D.41 Apollo Proclaiming His Victory to the Gods

D.41 Apollo and Marsyas

Apollo Proclaiming His Victory to the Gods and Olympus Frightened by the Flayed Body of Marsyas, with Midas, His Eyes Closed, Seated at the Left


Germany, Private Collection.

Fig.D.41b Olympus with Zeus
Fig.D.41c Marsyas
Fig.D.41d watermark

Pen and point of brush, brown ink and gray wash over red chalk, heightened with white, oxidized in small areas, on light tan washed paper, with indentation on the figure of Marsyas, 35.2 x 25; wm. an angel, facing right, in an oval surmounted by a six pointed star (Fig.D.41d).


Old Master Drawings, sales catalogue, Sotheby’s, New York, 28 January 2009, 108, Lot 63, 109, color plate, as Apollo Surrounded by Several Gods Weeping at the Fate of Marsyas and attributed to Rosso Fiorentino with an insert: Peter Bower, “A watermark in the paper used for a drawing by Giovanni Battista Rosso (1495-1540),” London, October 2008, 2 pages and 8 notes.

Miller, Michael, “Old Master Week, New York, January 2009, Part II. Sotheby’s, New York,” The Berkshire Review for the Arts, 27 January 2009, “a mysterious and horrific interpretation of the Flaying of Marsyas by a follower of Rosso Fiorentino, or possibly the master himself.”


The interesting and remarkably cogent essay on this drawing in Sotheby’s Old Master Drawings catalogue of January 28, 2009, is the only published consideration of this drawing.  Cristiana Romalli begins: “This elaborate and finished composition, which appears to be the invention of Rosso Fiorentino, is hitherto unknown.”  Immediately thereafter, at the start of her second paragraph, she comments: “From a technical point of view, the drawing is both distinctive and highly accomplished and can be related very convincingly to Rosso’s work.”  The comparisons that she makes need only be reviewed with others to advance further her defense of Rosso’s authorship.  Along with the superb quality  of its draughtsmanship, it is the invention of its subject that also brought the drawing within the corpus of Rosso’s known work.  But first its draughtsmanship: on light tan washed paper each figure was first set down lightly in red chalk, some more fully than others.  Upon this sketch, the figures were then outlined in pen and ink carefully following the red chalk lines but with a few pentimenti, as at Apollo’s left hand supporting his lyre, at the muscles of Marsyas’s lower torso and thigh, and at the folds of Midas’s drapery.  Shadows were created by gray washes, followed by highlights carefully added with delicate parallel strokes of white paint.  The media and techniques of the drawing are the same as those in Rosso’s Design for a Chapel of 1528-1529 in the British Museum (Fig.D.37a) where, however, the underdrawing is in black chalk and the paper is washed a light gray-green.  But the Apollo and Marsyas drawing is more refined, both in its penmanship and in the application of the whites with pen and point of brush.  The penmanship also closely resembles that of the Throne of Solomon of 1529 (Fig.D.34).  Very similar are the large urns with pouring spouts and decorated with a small head or mask at the lower left of both drawings.

The tall slender figures recall those in Rosso’s Christ in Glory, finished early in 1530 (Fig.P.20a).  Closest to the figures in the Apollo and Marsyas drawing are the figures of Venus, the Graces, and the adolescent Cupid in Rosso’s masterful Mars and Venus drawing of 1530 in the Louvre (Fig.D.42a).  It is this autograph drawing that most resembles the Apollo and Marsyas drawing, although the handling of the Louvre drawing is more elaborate, probably because it was made for the King of France himself to enjoy.  The Grace at the far left in the Louvre drawing matches the figure of Venus in the Apollo and Marsyas drawing, in the figures’ slender proportions and sweeping curved poses, and with both seen from the back and gracefully walking into the scene, or walking away from it and looking back at it.  The piled-up arrangement of the figures in the Apollo and Marsyas scene is remarkably like that in the Mars and Venus, in the small Collecting of Manna altarpiece at the center of the Design for a Chapel, and in the two versions of an altarpiece of an Allegory of the Immaculate Conception of 1529 and 1530 (Fig.D.30; Fig.D.39).

The Sotheby’s catalogue did not offer any evidence for its caution in offering the drawing as “attributed to” Rosso, nor for dating the drawing to “Rosso’s late period in France,” when the comparisons that are made for associating the drawing with Rosso are with two certainly autograph drawings from the artist’s last years in Italy.  There are a large number of sixteenth century copies of Rosso’s drawings and a few drawings that may be copies instead of autograph works but the remarkably sure and refined Apollo and Marsyas drawing shows no signs of the awkwardnessed or inadequacies of a copy.  Peter Bower’s separate essay on the watermark of the sheet and the latter’s wire profile suggests a date around 1530 and a North Italian origin.  Although Bower’s concerns are with the date and place of the making of the paper used by the draughtsman, he does refer to the drawing as Rosso’s.

