Completed Continental European before 1800 35 Who are the subjects in this Tintoretto painting of Apollo?

Topic: Subject or sitter

The painting is currently called ‘Apollo Crowning a Poet and Giving Him a Consort’, however a member of the public wrote in to say that the work depicts Apollo surrounded by six Muses plus Hercules. They write that the Poet who receives the laurel is female and given that Tintoretto was male it is unlikely that he would have selected a female poet – Sappho; though a candidate, would be an unlikely choice. This is a debate that has been rumbling on for a long time. Lots of experts have looked into it over the years including Nick Penny, yet it remains a mystery.

National Trust, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. There has been no clear answer to the question posed in 2014 (and before), but the accumulation of these suggestions here might be helpful for further research and lead eventually to a consensus about the subject.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


National Trust,

The full title is currently: Apollo crowning a Poet and joining him with a Consort, witnessed by Hercules and by other Females. It was bought by William John Bankes for Kingston Lacy, Dorset from the Pasquali sisters, through Alvise (Ulisse) Mazzuoli, in Venice in 1850 as 'Apollo & the Muses' but this is clearly not the case. Nor has the subject of this picture been satisfactorily deciphered, despite its recent cleaning in 2010.

The poet is possibly Horace, who called upon Apollo to help him spurn earthly reward. Hercules, as protector of the arts, and wearing his lion skin, holding a spear and bow, looms above. He was deified after his death so it seems that he is supposed to be on Mount Olympus. It has been suggested that the figures on the right are either the Three Graces, with their traditional symbol of the die (symbolic of child-like purity), but also that they are three separate entities: the figure at the bottom could be Fortune (with her cornucopia and again, the die, here symbolic of chance).

However, fact that we do not know who or where this picture was painted for makes the interpretation of its subject all the more difficult. It was almost certainly painted for a private palazzo and therefore the imagery will have been dictated to Tintoretto by the owner and its meaning may only have been apparent to him and his household. It may be a pure allegory, of general meaning, or it may be an allegorised representation of some figure – the young man with a book – in his family’s history. If the former, one might suggest that this is Hercules’s son Hyllus, whom Hymen is uniting – in accordance with his father’s wishes – with the latter’s former lover, Iole. But why should Hyllus be shown with a book? And why should such an obscure subject ever have been chosen to adorn a ceiling in a Venetian palazzo? At the moment, the best hope of a slightly better interpretation of the theme depends upon the identification and significance of the trailing plant, strands of which are held by Apollo, or maybe Hymen, and the bride.

Does anyone think it could be Admetus re-marrying Alcestis (in the shadows on the right) who was saved from the Underworld by Hercules. The former was served by Apollo as a shepherd. One of the sources for the story is Euripides and the pictorial inspiration was antique stone coffins.

Martin Hopkinson,

There is a Venetian poetess who was painted by Tintoretto [Worcester Art Museum, Prado] who might fit the bill - Veronica Franco [1546 -91] - the state of undress might point to her . The patron for this painting could be her patron. She had a liaison with Henri III of France before publishing two volumes of poetry in 1575 and 1580 and collected works by other writers into anthologies. All this after being listed in a catalogue c. 1565 as one of the principal courtesans of Venice.
There is a considerable literature on her including a 1992 biography by Masrgaret F Rosenthal,'The Honest Courtesan', Chicago, 1992 which presumably records her patrons. She refers to being painted by Tintoretto in her 'lettere'- and the features of the woman in this picture , although not greatly pronounced. could be compared with those of the portraits by Tintoretto which have been identified as of her

Martin Hopkinson,

Domenico Venier could be the man who commissioned this painting

Could this be Veronica Franco in the role of Flora? I agree with Martin Hopkinson that the face is not dissimilar to portraits of her and being a depiction of a poet would explain the book she holds. In addition, she is being crowned not with a victor's laurel crown but with a floral garland, as Flora often is. There are flowers being scattered everywhere. I believe courtesans in Venice were often depicted as Flora with garlanded hair.

