified, Europa clung to his horns, looking back at the distant shore and her companions. Jupiter took Europa to Crete, where he resumed his normal form and ravished her.

I have based the account above on a combination of (Kline, 2000) and (Hall, 2008). Hall includes that in medieval Christendom this myth was re-interpreted as Christ the bull, carrying a soul to heaven – rather a leap in modern eyes.

The plate shows four figures in Classical dress across the foreground, occupying a very shallow space. Trees frame the view of the grassy foreground and sandy paths. Behind is the sea, and in the distance a figure on a bull. Above is a larger figure on clouds.

The colour palette is limited but the colours themselves are clear and strong. Golden yellow to brown tones cover the greatest area, but the saturated tones of blue in sky, sea and some clothing draw the eye. Green, a small amount of dull purple and some outlining in black complete the palette.

There is some shading giving volume to the figures, with light appearing to come from the front left of the picture, but there are no shadows.

The figure on the left and especially the one second to the right show movement in body and clothing, but overall the figures are rather blocky and static. I find the feet in particular unconvincing. There is not a lot of fine detail.

europa_composite_lineThe composition as a whole is unified and balanced, but quite busy. A triangle in the upper half contains the major points of attention, with other horizontal elements reflecting the base. The two figures showing movement are at the two lower corners of the triangle, acting to bring focus into the centre. At the top the space outside the triangle is filled with trees. The sandy path provides some limited diagonal movement up through the image and helps to give some depth to the image.


The plate shows four maidens of Tyre, one seated on a grassy hillock. Behind them is the sea, and Europa can be seen being carried away by Jupiter in the form of a bull. Mercury is sitting on the clouds above.

The information provided in the display case at the Gallery includes “The story is confusing in this scene because the maiolica painter has omitted a white bull which should appear in the centre foreground.” I explore this possibility in more detail in the evaluation below.

If one accepts the possibility of a second bull, the image can be interpreted as showing two moments in the story of Europa. In the centre foreground she has become accustomed to the bull and is seated on it (not a hillock), chatting with her companion on the left. In the centre distance we see Europa again, abducted by Jupiter, while the most animated figure on the right is one of her distraught companions, unable to reach her.


My principal investigation concerned the possible omission of a bull in the foreground. Could not the plate represent a single episode of the myth rather than two?

This myth has received a lot of attention by artists and I have been able to find multiple examples of each approach.

Plate Pesaro, Italy (possibly, made)  Urbino, Italy (possibly, made) ca. 1540-1550 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pesaro, Italy (possibly, made)
Urbino, Italy (possibly, made)
ca. 1540-1550
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
See note below

This plate in the V&A collection shows Europa on the bull, her companions beside her on the shores of the sea. The palette is similar to my subject plate, with perhaps more variety in the greens. The lines of the maidens and their robes are much more fluid and overall there is substantially more detail. This plate is slightly larger at 27.9 cm diameter.

Titian’s Europa (c. 1560 – 62) is the ultimate example focused on the bull carrying Europa away over the water. Her agitated companions are in the far distance. Europa herself seems terrified, the impact heightened by how close she and the bull are to the front of the picture plane (see ).

The third alternative, a combination of both episodes, can be seen in a plate in The Fitzwilliam Museum collection – Italian maiolica, dated 1524 and 25.5 cm in diameter, this version includes other cows in the herd but none of Europa’s companions. The familiar blue, yellow, brown and green predominate, but there is also red created by using copper in a reduced pigment lustre. Although there is a lot of detail and unusual elements included, I get very little sense of drama or movement in the web image, perhaps because there are no additional figures reacting to the situation.


My impression of how the plate might appear with a bull added in the foreground

I experimented with my photograph in gimp (an image manipulation software) to get an idea of the impact of a bull in the foreground. It would make more sense of the seated figure, which on the actual plate seems to float just above the grass and to be pointing to nothing in particular. Depending on placement the bull’s head would fit within that triangle of focus.

How could a central element of the myth being illustrated go missing?

One possible explanation can be found in Wilson (1987) who described maiolica in the Italian Renaissance as “‘middle-brow’ art” (Wilson, 1987, p. 12). Although classical subjects such as the myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses were very popular it was not necessarily well understood by the painters of maiolica or many of those who commissioned or used it. Unlike Titian who was able to access a variety of common and more obscure texts and to make his own inventive contributions to the myth (Campbell, 2003), maiolica painters are thought to have worked from engravings or sketches of paintings, or from designs provided by local painters (Wilson, 1987, p. 113). The painter may have substituted the simpler grass and tree stump for the sake of speed or ease, not considering its importance in the narrative.

Another less likely possibility that has occurred to me is that the painter was covering an error. Maiolica painting is a demanding technique and reworking is not possible. A slip of the brush might be corrected with some quick improvisation in the composition.

I would like to direct you to one more illustration of the abduction of Europa. Wilson (1987) mentions a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1497 which helped to drive the vogue for these mythological subjects. A scanned version of Ovidio Metamorphoseos Volgare is available online, and if I interpret the site correctly this is the one Wilson refers to – see for the page showing Europa’s story. I believe this shows three episodes: Europa and her attendants garlanding the bull’s horns; a back view of the bull carrying Europa towards the shore; and the bull on the waves, Europa clutching one horn and looking back. In addition I think I can see Mercury twice, being commanded by Jupiter and again with the herd. I like this page very much, but I can see that substantial modification would be needed to adapt it to a small, circular format in an unforgiving medium.

Maiolica in Renaissance Italy

Maiolica is earthernware with a white tin glaze. The clay vessel would have an initial firing taking it to a brownish ‘biscuit’ condition. It would then be dipped into the glaze bath and dried. The opaque white surface created was particularly well-suited to brush painted decoration using a range of pigments. In particular it remained stable, without runs or blurs, during the second firing. A transparent glaze could be added over the painting before the second firing, or (and?) additional pigments could be added before a complicated third firing that added a lustre to the work. During painting the white surface absorbed pigments immediately with no retouching possible, leading to a direct quality in the artists’ work. (Information from Rackham, 1963, pp. 2 – 3).

These techniques, learnt from the Islamic world, combined with new discoveries from ancient Rome and Italian expertise in painting on board and especially fresco, leading to the development during the Renaissance of a narrative style in painted ceramics. In ‘istoriato’ or story painted wares the main image takes up the entire space (rather than a separate rim treatment for example). These works would have been only a small part of ceramic production, intended primarily for display rather than utilitarian use. At its highest level istoriato was fine art created for wealthy and discriminating patrons – for example the series especially commissioned by Duke Guidobaldi as a present to King Philip II of Spain (Wilson, 1987, p. 113).

Limited colours were possible: blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from antimony, orange from antimony and iron, purple and brown from manganese. Black would be made from a mix of pigments, white came from tin. Red was a very difficult colour to produce and was only used sparingly. (Wilson, 1987, p. 13).


Campbell, SJ. (2003) “Europa,” in Chong, A. et al (ed.) Eye of the Beholder (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 103-107. [online] Available at [Accessed 28 July 2013]

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kline, AS (translator) (2000) Ovid’s Metamorphoses University of Virginia [online] Available from [Accessed 27 July 2013]

Rackham, B (1963) Italian Maiolica 2nd edition. (London: Faber and Faber)

Wilson, T. (1987) Ceramic art of the Italian Renaissance (London: British Museum Publications)

Note: The image of the plate from V&A is used under their permissions for students, interpreting this learning log as an e-book and following correspondence with V&AImages.

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Exercise: Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting


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