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Mercury stealing the Herds of Admetus
Domenichino and assistants
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A young man, naked but for a red cloak and an animal skin, is seated on a rock in the foreground, playing a pipe. This is Apollo, Greek god of the sun and of music and art, dressed as a shepherd. As a punishment for killing the Cyclops, Jupiter sent him to be herdsman to Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. Apollo, distracted from his duties by his music, failed to notice Mercury stealing the king’s cattle, shown in the background.

This is one of ten frescoes by Domenichino and assistants which once decorated a magnificent garden pavilion at the Villa Aldobrandini, in Frascati near Rome. Although Domenichino designed the overall programme, much of the actual painting was left to assistants, especially on the right-hand side of the room, since by the time work got this far he was busy with other projects.

This fresco’s poor condition makes it impossible to distinguish individual hands, but its composition is constructed in a very different way to the other paintings in the series. Unusually there are no surviving preparatory drawings for this painting, but that may be purely an accident of survival.

Key facts
Artist Domenichino and assistants
Artist dates 1581 - 1641
Full title Mercury stealing the Herds of Admetus guarded by Apollo
Group Villa Aldobrandini Frescoes
Date made 1616-18
Medium and support Fresco, transferred to canvas and mounted on board
Dimensions 261.6 x 201.9 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1958
Inventory number NG6291
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Villa Aldobrandini Frescoes

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These large frescoes (now transferred to canvas) once decorated the walls of a spectacular pavilion in one of the great Italian Baroque gardens.

The Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati was rebuilt by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII, in the early years of the seventeenth century. Immediately behind the palace, he built a large classical pavilion and decorated it with fountains, statues and paintings. Domenichino’s frescoes – two of which remain in situ – were arranged around a room called the Stanza di Apollo, which also contained a musical fountain representing Mount Parnassus, the mythical home of the Greek sun god Apollo and the Muses. Based on themes drawn from the Greek myths, the iconographical programme glorified the triumph of the Catholic Church, and the role of the Aldobrandini family in it, emphasising the superiority of the intellect over the emotions.

Although Domenichino designed the pictures, much of the actual painting was done by assistants.

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