National Trust,

Some of the flowers, other than the roses the putti are scattering are most probably myrtle - attribute of Venus and the Three Graces and in the Renaissance it symbolised everlasting love and conjugal fidelity and therefore appropriate for a marriage portrait. But, perhaps that is where the misunderstanding is. The figure on the left really is not female but could be Domenico Venier himself. And the female figure on the right in the shadow could actually be Apollo's chaste sister Diana (Greek: Selene - moon goddess) who is often seen sitting shaded near by him. He is wearing the laurel, of his first love Daphne, and perhaps is bestowing an honour on the 'poet' who actually looks as if he is holding a stone tablet rather than a book.

Martin Hopkinson,

The central figure does appear to have a female breast , and a contemporary watercolour of the nude torso of Franco seems to show that she had small breasts [Beineke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University Ms 457 Mores Italiane - illustrated in Rosenthal between pp. 152 and 153
A portrait of her now generally attributed to Domenico Tintoretto is in Worcester Art Museum - for which see P. Rossi, 'I ritratti di Domenico Tintoretto', Arte Illustrata, 1970, pp. 92-99, which I have yet to see.
The frontispiece intended for her 'Terze Rime', 1575 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana also included a portrait of her [illustrated by Rosenthal]

Martin Hopkinson,

There is a long account of Franco's relations with Venier in Alvise Zorzi, 'Cortigiana Veneziana: Veronica Franco e i suoi poeti ', Milan , 1986, pp. 57-65, 69 - 90 and 163-64 apparently [ this volume is not easily accessible to me]
Also possibly of interest is an article in 'Renaissance Quarterly', 44, 3, 1991, pp. 475 -510
Martha Feldman , ' The Academy of Domenico Venier. Music's literary rise in mid -Cinquecento Venice'

Martin Hopkinson,

If the figure is male, I do not think that it can be a portrait of a contemporary figure, as Tintoretto's portraits of males are noticeably manly, which this poet clearly is not. I should say that I am not a Tintoretto expert

Martin Hopkinson,

An alternative suggestion as to the identity of the principal female figure - could it be that she is 'Poesia' herself?

Martin Hopkinson,

Apollo is standing on a group of products of goldsmithery, which might suggest that the patron was associated with goldsmiths. Could the owner provide an enlarged detail of the supposed die as this may represent an impresa of a particular family? Are the four principal figures around Apollo the Seasons, top left Winter and clockwise Spring, Summer with the cornucopia and autumn, partly in shade? Does the crowned figure have more than one meaning?

Martin Hopkinson,

There is a pyx, chalice, a platen and a monstrance, all golden, under Apollo's feet. The church had ruled that all these religious objects had to be gold.

Martin Hopkinson,

I should have said that the Seasons are arranged in ANTI-CLOCKWISE direction

Martin Hopkinson,

There was a Scuola degli Orefici in Venice probably near or in the Ruga degli Orefici . The Scuola was the patron of an altar in San Giacomo del Rialto.
May be a historian of Venetian goldsmithery can help.
Equally a historian of the rules laid down by the Council of Trent might be able to tell us whether they have anything to do with the subject matter of this painting.

