ALTHAEA AND MELEAGER
An Ovidian Reading of Dosso Dossi’s “Melissa” (ca. 1531, Galleria Borghese)
Ross Kilpatrick (Queen’s University, Kingston)
The canon of Ferrarese painter Dosso Dossi (1479-1542) was celebrated in the 1998-1999 exhibition mounted in Ferrara, Los Angeles, and New York, and catalogued by Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco, in Dosso Dossi. Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1999. The subjects of Dosso’s mythological paintings tend to be obscure, and the Borghese Gallery’s so-called “Melissa” (or “Circe”) is a case in point. The central figure is clearly an enchantress, but who? Circe of the Odyssey and Melissa of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso have been proposed, but with obvious irrelevancies of detail. Peter Humfrey writes (116): “It would be safest to call the figure an “anonymous enchantress, inspired by the fabulous world conjured up by Ariosto but ultimately emanating from Dosso’s own, scarcely less poetic imagination.”
An answer to Dosso’s riddle is suggested by Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8. 271-546, the tale of Meleager, Althaea and the Calydonian boar. Meleager leads his band of heroes in the hunt, then offers the head and hide to Atalanta. His uncles Toxeus and Plexippus object, so he kills them. While celebrating her son’s success, Althaea learns of the deaths of her two brothers, then in grief and rage changes her robes from gold to dark. Like Antigone, Althaea agonizes over conflicting obligations. She takes from a cupboard the magic rod shown to her by the Fates when Meleager was born, and thrusts it into coals. Meleager dies as it is consumed.
Dosso depicts grief-stricken Althaea seated within a magic circle. She holds the burning rod in a brazier with her left hand, and tablets of spells in her right. She wears a blue, gold-trimmed robe, with another of gold brocade on her lap. Hanging hex-dolls represent the manes of her dead brothers. The three men in the background would be doomed Meleager armed from his hunt (see Battista Dossi’s painting of the hunt in the El Paso Museum of Art) with two comrades. Hills, woods, stream and town fit Ovid’s Calydon; the empty breastplate is a proleptic memorial of Meleager; two birds, sisters of Meleager, transformed in their grief by Diana. X-radiography of the painting reveals under the breastplate a painted-over pentimento of a man in a breastplate gazing at Althaea and leaning on his spear in the pose typical of ancient representations of the victorious Meleager.
Analogues to Dosso’s Althaea picture may be found in earlier drawings by Filippino Lippi and later engravings by Crispijn de Passe and J. W. Bauer.
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