Giovanni Bellini was eighty-five(?) and in failing health, when Alfonso d’Este his wife Lucrezia Borgia, commissioned a scene intended for their Alabaster Chamber, Camerino d’alabastro. They requested, too, that the subject must be delightfully worldly and sensual.
Bellini complied with The Feast of the Gods [Il festino degli dei] (1514) based on Ovid’s joke (if you can call it that) of how Priapus tried but failed to rape a sleeping nymph, who awakened when Silenus’ donkey brayed. It’s out of Bellini’s character, but d’Este’s offer seems to have been too good to refuse. Who knows but beneath Bellini’s evident preference for religious subjects lurked a man who enjoyed “Priapic humor.” In any event, Bellini smoothed out the lechery and smothered what Ovid called “amorous fires.”
Ovid liked the story of Priapus. He tells it three times; twice in Fasti, a monthly Roman calendar annotated with tales of gods, goddesses, and other deities; and in Metamorphosis where Ovid’s details vary, but the story and punch line are always the same. In Fasti 1 (January), the party is hosted by Bacchus; in Fasti 6 (June), it’s hosted by Cybele. In Metamorphosis, the nymph Lotis runs frantically, seeking to escape while being transformed into the flower that bears her name.
Bellini borrowed freely from Giovanni di Bonsignori’s contemporary translation Metamorphosis [Ovidio Metamorphoseos Volgare (1497)], which included an illustration of Lotis transformed while at a small party in a pastoral setting. The scene depicts the usual cast of characters, and except for Priapus and Lotis, each guest’s identity is unclear. Emphasis is on debauchery: on the right, Priapus, with an evident erection under his jerkin, runs after Lotis, who seems transforming into a tree branch, not a flower. On the left, the guest lifts a woman’s dress revealing her pubic hair. In the center, Selinus’ donkey stands tethered to a tree.
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 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.