Some very interesting comments on this painting have been posted. I find it difficult to discern from the image whether the figure receiving the laurel crown (or floral garland) is male or female. The National Trust contributors, who presumably have seen the work at first hand, perhaps during its recent restoration, believe it to be male. This view is perhaps supported by the strong hands and muscular forearms, the hair, which appears notably different from the more typical Venetian hairstyles of the undoubted females in the picture, the not particularly feminine face and perhaps, the well-developed pectoral muscle. The alternative view may be supported by the modest lower drapery, but I favour the male option. If Tintoretto (or his assistant) had intended a breast, I think we would not be in doubt about it. The National Trust contributors also suggest that the androgynous figure is holding a stone tablet, which is what I first thought it was. To judge from the image, I find this a more likely option than a book, although I have no idea what it might mean in a mythological context. With regard to the rest of the composition, some very helpful suggestions have been made, which have emphasized that this painting was created for a specific and probably unique circumstance. I believe we can exclude the Muses, the Fates and also the idea of a consort. Which figure is this intended consort? The androgynous figure, elevated by two female figures (one of whom wears a simple laurel crown perhaps representing ‘poetry’) is being feted by a figure who may indeed be Apollo, but if so, it must be explained why he is standing on golden Christian objects. Martin Hopkinson’s reference to the Orefici may provide the answer, but I think it unlikely that guidance provided by the Council of Trent would have encouraged representations of Hercules and Apollo. Onlookers include Hercules, who may simply represent heroic strength, and the three females to the right. She below with the cornucopia and the die, which may fall in any direction, is probably ‘Liberalità’ [C. Ripa, Bk. II, p. 373]. The other females on clouds carry flowers, probably roses, which are also tossed over the scene by the putti above. Unless it has already been done, I think it would be worth showing this image to Charles Hope, Jennifer Montagu or another Warburg colleague.

National Trust,

During the cleaning and restoration of the painting at the Hamilton-Kerr Institute, Cambridge in 2010, infra-red reflectography showed that the figure with the book was clearly originally a muscular almost nude youth looking upwards - it is uncertain whether or not the changes in face and drapery were intended to change the sex of the figure but it still seems to be a man.

Also, it was revealed that the cornucopia originally went upwards behind the bottom Graces. It is interesting to consider the ‘Fortune’ figure (or ‘Abundance’) as ‘Liberalità’, especially as she represents the golden mean between vice (prodigality) and virtue (meagreness) -a choice Hercules was also challenged with. And again it would be appropriate for a marriage scene, as she is usually seen discarding a shower of gold vessels, perhaps alluded to by what Apollo is standing on – as well as signifying the god of music and poetry’s contempt for wealth. A die also appears in Tintoretto’s painting Mercury with the Three Graces, 1576/77 in the Palazzo Ducale with both sides showing the numbers, 4 and 5.

Yet, Liberalità is usually also seen with an eagle on her head. Cesare Ripa's 'Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi' was first published in 1593 so another earlier source like Pierio Valeriano’s 'Hieroglyphica' or Andrea Alciato’s, 'Emblemata' would have to be more likely (both in themselves ultimately derive from more ancient texts). Another suggestion elsewhere that Martianus Capella’s 5th-century allegory, 'De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii', published in Vicenza in 1499 and again in Basel in 1532, could be the source is more compelling though. It was indeed Apollo who suggested the union between Mercury (eloquence; also associated with Hercules) and the mortal Philology (learning) and the text was popular for the bringing together of pagan gods with Christian thought – as indeed did the Apolline sibyls. Although, the three women in our painting do not seem to be even the ‘trivium’ of the Liberal Arts: Rhetoric, Grammar and Dialectic, normally associated with scenes in the book.

Martin Hopkinson,

This information gained during the cleaning and restoration is clearly very significant and should help a specialist on the iconography of Venetian post 1550 painting to sort out the meaning . As this is much the finest and most important pictures so far to be discussed on Art Detective, one very much hopes that a solution will be found . As Tim suggests someone associated with the Warburg may well be able to help.
As for the orefici, there are scholars like John Bernasconi at the University of Hull, who may be able to provide information about the Scuola and its activity as a patron of art in the sixteenth century

National Trust,

Please see: Alastair Laing (former Curator of Pictures & Sculpture, National Trust, 1986 - 2012): ‘Album amicorum: Oeuvres choisies pour Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée’, Paris, 2012, pp.32-33 for Martianus Capella suggestion and attached infra-red image for demonstration of Tintoretto working methods. like many artists, for painting nudes first.

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Maria Aresin,

I will just quickly add two little details for everyone interested.

