The exhibition Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, on view at the Getty Center May 14 to August 18, 2019, celebrates illuminated bestiary manuscripts of the European Middle Ages. To complement the exhibition, here on The Iris we explore another fascinating object teeming with fantastic creatures—an ornate maiolica basin from the late Renaissance. —Ed.
Animals are rarely just animals in sixteenth-century Italian art. They may symbolize virtues or signify social status. They can also act as mnemonic devices, prompting viewers to recall other works of art, both visual and literary. The Getty Museum’s elaborate tin-glazed earthenware basin, created around 1565 to 1575, contains many such references. It bears a dazzling array of humans, animals, and fantastical hybrids surrounding a mythological story. Drawing from ancient literary and visual sources, the diverse elements of the basin refer to an imagined ancient past and demonstrates the love of allusion and metaphor that characterized the arts of the Renaissance.
Women, Satyrs, Peacocks, and More
A delicate scaffolding of figures within three white seashell-shaped reserves dominates the basin’s surface. At first glance, these minute details overwhelm the eye. Humans, birds, goats, satyrs, and griffins, among other mythical beasts, caper across the white ground. There is a strong sense of movement, and it is difficult to focus on any one creature. The basin requires slow, careful looking. Its original owners probably enjoyed studying these details on many occasions over time. Let’s focus our attention on the lower right reserve.
Here, a variety of creatures work together on a surprising task. Two female satyrs—mythological creatures who are half-human, half-goat—sit atop a seashell. Each one bears a large distaff, a device that holds raw fibers for processing into thread. Two moths or butterflies, insects known for spinning cocoons, accompany them. Just below the satyrs are two female figures whose bodies end in scrolling, leafy tails. They hold spindles, tools used for twisting fibers into thread. In fact, they are actively spinning the fibers from the satyrs’ distaffs!
Above these figures are four graceful women, one with wings, in long gowns and accompanied by birds. The women continue the work started below; two wind the thread from their spindles onto wheels or swifts, while the others hold even larger swifts to prepare the thread for weaving or knitting. Two peacocks perched on an armored figure are located at the center of the composition. This bird was sacred to Juno, the ancient Roman goddess of marriage.
This assembly of figures may seem strange, but there is a wonderful analogous relationship between them: insects work fibers into cocoons, human and hybrid women spin fiber into thread, and Juno oversees married women and their domestic duties. Renaissance viewers would have enjoyed identifying the analogy and mythological references.
The bizarre figures that combine elements of plants, animals, and humans are another allusion to the classical world. They are called grotesques—a word with a much different meaning than its modern understanding. Around the year 1500, Italians discovered ancient wall paintings in an underground grotto, or cave, in Rome. Named grottesche, after the location of their discovery, these paintings were remnants of the Roman emperor Nero’s lost palace. Although they were over 1,400 years old, the images were mysterious and exciting to Renaissance viewers. So-called grotesque ornamentation soon became fashionable in elite homes. By the 1560s, such imagery also appeared on domestic objects like ceramics.
The allusions and metaphors continue in the aquatic scenes between the seashell reserves. Ocean nymphs and marine gods occupy the undulating blue waves.
At the top left, a male figure hoists an enormous fish over his shoulder. On the opposite corner, a nymph rides a fanged dolphin. At the bottom, a hybrid creature that is part man, part sea monster carries another nymph on his back. Representing the dynamic element of water, these sea creatures are a clever nod to the basin’s nominal function: holding water for washing hands at a banquet. They also support the basin’s central painting, which depicts the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha as told by Ovid.
The poet Ovid lived in ancient Rome during the time of Augustus. His most famous work, the narrative poem Metamorphoses, recounts dozens of episodes from classical mythology. It was tremendously popular in the sixteenth century, appearing in multiple editions across Europe. The Metamorphoses stories describe the creation of the world, disastrous love affairs between gods and mortals, and more. Each one features the transformation of a character from one kind of being to another.
The story of Deucalion and Pyrrha explains the origins of modern-day humans. According to Ovid, the gods sent a great flood to destroy the human race and other mortal creatures of the earth. A virtuous husband and wife, Deucalion and Pyrrha, were the lone survivors.
The narrative is compressed into one scene on the basin. In the background, Deucalion and Pyrrha kneel before a statue of the goddess Themis in a small temple. Distraught, they ask her for advice. Themis tells them to throw “the bones of their great mother” onto the ground behind them. Pyrrha is horrified, but Deucalion understands: their mother is the earth, and her bones are stones. In the foreground of the painting, they follow her instructions. The stones sprout limbs as they transform into human bodies.
The tale at the center of the basin gives new meaning to the adjacent paintings. The water deities refer to the devastating flood that Deucalion and Pyrrha barely survived, and the grotesque creatures seem to echo Ovid’s words: “When the earth [was] heated by the deep heaven-sent light of the sun, she produced innumerable species, partly remaking previous forms, partly creating new monsters.” Memorization was an important part of elite education in the sixteenth century, so a wealthy viewer would have likely been familiar with the Metamorphoses and able to recall the lines and enjoy the visual joke.
Such viewers could also spot other possible references among the grotesques. The peacocks are just one example. According to Ovid, Juno sent the hundred-eyed monster Argus to keep watch over the nymph Io, who was trapped in the form of a cow. The god Mercury slew Argus while rescuing Io. Juno then took Argus’s hundred eyes and placed them on the tail of the peacock, explaining the origin of the bird’s spectacular plumage.
The other birds on the basin could also refer to metamorphoses. The ashes of the ruined city Ardea turned into the heron, which appears at least twice. Ceyx and Alcyone turned into halcyons (kingfishers), one of which is depicted on the left side of the basin.
The underside of the basin features even more animals: six swans swim in pairs on top of blue water. Again, a viewer familiar with the Metamorphoses might have identified the swans as the six companions of Diomedes, who were transformed into swan-like birds after insulting the goddess Venus.
As a purely visual object, the basin is highly engaging. The profusion of creatures occupied in various activities is entertaining on its own. Whoever painted the basin took great care in articulating different species, both real and imagined. But the jokes, allusions, and metaphors would have added another level of delight for educated viewers. The basin expresses the pleasure that sixteenth-century Italians found in the marvels of nature and the power of artistic invention.