Atalanta and Hippomenes, a manifesto of beauty by Guido Reni

Guido Reni's Atalanta e Ippomene (Bologna, 1575 - 1642) is one of the great Bolognese painter's most famous paintings: a manifesto of his ideal beauty and a painting that condenses hints of Christian humanism according to a reading by Marc Fumaroli, it is preserved in Naples at the Museo di Capodimonte.

A great expert on things Emilian of the seventeenth century which was, nomen omen, the great Andrea Emiliani, wrote that one has long misunderstood the so-called “taste of the Bolognese,” one has considered it harmony that almost exceeded academicism, to the point of “almost feminizing Bolognese art.” In fact, “this harmony,” Emiliani wrote, “coexists indeed with a prevalent expressive naturalism, with a style, in short, that possesses a direct access to realities and its themes.” One would not otherwise explain the revolution triggered by the Carracci. But recourse to nature had to find its own form of application: Guido Reni had experimented with it at first with a painting that washed all forms of impurity from nature. Thus was born, out of comparison with Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of St. Peter now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. That painting, a hapax in the young Bolognese’s journey, however, also marked the start of another itinerary, the beginning of a path where “the declared, irreplaceable goal of virtuous beauty” was preparing to enter, bursting forth. It was as if the artist’s idea had to intervene to purify nature. Thus, Guido Reni’s hand was already and definitely moved toward beauty.

The Bolognese painter would reveal this instinct later, in the 1930s, in a letter sent while he was painting his St. Michael the Archangel to Monsignor Massani, Urbano VIII’s house master, and made famous by Giovan Pietro Bellori: “I wish I had had angelic brush, or forms of Paradise to form the Archangel, or see him in Heaven: but I could not climb so high, and in vain have sought him on earth. So that I regarded in that form which in the idea I have established myself.” Alois Riegl said that Guido Reni sought first and foremost the beauty of the human body, moving away, however, from Correggio’s sensuality, and finding, if anything, a reference in Raphael’s divine grace, within the framework of compositions that were always wisely measured. Natural, then, that Guido Reni would confront himself with antiquity, studied in all its forms and expressions in order to capture, among other aspects, that essentiality that often became the mainstay of his innovations. We see this, for example, inAtalanta e Ippomene, a painting that follows the score and rhythm of a Greek vase.

Guido Reni, Atalanta e Ippomene (1615-1618 circa; olio su tela, 192 x 264 cm; Napoli, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte)
Guido Reni, Atalanta e Ippomene (c. 1615-1618; oil on canvas, 192 x 264 cm; Naples, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte)

This is a work known in two versions, one preserved at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. It is difficult to establish with certainty which of the two is the older: the most recent orientations of critics, after the exhibition on the Bolognese held at the Galleria Borghese in Rome in early 2022, tend to assign primacy to the Neapolitan canvas, for reasons of greater closeness to the works of the Roman period of the 1910s, evident especially in the greater attention given to chiaroscuro. Guido Reni draws the myth from Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Atalanta is a beautiful virgin hunter to whom an oracle foretold an unhappy life should she marry. The young woman, therefore, in order not to incur the danger, begins to challenge her suitors in running contests, an activity in which she is unrivaled. If the suitor wins, he can marry her. Conversely, he is killed. Needless to say, what is the fate of all the unfortunates who dare to compete with her. One of them, the most enamored, however, manages to find the stratagem to beat her. His name is Hippomenes, like Atalanta he is from Boeotia, and he is determined to win and marry the young woman. And so he decides to stake everything on Atalanta’s vanity: during the race, he throws at her some golden apples picked in the garden of the Hesperides, knowing that they would be irresistible to her, and that she would stoop to pick them up. So it is: Hippomenes succeeds in beating Atalanta, and the two can marry.

This is the climax of the narrative, the one Guido Reni decides to paint in this painting whose recipient we do not know. Hippomenes has already thrown the golden apples. He overtakes Atalanta who has allowed herself to be distracted, he turns to look at her, his stride is that of someone who does not want to yield a single palm to his opponent. She has punctually stopped: she already has one of Hippomenes’ apples in her left hand, the other is on the ground and she has just bent down to pick it up. The movements are ample and theatrical, accompanied by that fluttering of draperies swollen to the limit, stiff and crumpled, sharp as blades, light as the wind that moves them and leads them to describe seductive volutes. It is that fluttering of veils that most immediately suggests to us the idea of the race: if they were not there, everything would appear more restrained, the two young men would seem frozen, stationary in this metaphysical atmosphere of diaphanous tones, in this rarefied air, highlighted by a light that strikes only them, transforming them almost into two marble sculptures, and leaves the whole seascape behind them in darkness.

The idea of beauty is made flesh in the nude and formally perfect bodies of the two young men: it is from these bodies and their moves that Guido Reni’s interest in the antique is grasped, which is not a form of nostalgic archaeology, but a source of inspiration for inventing formal solutions. Here, for example, the run becomes almost a measured dance, built along directrices that follow a geometric pattern of crisscrossing diagonals.

A scheme functional to strip Ovid’s myth, to reduce it to its essentials, but perhaps also to introduce elements to make its allegorical bearing more manifest. Marc Fumaroli, in his exemplary exegesis of this painting published in the collection The School of Silence, could not help but notice how Atalanta stands almost entirely below the horizon line, which divides the landscape from the sky at twilight (although Ovid did not provide temporal coordinates to fix the story at a precise time of day), while on the contrary, “with a powerful effect of dissymmetry,” Hippomenes stands with the noblest part of his body, that is, with his torso and head, above the line that divides the earth from the sky, and is thus in the celestial area. The hero of Greek mythology, in a transposition of meaning frequent in seventeenth-century art, is found to be the personification of the soul of the Christian who turns away passions from himself. Even with the gesture of the right hand, which is not to be understood as the last sequence of the throw. They are too close to imagine Hippomenes leading the race, a circumstance that, moreover, would contradict Ovid’s account: here, if anything, the boy is caught as he overtakes Atalanta, as we read in the Metamorphoses. That gesture, according to Fumaroli, is to be read as a gesture of rejection of those passions represented by the apples, a gesture that “digs a moral abyss.” That is whyAtalanta and Hippomenes is, for Fumaroli, “meditation painting.”

We can then read Fumaroli’s interpretation within the framework of what Giambattista Marino, a friend of Guido Reni, would have written in his Adonis: “Per l’arringo mortal, nova Atalanta / l’anima peregrina, e semplicetta, / corre veloce, e con spedita pianta / del gran viaggio al termine s’affretta. / But often the course of its course boasts itself / the adulator sense, which allures it to itself / with the pleasant and playful object / of this apple of gold, which name has world.” These are rhymes that could not fail to take into account the free translation into octaves of the Metamorphoses that Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara published in the second half of the sixteenth century, and where for Atalanta marriage becomes “holy”: the aim is thus that of the salvation of the soul. Collecting the golden apples is thus tantamount to being tempted by the senses. And Guido Reni’sAtalanta e Ippomene can thus be read as a painting that develops cues typical of Christian humanism. Without disregarding that need for ideal beauty that would always animate his painting, and which is perhaps the main reason why today we let ourselves be seduced, we do, by Guido Reni’s paintings.

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