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Maria Aresin,

I want to further suggest that it's not Apollo crowning the so called poet but maybe the personification of honor mentioned by Cartari (crowning virtuous persons with laurel crowns + is wearing a magenta robe). That way it will be more likely to not consider the person crowned generally to be a poet.

I am working towards reaching a conclusion to this discussion, which will not be an easy task. So, if anyone has thought of something to add, I would be grateful to read it. Some observations: 1. Both the infra-red image and the detail posted by Maria Aresin indicate clearly that the object held by the figure being crowned is indeed a book. 2. The infra-red image also confirms that this figure is male. 3. The infra-red image suggests that Tintoretto himself played an important role in the early stages of the development of this painting, which may well have been worked up by studio assistants, who to a degree obscured their master's intentions. 4. Are the objects beneath the Apollo figure's feet a salver with coins, a monstrance and a model of a (church) tower? Do they represent Christian religion? If so, would Apollo really have been represented standing on Christian symbols (I don't believe he is crushing them under his feet), or is this more likely to be an allegorical figure? If not Christian iconography, what are these objects? 5. I am sure National Trust colleagues are right to think that the subject matter and iconography must be intimately connected with the commissioned destination of the work. It will not be easy to find this, but we can certainly accept the challenge.

Amanda Bradley,

As a National Trust curator, I can confirm that the figure being crowned is indeed a man, and that he holds a book or tablet. Some years ago, I consulted with Paul Taylor and Elizabeth McGrath at the Warburg Institute, who equally found the iconography unconventional. However, Paul Taylor suggested - which I find the most compelling explanation thus far - that the poet is Horace, who expressed his devotion to Apollo (Odes I:31). Apollo is here seen trampling upon wordly wealth (the salver and coins etc. are not Christian symbols, but a general expression of riches); that the poet is interested in poetic inspiration and considers wordly wealth beneath him is a trope in the work of Horace (Odes II:18). Hercules is holding a bow in his left hand and spiked club in his right. Cartari, following Lucian, tells us that this is the attribute of Hercules Gallicus - the symbol of eloquence. More problematic is PT's reading of the three figures to the right as the Three Graces. Indeed the attributes of the rose and the die are traditional, but the way in which the upper figure is distinctively paler and cast in shadow suggests an alternative reading (?Selene / Persephone, or even a malevolent force (the distraction of lust) - Palma Vecchio's courtesans are clothed in green). There was a burgeoning of interest in Greek culture in Venice and I am currently following up literary references that may shed more light on this. However (as expressed by Jennifer Fletcher), Venetian iconography should be understood in a much more general way and that - although frustrating to the modern mind - each component needn't be specific. Compared with the density of meaning in Tuscan works, Venetian allegorical works were often much more fluidly conceived, especially in a private, or semi-private setting (Vasari was frustrated that the frescoes at the Fondaco - for him - had no meaning). JF felt that the overriding theme of the picture were elements that served to inspire Poetry: beauty, abundance, strength and grace. For the time being, this cautious iconographic approach is perhaps the best.

Patty Macsisak,

Suggest that you consult the following book, especially as it relates to Federico Badoer, founder of the Accademia Veneziana. I do not have a hard copy of the book in hand, but from the limited view available on-line, find it intriguing to consider that the Tinoretto may have been painted for the Palazzo Badoer, "seat of the Academy" or the public space granted to the Academy in 1560, the Vestibolo della Libreria. Also, noted "There is no doubt that the religious question played an important part, albeit unclear, role in the Academy."

Accessed via Google eBooks
Title The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press
Toronto Italian studies
Author Lina Bolzoni
Translated by Jeremy Parzen
Edition illustrated
Publisher University of Toronto Press, 2001
ISBN 0802043305, 9780802043306
Length 332 pages

Patty Macsisak,

I am not an art historian, but please consider these observations, which may relate to the Accademia Veneziana (1557-1671) and its leader, Federico Badoer (1519-1593). To summarize:

The Accademia members were heavily influenced by Aristotle, the first philosopher who argued for indeterminism. His theory of poetry and fine art informed the “Somma delle opere” (1558) which would lead to the birth of modern bibliography.

