When Alfonso d’Este, the Duke to Ferrara and his wife Lucrezia Borgia, asked for a painting expressing worldly delights, drinking, and sensuality, Giovanni Bellini complied. Now ending a successful career as a painter of Madonnas, saints, popes, here he is implausibly, at eighty-three, painting a version of one of Ovid’s many Priapic jokes. Ovid’s The Feast of the Gods [Il festino degli dei] (1514) is a lewd story of how Priapus tried but failed to rape a sleeping nymph, who awakened when Silenus’ donkey brayed. In his painting, Bellini smoothed out Ovid’s lechery and “amorous fires,” so that much of the ribaldry is subtle and requires careful searching. And whether or not Ovid would have enjoyed Bellini’s restraint seems doubtful.

Ovid liked the story of Priapus and the donkey well enough to tell it twice, once in Fasti, a monthly Roman calendar annotated with stories of gods, goddesses, and other deities and again in Metamorphosis. His details vary, and the guest list changes, but the story and punch line in Fasti 1 (January) and Fasti 6 (June) are always the same: Priapus is foiled when the donkey brays. In Metamorphosis, however, the emphasis shifts to Lotis, the nymph, who while frantically seeking to escape Priapus is transformed into the flower that bears her name.

Bellini borrowed freely from Ovid and perhaps Giovanni di Bonsignore’s contemporary illustrated translation of Metamorphosis [Ovidio Metamorphoses Volgare (1497). Bonsignore’s woodcuts are crude and emphasize debauchery. To the left, are unidentified guests, particularly a man lifting a woman’s dress to reveal her pubic hair. In the center, Selinus’ donkey, tethered to a tree, has already brayed and stands contrite. Lotis, however, is in full flight chased by Priapis, who has an obvious erection under his jerkin.

Unknown illustrator. “Priapus and Lotos.” In Ovid. Metamorphosis [Ovidio Metamorphoseos Volgare. Translated by Giovanni di Bonsignore. Venice: 1497/1501. The scene is lewd as Ovid probably intended it.

Unknown illustrator. “Priapus and Lotos.” In Ovid. Metamorphosis [Ovidio Metamorphoseos Volgare. Translated by Giovanni di Bonsignore. Venice: 1497/1501. The scene is lewd as Ovid probably intended it.

Bellini’s scene is static, his preferred structural element. So the moment that he chooses, is not the moment of heady drunken action, but the moment just before Priapus lifts the nymph’s dress and the donkey’s “raucous braying” jolts them all from their drowsy reverie. Ha! Ha! Bellini’s timing is the perfect moment just before the tumult destroys repose. Whether Ovid would have enjoyed Bellini’s restraint is pondering. 

Featured Image: Giovanni Bellini. The Feast of the Gods (1514/29), oil on canvas. Widener Collection. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Dosso Dossi (1516) and Titian (15290) amended Bellini’s version by adding symbolic details identifying the guests.

See: Ovid. Fasti. Translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge, MA & London: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press and William Heinemann Ltd., 1931:; Thomas J. Sienkewicz. Classical Gods and Heroes in the National Gallery of Art by (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983); David O. Franz.. Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989); Adrienne von Lates. “Caravaggio’s Peaches and Academic Puns.” Word and Image 11, 1 (1995); Carolin A. Young. Golden Apples in Settings of Silver (New York, 2003.); Rona Goffen, Giovanni Bellini. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. identifies the following as guests at this feast:

Silenus, a woodland god attended by his donkey
Bacchus, the infant god of wine crowned with grape leaves
Silvanus, an old forest god wearing a wreath of pine needles
Mercury, the messenger of the gods carrying his caduceus or herald’s staff
Jupiter, the king of the gods accompanied by an eagle
Persephone, holding a quince, a fruit associated in the ancient world with marriage
Pan, a satyr with a grape wreath who blows on his shepherd’s pipes
Neptune, the god of the sea sitting beside his trident harpoon
Ceres, the goddess of cereal grains with a wreath of wheat
Apollo, god of the sun and the arts, crowned by laurel and holding a Renaissance stringed musical instrument, the lira da braccio, in lieu of a classical lyre
Priapus, the god of virility and of vineyards with a scythe, used to prune orchards, hanging from the tree above him
Lotis, one of the naiads, a nymph of fresh waters who represents chastity.