Atalanta and Hippomenes

Guido Reni

Guido Reni, Atalanta and Hippomenes, c. 1615-1618, oil on canvas, 192 x 264 cm, © on concession of the Ministry of Culture – Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

In Book X of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of love and deception that binds Atalanta, princess of Arcadia, to Hippomenes, a young, unrequited lover. Determined to preserve her skills as a huntress, which an oracle prophesied she would lose along with her virginity, Atalanta challenged her many suitors to beat her in a running competition: the winner would have her hand in marriage, the others would be killed. Hippomenes won thanks to the complicity of Aphrodite, who gave him three golden apples she had picked in the garden of the Hesperides, to be used to distract the girl.

Guido Reni captures the dramatic narrative culmination of a generally little-represented myth.  Atalanta is depicted bending over to pick up the golden apples, while Hippomenes takes advantage by launching himself to the finish line, victory and marriage. Their feet cross at the centre of the painting, in an imitation of ancient figures on a Roman relief depicting Bacchic stories. Their bodies are outlined gracefully, despite the athletic power required by the subject.

This monumental mythological canvas, acquired by the Bourbons in Rome in 1802, was transferred to the Real Museo Borbonico in 1854. There is also another version, today at the Prado in Madrid, believed to have been painted later. In fact, the Neapolitan specimen exhibits an attention to chromatic and chiaroscuro dynamism which Guido intensified after his early years in Rome studying Caravaggesque originals and which he adopted widely in the works of the 1610s, for example in the Massacre of the Innocents and in Lot and His Daughters, both on show. This painting also shares with the Massacre its treatment of tensed bodies, the sculptural definition of the muscles and the pursuit of an almost marble plasticity, enhanced by the brown ground and the twilight horizon, where day and night blend into one other. 

The painting is on show in the Sala degli Imperatori to invite further reflection on the possibility of painting sculpture: in Guido’s work the statuary bodies seem blocked by the perfection of painting, while in Pluto and Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini we witness the almost magical power of the sculptor, who succeeds in breathing life into his marble characters.


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