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Luca Giordano (Naples 1634-Naples 1705)

Psyche Honoured by the People c.1695-7

Oil on copper | 57.5 x 68.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 402961

Communication Gallery, Hampton Court Palace

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  • This painting is the first in a set of twelve in the Royal Collection depicting part of the story of Cupid and Psyche. The subject of this painting comes from The Metamorphoses or Golden Ass by the second-century AD writer Apuleius: it is one of the stories that intersperse the main narrative of Lucius on his travels (Book iv, para. 28 - Book vi, para. 24). The tale of the many travails endured by ill-matched lovers (one mortal and one divine) before their final happy marriage, it was interpreted in the Renaissance as a Neoplatonic allegory of the progress of the soul (Psyche means 'soul' in Greek) towards salvation through Divine Love. The outcome of their union is Pleasure.

    The most famous depiction of this subject in the Renaissance was Raphael's series of frescoes for the Loggia of the Chigi Palace (now the Farnesina) executed in 1518-19. It is generally agreed that Raphael intended to paint more scenes from the same story than those that now survive, or that he was perhaps planning a set of tapestries to hang beneath the frescoes in the vault. His unexecuted ideas for this commission or the existing frescoes in the Loggia are thought to have inspired a set of thirty-four prints of c.1532 after designs by Michael Coxie (engraved by Agostino Veneziano and the so-called 'Master of the Die'). Whether Coxie was copying lost Raphael drawings or merely inventing his own designs in a Raphaelesque manner, these prints provided the definitive depiction of the Cupid and Psyche story. Luca Giordano uses the general arrangement of his source but makes everything more dynamic: instead of a frieze-like arrangement he introduces movement into depth; he allows the edges of the panels to crop figures and architecture, particularly in the first three scenes, so that we imagine the scene continuing on either side of the frame; his figures fly amid smoke and clouds, and swirling, opulent drapery. Giordano often adds bystanders to heighten the drama, or to address us like a Greek chorus. In the prints Cupid, the God of Love, is the familiar boy-with-bow; in Giordano, as in Raphael, he is old enough to be a lover himself.

    Giordano had more immediate sources of inspiration than a set of 150-year-old prints. The story of Psyche was already popular in Spain, read in Spanish and Catalan adaptations, as well as Italian, and often referred to in philosophical debates at the Spanish court about the theme of Divine Love. There were also painted versions of the story in Spain: a Velazquez Psyche and Cupid of c.1659 for the Hall of Mirrors in the Alcázar, Madrid (lost in a fire of 1734); and an important cycle of ceiling paintings of the 1680s by Claudio Coello (completed by Palomino, Sebastián Muûoz, Isidoro Arredono and Jan van Kessel) decorating the apartments of Maria Louise of Orleans, Carlos II's first Queen (also lost in the fire of 1734). Coello and his colleagues used a different literary source: one scene shows Psyche in the desert surrounded by wild animals after the palace had disappeared; another shows Psyche visited by her father and sisters in Cupid's palace. Two tapestries of the subject also recorded in the Alcazar were the work of the official tapestry works.

    When Luca Giordano arrived in Spain he was famous for being able to paint effectively on a vast scale and to adapt his style to different commissions. His earliest Neopolitan style had been lightened by the influence of Pietro da Cortona, Bernini, and Rubens's fluid handling of paint. Compared to his earlier work the series has the languid air of Guido Reni, although the way in which the figures project into the foreground and are cut by the frame gives energy to compositions. Giordano's careful study of Venetian art, particularly Veronese, is seen in architecture silhouetted against sky, onlookers clasping columns, opulent drapery and the dominance of blues and yellows. His late Baroque style has an airy grace and refinement, with forms dissolving in softer pastel colours. In the landscapes, forms are painted 'wet-in-wet', and become indistinguishable from each other.

    These compositions were laid out in detail in a grisaille underpainting (shades of grey) over a thin pink-brown ground. The paintings were then completed with a relatively simple build-up of opaque and translucent paint layers, allowing the light and dark modelling of the grisaille to contribute to the final appearance. For example, red drapery is given a deeper colour by the underlying grey, whilst blues are intensified and flesh tones and pale drapery achieve a soft, cool quality. Giordano allowed the grey to show through as a mid-tone in many passages of shadow and background, and it is often visible at the extreme edges of the panels (usually hidden by the frames). Technically this was both economical and sophisticated, and matches the superb assurance of Giordano at this stage of his career. This series seems to be the only example of Giordano's use of this technique.

    There are twelve surviving coppers in the series by Giordano, all in the Royal Collection, which tell only half of the story of Cupid and Psyche. In Apuleius's story the beauty of Psyche, the third daughter of a king and queen, is so great that people pay homage to her rather than the goddess Venus: 'as she walked the streets the people crowded to adore her with garlands and flowers'. In her jealousy Venus summons Cupid, 'that winged son of hers, that most reckless of creatures', and commands him to arouse in her [Psyche] a burning love for an unworthy husband, 'cursed by Fortune in rank, in estate, in condition so that Psyche would be mortified'. In the first of painting in Giordano's series Venus is shown pointing out Psyche to Cupid who, contrary to plan, falls in love with her.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
    Provenance

    Probably commissioned by Carlos II of Spain or his mother; acquired by George III and recorded as a set of 12 in the Bedchamber at Buckingham House in 1790

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on copper

    Measurements

    57.5 x 68.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    86.5 x 97.2 x 8.5 cm (frame, external)