The myth of Phaëthon : political and personal imagery

The purpose of this study is to demonstrate the survival and celebration of the classical myth of Phaëthon in the visual arts of sixteenth-century Italy, with particular attention to the meaning and function of this myth for patron and artist. The earliest reference to the myth dates back to the Greeks. However, the account given by the Augustan poet Ovid, in his second book of the Metamorphoses, was the most influential in the sixteenth century. The literary and visual traditions which accompanied the myth of Phaëthon from antiquity through the late Middle Ages will serve as historical background to the appearance of Phaëthon in the sixteenth century. It will be argued that the employment of the classical myth of Phaëthon in the sixteenth century was determined by political and religious exigencies, as well as the iconographic interests and needs of the patron and artist. It will further be suggested that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the formal decorative possibilities of the subject matter served to carry on the tradition of Phaëthon’s artistic life. In the broader context of the tradition and transmission of antiquity, the celebration of the myth of Phaëthon in the Cinquecento offers support to the survival of classical mythological figures, and attests to the influence of Ovid on sixteenth-century Italian art.