On the basis of stylistic and technical comparisons and on the sheer mastery of this “elaborate and finished composition,” there is every reason to recognize this drawing as autograph and more than likely datable within Rosso’s Italian years, on which see more below.  Its invention equally supports this conclusion.1

Romalli begins her brief and relevant account of the subject of Rosso’s drawing by referring to the opinions of Dr. Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute who “believes the artist is trying to follow the text of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in describing the cruel fate of the satyr Marsyas, without properly understanding the meaning of the word Olympus in the text.”  However, Rosso understood that Olympus in the fable is not the seat of the gods but Marsyas’s young brother or favorite youth and pupil after whom Mount Olympus was named.

Before returning to this aspect of Rosso’s drawing it may be appropriate to bring up another detail, the startling representation of Marsyas fully flayed.  He is also as large as Apollo and almost as prominent as the centrally placed Olympian god holding up Marsyas’s skin to the gods above with his right hand and displaying his fine harp against his body with his left arm and hand.  No work of art with the subject of the contest of Apollo and Marsyas done before the probable date of Rosso’s drawing shows Marsyas completely stripped of his skin, nor, it should be added, as a man without any indications of being a satyr or other mythical woodland creature.2  Only because of his grotesque appearance, stripped of his skin, and his “grimace,” caused by the loss of his lips and the full exposure of his teeth and not by any expression of emotion, is he different from the other figures in the scene.

Vasari records that while in Borgo Sansepolcro executing the Christ in Glory for Città di Castello, in the period from mid-September 1529 until mid-April 1530, “he disinterred the dead from the [grounds of the] bishop’s palace, where he was staying, and made ‘una bellissima notomia’” (see L.34).  It would be this study, including dissections, that led to the extraordinary appearance of Rosso’s Marsyas as an ecorché.  Why the artist depicted Marsyas as completely human without any satiric details is not wholly answered by his study of anatomy in Borgo Sansepolcro.  Nor does this study require the supposition that his Apollo and Marsyas drawing was made during his brief stay in this town.  Shortly after Maundy Thursday of 1529, Rosso arrived in Venice as the guest of Pietro Aretino.  By November he was resident in France.

It is at this moment in Vasari’s “Life” of Rosso that we learn that he had learned “la lingua latina,” an announcement that can be correlated to information known from an inventory of Rosso’s possessions left behind in Arezzo, including among his books, in addition to a copy of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia, an edition of Nicolò Peretti’s Latin grammar, Rudimenta grammatices (see DOC.13).  Given also his friendship with the learned Aretine humanist Giovanni Pollastra, who devised the program for the S. Maria delle Lagrime fresco, it is most likely that Rosso was clear in his understanding of Ovid’s relevant fable in Book VII of the Metamorphoses.  What we see in Rosso’s drawing is an ingenious re-working of Ovid’s legend in order to elevate the importance of Marsyas from Ovid’s satyr to a man and Ovid’s lamenting audience of “the inhabitants of the country, the Fauns, Deities of the woods, and his brothers the satyrs, and Olympus, even then reknowned, and the Nymphs” to the gods of Olympus, including Saturn with his scythe, Jupiter with the overwrought Olympius, the brother or favorite youth and pupil of Marsyas, clinging to him, Juno, probably, behind her husband and in front of the head of an unidentifiable female goddess at the very top of the drawing, with Venus, nude, gracefully striding past the ass-eared Midas seated before the head of another goddess looking up at the face of the crowned king.  Midas’s eyes are closed.

Ovid’s Marsyas is a satyr, Rosso’s a man that is almost as prominent, in size, in the fullness of his representation, and in his grotesque and horrifying appearance, to the equally nude but beautiful Apollo who occupies the center and foreground of the drawing.  But even as the victor who lifts high the full skin of Marsyas for the admiration of the other gods of Olympus, they ignore him.  Instead they hover around Zeus who gives comfort to the young, human and frightened Olympius (looking here with Zeus like Ganymede but with no indication of the eagle that brought him to Zeus or to his role as cup bearer to the god).  Two godesses give their attention to Midas who had judged Marsyas the winner of his contest with Apollo (as borrowed from Ovid’s fable of the contest between Apollo and Pan in Book XI of the Metamophoses).

