This tiny picture has grand themes: the rivalry of the gods and the power and danger of love. Its story comes from the Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid. Cupid, taking revenge on Apollo for his teasing, struck the god with a golden arrow of love, igniting a fierce desire for Daphne – but struck Daphne with an arrow which caused her to reject him. She fled from him until her father Peneus, the river god, helped her to escape Apollo’s embrace: he transformed her into a laurel tree.
The painting was once thought to be part of a piece of decorated furniture, but it was probably made as an independent painting. The delicacy of the minute details, like the flowers scattered across the hillside and the reflection of the trees in the river, along with the subtle painting of the distant, hazy mountains, suggest it was meant to be admired close up.
This tiny picture combines the beauty of nature and of man – quite literally in the case of Daphne, who is shown being transformed into a leafy laurel tree. It has grand themes: the rivalry of the gods, the power and danger of desire and the tragedy of unrequited love.
The story comes from the Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid, a rich source of myths based around the subject of transformation, and hugely popular with Renaissance artists and patrons. Cupid, taking revenge on Apollo for his teasing, struck the god with a golden arrow, igniting a fierce desire for Daphne. He struck Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow which made Apollo disgusting to her, despite his fame as the attractive young god of the sun. When he began to pursue her she fled across the hillside; pitying her, Peneus, her father and a river god, helped her to escape Apollo’s embrace by transforming her into a laurel tree.
Apollo’s speedy pursuit is brought to an abrupt halt as Daphne’s left leg becomes rooted to the ground – it is now a trunk, supporting the weight of the lush branches that have replaced her arms. He embraces her tightly around the waist, catching a last glimpse of her before he has even been able to stop running – his right leg and white drapery trail behind him. Daphne too has been frozen mid-stride. The slit in her dress reveals her shapely leg, suggestively intertwined, if only briefly, with his.
Ovid recounts how Apollo, somewhat pathetically, vowed to love her, even as a tree: ‘My hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always be entwined with thee, O laurel.’ Daphne is the ultimate example of unattainable love, celebrated in poetry by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. His sonnets praising his beloved Laura, whose name is derived from laurel, were hugely popular among the Florentine elite. His love for Laura, who remained forever beyond his reach, became the ideal form of love in courtly circles, allowing young men to nobly strive for an ideal beauty beyond their reach. Apollo here is cast as the aristocratic youth in his elegant hunting outfit, woven with gold thread and encrusted with jewels. His quiver (the case for his arrows) hangs at his left side. Daphne is the ideal Petrarchan Renaissance beauty: fair-skinned, blonde and seemingly modest.
Pollaiuolo has set the myth in the Florentine countryside: in the background is the valley of the river Arno that runs through Florence – the distant city must be Florence itself. Miniature details, such as the hunt taking place just in front of the river, reflect courtly pastimes that would have appealed to the patrons but also echoed the story itself.
Once thought to be a side panel from a Renaissance cassone, the picture was probably made as an independent painting. The delicacy of the minute details, like the flowers scattered across the hillside and the reflection of the trees in the river, along with the subtle painting of the distant, hazy mountain range suggest it was made to be admired close up by an educated patron. A precious object, it may have been protected in a velvet bag between viewings. It might have been made for Lorenzo de' Medici, who adopted the laurel as part of his personal emblem and who associated himself with the fiery god Apollo.
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