Domenichino and assistants, The Transformation of Cyparissus
Villa Aldobrandini Frescoes
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.
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 in the early years of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII. It was a place where the Cardinal could retire from the pressures of his political activities in Rome and devote himself to intellectual pursuits.
Keen both to associate himself with Italy’s ancient heritage and to outdo the fashionable classicising country retreats of his own day, Aldobrandini set about creating a great villa in the antique manner. With the aid of the architects Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno (chief architect of St Peters in Rome) and hydraulic expert Giovanni Fontana, he adopted a number of architectural forms from Roman villas and their gardens. Maderno and Fontanta supervised the construction of an elaborate series of fountains and waterworks which, inspired by the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, were hugely fashionable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.
The large pavilion was constructed immediately behind the palace like a magnificent stage setting, with fountains and statues. It was designed to glorify the triumph of the Catholic Church, and the role of the Aldobrandini family role in it, and to emphasise the superiority of the intellect over the emotions.
On the exterior was a fountain decorated with figures of Atlas with the globe of the world on his shoulders, and Hercules, reaching up towards the globe. These stood for Cardinal Aldobrandini himself (Hercules) acquiring divine wisdom, symbolised by the globe, or more prosaically taking the weight of political care off the shoulders of the Pope.
Inside, in the left wing, was a chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the Aldobrandini’s patron saint. In the right wing was the Stanza di Apollo, containing an elaborate musical fountain: a pool with a large stucco hill representing Mount Parnassus, on which were statues of the Greek sun god Apollo, the Muses and Pegasus. Behind it was a hydraulic organ which made the statues of the Muses appear to play the instruments they held. Other devices made bird calls, and sounds of thunder, wind and rain. The ceiling was painted to look like an aviary with birds perched on trellis entwined with greenery; the floors and walls were sumptuously decorated with multi-coloured mosaics and stuccoes.
It was in this room that Domenichino’s frescoes once hung. There were ten in all – two of them remain in situ – and they adorned the walls along the sides and above the entrance of the Stanza. The Flaying of Marsyas was above the door. On the left wall, from left to right, were Apollo Slaying Python (still in situ), Apollo killing the Cyclops, The Judgement of Midas, Apollo pursuing Daphne and The Transformation of Cyparissus. On the right wall were Apollo with the Head of Orpheus (in situ); Apollo and Neptune advising Laomedon on the Building of Troy; Mercury stealing the Herds of Admetus guarded by Apollo and Apollo slaying Coronis.
The iconographical scheme, inspired by themes taken from the Greek myths, was probably conceived by Giovanni Battista Agucchi, private secretary to Pietro Aldobrandini and a close friend of Domenichino. Domenichino himself seems to have been responsible for the overall design and there are many surviving preparatory sketches by him for the frescoes. By the time they were painted, between 1616 and 1618, Domenichino was busy with other projects and much of the work was done by assistants.