According to the classical myth, Danaĕ was the daughter of Acrisius, the king of Argos, to whom an oracle prophesied that he would be killed by his grandson. The king then had Danaĕ imprisoned in a tower, so that she would not marry and have children. But Zeus spoiled the king’s plans. He took a fancy to the maiden, and to seduce her he transformed himself into a shower of gold and descended on her. This divine love resulted in Danaĕ giving birth to Perseus, who fulfilled the prophecy by accidentally killing his grandfather during a discus-throwing contest.
Correggio executed the Danaĕ canvas around 1530/31. According to Vasari, it was part of a series of four paintings portraying the loves of Jupiter commissioned from the painter by Federico II Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua, In addition to the Danaĕ, the series included Jupiter and Io, Ganymede and the Eagle, and Leda and the Swan. The paintings were said to have been a splendid gift from Gonzaga to Emperor Charles V to thank the latter for raising him from marquis to duke: a courtly, fawning homage, in which the figure of Jupiter most likely alluded to the emperor himself through the eagle, an attribute of the god and imperial emblem.
With great naturalness and his characteristic expressive sensibility, Correggio depicted an explicitly erotic episode. And he did it without straining or winking, expressing a powerful, but cheerful and spontaneous sensuality. Correggio’s Danaĕ is an adolescent intrigued and excited by what is about to happen. The golden cloud has appeared above her and the first drops are starting to fall. The girl is smiling and pulling off the sheet, symbol of the virginal veil, to welcome the god. Next to her, a winged genius – perhaps Cupid or Hymen, the god of marriage – is helping her to bare herself, while catching the first drops of rain in his hand, which is intentionally pointing to the girl’s belly, thus emphasizing the frank eroticism of the composition.
The two little amorini in the corner at the bottom are completely absorbed in rubbing arrowheads on the touchstone – used by goldsmiths to ascertain the authenticity of gold – because , as Ovid writes, one dart arouses love and another drives it away. Correggio is one of the artists who have represented the behavior and natural expressions of children with the most psychological penetration and tenderness.
The painting was acquired in Paris in 1827 by Prince Camillo Borghese and imported to Rome for the Palazzo in the Campo Marzio, but with a dubious attribution to Correggio. This was a loophole conceived by Evasio Gozzani, the prince’s business agent, to avoid paying the high customs duties levied by the papal government. Once the work was in Rome, the most eminent artists and connoisseurs came out in favor of of its authenticity, which was evident, as Vincenzo Camuccini wrote in a letter, “in the beauty of the chiaroscuro volumes, the brilliance and transparency of the color, the fluency, and the gentleness in painting the hair … .” When the painting was displayed in the Palazzo, a green curtain was devised to enable it to be covered, because it portrayed “a somewhat licentious act” which could have occasioned criticism.
The canvas arrived in the Villa on the Pincian Hill in 1891.