In Roman mythology, the princess Europa was abducted from the coast of Tyre by the god Jupiter, who had transformed himself into a bull. We see her mounting the beast in the foreground and being carried away towards the sea at the lower left. Baby cupids throw fruit from the trees while the amorous bull impatiently licks Europa’s foot.
This picture may be a small version, known as a modello, for a full-sized final painting. It was possibly made before Veronese’s very large canvas of The Rape of Europa now in the Doge’s Palace, Venice.
For most of the twentieth century this picture was not believed to be by Veronese himself, probably because it was obscured by two extremely thick layers of dark varnish. However, when the painting was cleaned in 1999, its technique, materials and colours were found to be typical of Veronese.
The story of the Rape of Europa is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Mercury is ordered by his father, Jupiter, to drive a herd of cattle belonging to King Agenor from their pastures on the mountainside to the seashore of Tyre, where the King’s daughter Europa plays with her companions.
Once this task is complete, Jupiter transforms himself into a young bull, white as snow, with rich folds of skin, shining horns and beguiling eyes. He catches the princess’s attention. At first she is too timid to touch him, so offers him flowers. He kisses her hands, frolics and lies down. She strokes him, hangs garlands on his horns and then mounts his back. He carries her to the edge of the sea and then swims away with her to Crete.
Veronese shows Europa being helped to sit side-saddle on the bull’s back by her ladies. Winged amorini (infant cupids) throw fruit from the trees to the ladies below and Cupid takes the bull by its horn. Europa is partially undressed – her breast is exposed and her yellow mantle lies on the ground – while the bull impatiently licks her toes.
The image is humorous but also unsettling, especially in the bewildered, slightly tearful expression on Europa’s face. Veronese emphasises the initial seduction of the princess rather than her later terror and panic, which was depicted by Titian in his great painting The Rape of Europa, made in 1562 for King Philip II of Spain (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). Veronese shows the next part of the story in the middle-distance to the left, where the bull carries the princess out to sea, accompanied by Cupid. In the extreme distance, you can just make out the bull wading with Europa to the far-off island of Crete.
We know that for his earliest commissions, Veronese usually first made a small version, known as a modello, in oil paint before starting the full-sized final painting. While this picture was painted later in his career, it could be such a model, as it is smaller than one would expect for a painting made for a gallery. Veronese painted several pictures of the Rape of Europa, but none of them follow this one exactly. One possibility is that was a rehearsal for the contemporary, very large canvas of The Rape of Europa for Veronese’s powerful Venetian patron, Jacopo Contarini (Doge’s Palace, Venice). Alternatively, it could have been made to decorate a piece of furniture, though its proportions are unusual for pictures made for such a purpose. Perhaps it is just a small cabinet picture made for personal enjoyment.
For most of the twentieth century it was not believed to be by Veronese himself, probably because it was obscured by two extremely thick layers of dark varnish. However, when the painting was cleaned in 1999, its technique, materials and colours – all extremely well preserved – were found to be typical of Veronese.
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