“On 31 May 1560, the Council of Ten decreed that the Academy was to print all official documents, and on 12 July 1560, the procurators of San Marco accepted Badoer’s “Supplica”…. In the “Supplica”, he argued that the “Somma delle opera” principles should also be applied to visual iconography.
Suggest that the painting could be read as a wheel of fortune, “without an explicit depiction of it”.

Apollo is the god of the arts, medicine, prophecy AND order. “The Apollo archetype personifies the aspect of the personality that wants clear definitions, is drawn to master a skill, values order and harmony, and prefers to look at the surface, as opposed to beneath appearances. The Apollo archetype favors thinking over feeling, distance over closeness and objective assessment over subjective intuition.”

I hate to dispose of the idea of a chaste Diana, but Virtue is holding a Herculean club. A human female figure, attentive and wary, stands sheltered between Apollo and Virtue.

Fortune's cornucopia seems to spring from the loins of Virtue. From it, abundance flows towards the man already crowned with laurel. This man sits and leans on terra firma.

Above him hovers an uncrowned man (Aristotle?). He ascends toward heaven, about to be crowned by Apollo. He is held by the crowned man (the divine Plato?) and a female figure (Psyche sans butterfly wings?). The uncrowned man is ascending on an axis between this female figure and Apollo. I believe her presence reminds us of the debate over the source of genius, whether from “a supernatural miracle originating in the transcendent realm of God” or “a natural expression of the human psyche”.

Hercules hovers in the background, dressed in his lion's skin (symbolic of earlier accomplishments?), with the sleeves of a shirt hanging from his arm. The shirt, bow and quiver all are symbols appropriate for the end of his life. (I may be overreaching for an interpretation, but perhaps it has to do with unexpected consequences. When Hercules eventually surrendered his bow and arrow on his funeral pyre, they became the tools which ended the war in Troy. Is it an acknowledgement that all intellectual endeavors have unexpected consequences?)

Apollo, heedless of wealth or dogma, rewards the man with a crown.

Via Google eBooks:

Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art page 341.

The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press p. 19-21.

Aristotelianism in the Renaissance, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Debate over the Origin of Genius during the Italian Renaissance: The

Theories of Supernatural Frenzy and Natural Melancholy in Accord and in Conflict on the Threshold of the Scientific Revolution

“Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity” states Tintoretto in 1560 “…painted a portrait of Doge Giraloma Priuli for the Council of Ten, a commission his role as a leading state painter.” He was a member of Accademia Veneziana secundo (1593).

“Venetian Painted Ceilings of the Renaissance” in reference to the Vestibolo della Libreria which the Accademia Veneziana had been granted access for public gatherings (1560): “By November 1562, Tintoretto and Dominico Molin had delivered at least one painting each for the walls. By February 1564, the mural decoration was complete.” Page 95

Dorothy Hopkins,

Re-instate the title "Apollo & The Muses" - An Astronomers view

TINTORETTO – Reinstate the title ‘APOLLO AND THE MUSES’.
I was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in the 1970/1980’s, familiar with Durer’s constellation chart 1515AD and Sir William Peck’s picture chart from ‘Observer’s Atlas of the Heavens’, New Patterns in the Sky by Staal and Star Tales by Ridpath.

Tintoretto painted ceilings and sky myths.
a) Has anyone considered the ancient astronomical viewpoint?
b) Why did he have to hide his message?
1473 -1543 AD. COPERNICUS said the Earth goes round the Sun.
1518 -1594 AD. TINTORETTO hid this new message.
1564 -1642 AD. GALILEO under house arrest until his death.

