The nine Muses were originally seen as the divine inspiration for poetry, song and dance, but gradually became the emblems for all the liberal arts. With Apollo (represented as the sun) they also symbolised the ‘harmony of the spheres’. Here Tintoretto’s sweeping strokes have created powerfully articulated nudes who fly and turn with extraordinary freedom.
This painting and another by Tintoretto, Esther before Ahasuerus, also in the Royal Collection are of a similar size and, by 1627, were hanging together in the same passage in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua. Although there is no record of the commissions, we know that Guglielmo Gonzaga, the 3rd Duke of Mantua, purchased other paintings directly from Tintoretto and visited the artist in Venice. The subject of the Muses is clearly appropriate for a court with a strong tradition of music and for a Duke with a personal interest in liturgical music. The painting is generally dated to the period when Tintoretto was producing a large number of paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and for the Doge’s Palace, as well as other private commissions. The word IN in the inscription has been thought to be an abbreviation of ‘invenit’ (meaning ‘invented’ by the artist, as opposed to the more usually ‘fecit’, ‘made’). This may imply that Tintoretto designed but did not execute the painting, as in the similar inscription on the Raising of Lazarus (St Catherine’s Church, Lübeck).
There are several versions and adaptations of this composition: in Indianapolis Museum of Art, Clowes collection, possibly by Domenico Tintoretto, and a fragment in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, including the lower left seated figure only. A variant showing Apollo, the Muses and Three Graces in Dresden was destroyed in the Second World War. The quality of the Royal Collection picture suggests that it is the prime version, as do its many pentiments.
The Muses were the nine daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne (Memory) and companions of Apollo (here represented as the sun rather than a bodily presence). Like Apollo, they were regarded as incorporating supreme outward beauty and intellectual grace. They were originally seen as the divine inspiration for poetry, song and dance, but gradually became the emblems of all the liberal arts. Hesiod and the literature of the later Roman Empire gave each muse a specific literary form and musical instrument, but the associations were always flexible. By the sixteenth century Apollo and the Muses had become associated with the idea of the harmony of the spheres, with Apollo as the Sun. It is not surprising, given this range of associations, that the individual Muses are hard to identify here. Calliope, representing epic poetry, is their chief and plays a stringed instrument; she may therefore be the Muse in the central position, playing the harpsichord or clavicembalo. Clio, the Muse of history, holds a book and may be the figure below Apollo in the painting. Urania, associated with astronomy, is here given a globe and tablet, but her compasses are held by the muse reclining at the lower edge of the painting. Among the sources that Tintoretto must have consulted is the manual of mythology by Vincenzo Cartari, Le imagini con la spositione de i dei de gli antichi, published in Venice in 1556 and enlarged and reprinted in subsequent years. This source does not distinguish the Muses but does include the detail of the garlands of flowers, laurel and palm leaves.
The range of musical instruments normally associated with the muses is here reduced to the harpsichord, bass viol, lute and lira da braccio, all attentively depicted by Tintoretto, who was himself an accomplished musician. The harpsichord can be compared to contemporary instruments made by Giovanni Baffo in Venice, but its long end, which is clear in the Indianopolis copy, is omitted. The near Muse on the right tunes and plays her lira da braccio at the same time: Tintoretto’s priority would seem to have been the dynamic of the turning figure rather than the accuracy in recording a performance.
The large, strongly modelled figures, boldly executed with sweeping strokes, strongly lit from the right, and freed from a landscape setting, weave a coherent design of dynamic diagonal lines across the picture plane and into the picture space. The execution and composition has been likened to the four large Allegories of 1577-8 painted for an ante-room in the Palazzo Ducale, the Atrio Quadrato, for which Tintoretto was paid in 1577-8.
Borghini records that even in his sixties, Tintoretto continued to collect and study models of famous statues, such as those by Giambologna (1529-1608), and never tired of copying them. The effect of such studies has been traced in paintings dating from the 1570s, including The Muses. The pose of the back view of the Muse on the right has been related to the so-called Groticella Venus of c.1570 (Boboli Grotto, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), but is closer to the smaller bronzes such as Venus Drying Herself of c.1565 or Astrology of c.1575 (both Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The pose is never exact, and the similarity lies in Tintoretto’s interest in Giambologna’s type of slender, elegant women in contraposto poses. It has been suggested that the Muse flying in from the left derives from a Giambologna model of Lichas from Hercules and Lichas (one version now in the Art Institute of Chicago). According to Carlo Ridolfi, Tintoretto made models out of wax or clay, dressed them in cloth, studied the folds of the cloth on the limbs, and placed them in wood and cardboard constructions resembling miniature houses with small lamps alongside to introduce the effects of light and shade. Models were hung from roof beams so that they could be studied when seen from below. Such procedures enabled Tintoretto to create these powerfully articulated, flying nudes with such extraordinary freedom.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
Recorded in the Mantuan inventory, 1627; acquired by Charles I; valued at £80 by the Trustees for Sale and sold to Widmore, 28 May 1650; recovered at the Restoration