Raphael Santi - The Triumph of Galataea

by Alexandra Tuschka


Three angels in the sky aim with drawn bows at a beautiful woman in the middle of our work. Their arrows do not kill, instead they make the one they hit fall in love. She hurries out of the right part of the picture with her dolphin carriage. The dolphins look a little strained and their red robes flutter agitatedly in the wind. This scene is enlivened by other figures. Two groups of three are formed in a circle around the protagonist, including some mixed creatures. The horizon line is motionless and can be seen almost exactly on the central axis. As an admirer of antiquity, Raphael strove for harmony and balance, and despite the clear composition of the picture into four equal parts, is far from stiffening the scene by strict geometrical principles.

This work is a fresco, i.e. a wall painting delimited on all sides by a decorative frieze. Therefore, it can only be properly understood if one includes its surroundings. In this case, there is another fresco to the left of Galataea, which is indispensable for the interpretation of the scene. Here the cyclops Polyphemus can be seen. The tragic love story of the two comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses.


Galataea was a beautiful mountain nymph with whom the one-eyed giant Polyphemus fell in love. His courtship was somewhat clumsy and unfortunately futile; Galatæa spurned the giant and rejected him. The suitor in love now sought consolation in song and dance, which is why he is often seen, as here, with a shepherd's flute. When Galataea fell in love with the young and attractive Acis, the giant crushed him with a rock out of jealousy. Galataea turned the lover's blood into a river, which also got his name.

Here the cyclops Polyphemus, who has taken a seat on a stone and is looking over at the beautiful nymph Galataea, is on the left. The tragedy of his unrequited love is expressed by the loneliness of the situation and his longing gaze to the right. But she has no need for his proximity: fleeing across the sea saves the nymph from the giant's penetrating advances. This also explains the titular "triumph". Whereas Galataea's posture also evades the viewer's all-too-lascivious gaze, the sensual scene between Triton and a nymph in the foreground is more unambiguous.


While the fresco with Galataea was executed by Raphael, the counterpart was a creation of Sebastiano del Plombo, whose art-historical significance has only been reviewed in recent years. From an artistic point of view, we can easily argue that both works differ greatly in terms of colour application, execution and aesthetics. Even very specific points, such as the different horizon lines and the different sea colour, prevent the two works from making too unifying an impression. No wonder, then, that the Galataea is often considered on its own and regarded as a masterpiece, while the Polyphemus, entirely in keeping with its literary destiny, has received little attention. The twists within the bodies draw attention to Raphael's knowledge of anatomy and create richness of variation. The Italian also demonstrates humour, especially through the further angel, hidden in the clouds, waiting with arrow supplies. This one, like the angel in front who tries in vain to stop the chariot, has obviously been sent by the Cyclops.


Raphael came to Rome at the age of 26, where other great artists, including Michelangelo, had already made a name for themselves. This fresco was commissioned by the banker Agostino Chigi, one of the richest men of the time and a major player in the 16th century. His summer residence - now known as Villa Farnese - is furnished with all kinds of high quality art. These two works are in one of the two loggias, this one also called the "Loggia of Galataea". Another one shows Cupid and Psyche.


Raphael Santi - The Triumph of Galataea

Fresco, 1511, 295 × 225 cm, Villa Farnese, Rome


Sebastiano del Piombo - Polyphemus

Fresco, 1511, 295 × 225 cm, Villa Farnese, Rome