This painting has 3 parts.
Ia) The ‘giveaway’ is the myth of the constellation CASSIOPEA (bottom left), a vain Queen, with mirror not book. Her sacrificed daughter ANDROMEDA with clutching hand, culminates in OCTOBER.
With them the young Medusa/gorgon/PEGASUS culminates in SEPTEMBER
1b) The constellations of the Summer Triangle are represented by three of the Muses as Apollo’s Lyre, Swan, and Eagle in the bottom right of the painting.
At the top Apollo exchanges his Caducus for Hermes Lyre. LYRA the Harp culminates in JUNE. At the bottom CYGNUS the Swan culminates in AUGUST. The arm and hand of the Muse follows the neck and head of the Swan, her body replaces the wings, and the cornucopia the tail. (Well hidden Tintoretto.) AQUILA the Eagle, culminating in JULY, is brought in from the far reaches, and tucked in between June and August. (Does she have furled wings in her headdress?)
Apollo was connected with prophesy, the course of the year, arrangement of the seasons and becomes the orderer of time.

II) The New Heliocentric System. (Prohibited by the Church).
The constellation Hercules should lie above Lyra. ‘The twelve Labours of Hercules’ follows the path of the sun throughout the year. But Hercules ‘the Sun’ has now been transported outside the ancient sky picture.

III) The Apollo/Python/Draco myth, precession, and more, also depicted
Tintoretto was a brilliant artist, risking his life to record these new ideas. The title ‘APOLLO AND THE MUSES’ DEFINITELY DESERVES TO BE REINSTATED as a contemporary record of the impact of 16th cent astronomy.

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Tim Williams,

I was just throwing away some old notes, and found one I had copied down from Waagen regarding this picture. I wish I could remember why I made the notes as they predate art detective. Anyway, Waagen seems to think that this picture came from the ceiling of the Grimani Palazzo in Venice. Waagen saw the picture in the Dining Room at Kingston Lacy sometime prior to 1857. Bankes had also purchased other pictures from the Grimani family including portraits of Brigita Spinola and Maria, Princess Grimaldi from the Grimaldi Palace in Genoa.

See attached from 'Treasures of Art in Great Britain'.

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Tim Williams,

Ignore that, the information is already known on the collection website!

Enrico De Iulis,

I think the painting it's about Apollo as Liberality crowning a poetess.
The subject refers to the Graces as liberal arts and there's an iconographic tradition that associates a dice to the Graces beacaus the three ladies superintend to the economic offices. The Gallic Hercules may be also Hercules Musarum and the two figures below on the left may be Poetry and another Art that present the poetess to Apollo. I'm starting to study it after few years of stand by.
Find attached some other examples of Liberality.

John Forbes,

On one point I am certain we can all agree: Every work of art associated with a master is not ipso facto a masterpiece.

What we have here is a muddle, a studio work upon which Tintoretto had some initial input but was finished by far lesser hands.

These lesser hands are responsible for the confusion and ambiguity we now face. Perhaps all we can really do is mark the piece “Allegorical Scene, Venetian School, Studio of Tintoretto” and leave it there.

Patrycja Rulka,

Figures of "poet" and the woman embracing him from the left may depict founder and his wife - they are recognized by different colours, both in the same robes. Also the light is focused in this section differently in opposition to the rest of figures in rather gloomy mode. Worth noticing is also hair of "wife" with rich decoration, not in antique style. Therefore the conclusion, that this two "blue" figures are differentiated on purpose and belong to different order.
If this was ordered for private interiors, it is quite possible that the founder ordered depiction of him and his beloved in antique scenery.

Jacinto Regalado,

An Apotheosis of a Poet is quite plausible, but this certainly seems to involve Apollo, Hercules and female figures, some of which may be Muses. There is a definite ancient association between Hercules and the Muses, as one of his avatars was Hercules Musagetes or Musarum (leader or defender of the Muses), and there was a Temple of Hercules Musarum in Rome where he and the Muses were worshiped.

Jacob Simon,

Do we feel that we can carry this discussion further after almost 8 years, given the difficulties in elucidating the subject?