Otherwise Rosso’s drawing presents Ovid’s account of the falling tears (not actually depicted) of the sorrowful weepers, in Rosso’s drawing giving their attention to Olympus and Midas, becoming a stream and then the clearest river in Phrygia bearing the name of Marsyas, personified by the watergod with his urn at the lower left, that ran toward the rapid sea, here seen as Neptune in his chariot pulled by a pair of seahorses in churning waters.  Nevertheless, Rosso’s invention overrides the authority of its sources in giving an unprecedented significance to flayed Marsyas.

As already mentioned, the Aretine Pollastra had given to Rosso the program for the frescoes in S. Maria delle Lagrime in Arezzo, the most unusual, even startling, feature of which may be the inclusion of the grand figures of Diana and Apollo in the Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (Fig.D.32).  Pollastra might have devised the invention of Rosso’s Apollo and Marsyas drawing, in which case the drawing may have been done in Arezzo before the artist’s flight to Borgo Sansepolcro and then on to Venice.

In spite of the reasonableness of this conclusion, this startling invention may have been beyond the scope of Pollastra’s interests and very likely beyond the cultural aspirations of Arezzo or Borgo Sansepolcro, even if the study of human anatomy was not.  Another possibility is offered in the person of Rosso’s friend, Pietro Aretino.  Rosso may well have met Aretino in Rome before the poet and entrepreneur fled the scandal over the stanzas he wrote to accompany Giulio Romano’s lascivious Pose and settled in Venice, where Rosso arrived in the middle of April 1530.  It is possible that he had been called or invited by Aretino with whom he stayed.  By November Rosso was settled in France at the request of Francis I but through the agency of Pietro Aretino.  It was he who had provided the invention of the Mars and Venus in the Louvre that Rosso worked into one of the finest examples of his artistic powers.  Might then Pietro Aretino have also suggested the extraordinary program of Rosso’s Apollo and Marsyas composition that Rosso created as a drawing for Aretino perhaps in thanks for his hospitality and for his role in bringing about Rosso’s position as the painter to the King of France?

Around 1544-1545, Aretino commissioned from the young Tintoretto two ceiling paintings for his “camera” in Venice depicting “la novella di Argo e di Mercurio” of unknown whereabouts, and “la favola di Apollo e di Marsia,” now in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (Fig.Tintoretto 1544-45).  The subject of this last painting is not the same as that of Rosso’s drawing, nor is Tintoretto’s painting so remarkable a scene, showing instead the contest itself attended by Minerva and three robed men who are talking among themselves.  The man standing at the far right and who seems to be speaking has often been recognized as Aretino himself.  His large pointed ear may suggest an identification with Midas.  Both Apollo and Marsyas are clothed, the blond god elegantly, the dark haired Marsyas, with bare legs and feet, wearing a rustic garment.  The latter is also in all respects a human.3

Assuming, as I do, that Rosso’s drawing was made in Venice in 1530, almost fifteen years separate it from the young Tintoretto’s painting, not to mention the very different ages and backgrounds of the two artists.  Aretino’s position was also very different in 1530 from what it would have been around 1544.  He was, like Rosso, a Tuscan, and with Rosso would have been working with some of the same cultural ideals of ambition and invention.  Aretino’s expectation or appreciation would be of a work from a mature artist whose work he knew and valued, as with Rosso’s Mars and Venus.  Taking these differences into account, Rosso’s drawing might be seen as a result of his friendship with Aretino, whose reputation as the “scourge of Princes” and pornographer was in those years in Venice beginning to be reshaped into that of a poet, agent, and arbiter of the arts.4


1 It seems  appropriate here to mention the history of the attribution of the Mars and Venus.  From the Jabach inventory of 1671, the Louvre catalogue of 1845, the drawing was given to Rosso.  Reisset in 1866 wrote that it was apparently Rosso’s drawing described by Vasari, and in 1930, Berenson demoted it to a copy.  Then in Carroll, 1964, a Ph.D. dissertation published in 1976, and in Shearman, 1985 and Shearman, 1986, it was recognized as autograph and its recovery as Rosso’s began to take hold.  Now that the drawing is seen as a most extraordinary work, the loss of its reputation due to changes in tastes reminds one of the lingering prejudices adhereing to all matters of attribution and dating.

2 In a painting attributed to Michelangelo Anselmi in Washington (Fig.Anselmi c.1540), of around 1540 perhaps, the two figures of Marsyas, clothed and naked, appear wholly human, although the artist “took pains to portray him as a country bumpkin with low brow, mussed hair, and scraggly beard” (see Wyss, 1996, 85-86, and Fig.51).

3 See Wyss, 1996, 114-116, and Fig. 87.  For another painting of about the same date, showing Marsyas wholly human and also as something of “a country bumpkin,” see n. 2.

4 See Waddington, Raymond B., Aretino’s Satyr, Toronto, Buffalo, London, 2004, Introduction, and pp. 144-151.