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Work Satirical Allegory: Mercury Purged

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Allégorie satyrique : Mercure purgé

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo S. Nagy

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Author(s):
Bartolucci Sara

This amusing, fantastical composition comes down to us via a succession of illustrious collectors. One of the most beautiful and mysterious Italian drawings in the Louvre's collection, it is clearly influenced by the theater of its day. The work provides an extraordinary insight into the Renaissance endeavor to appropriate the spirit of antique, classical art and translate it into modern forms.

A comic scene

The celebrated French collector Mariette described this remarkable drawing as a "pasquinade [or satire] taking place in a large public square in an Italian town...". The drawing was also owned for a time by Crozat, and was originally included in Vasari's well-known Libro de' Disegni (Book of Drawings). It is described in Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1568). The purging of Mercury is shown taking place in the center of a large city square. The classical god is surrounded by a crowd of masked men, some naked and some highly caricaturized. A small group stands slightly apart, to the left. Nearby, a boy plays with a whistle and a little dog. To the right, the scene is completed by a woman in profile, walking away. Some of the buildings enclosing the square are easily identifiable Greek and Roman landmarks: from left to right, the Arch of Constantine, the Coliseum, Nero's colossal figure of Neptune, the Tower of the Winds, Trajan's Column, two obelisks, a theater, Bramante's "Tempietto", and a temple dedicated to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth.

An idealized city

Peruzzi was a multi-talented artist with a highly inquiring mind. During his long career, he was a painter, draughtsman, stage designer and architect. These diverse interests are apparent in this work, which is closely similar to a preparatory study for stage scenery designed by Peruzzi for the theater in Siena. The architecture appears as a veritable protagonist in the scene: existing Roman monuments are depicted alongside imaginative reconstructions of buildings long since disappeared. The result is an idealized, conceptual city. Peruzzi and his Renaissance contemporaries were active proponents of the rediscovery of classical art, texts and archaeological remains.

A satire directed at alchemists or artists?

Various interpretations of the drawing's subject-matter have been put forward, but the scene's exact meaning remains a mystery. Vasari saw it as a satire directed against alchemists. More recently, a literary source has been identified: a text entitled ''Pirotecnia'' by Peruzzi's friend Vannuccio Biringucci. Mercury, the god of cunning tricks and deception, bears the same name as the metal from which alchemists tried to extract gold. The picture's symbolism takes on added significance when we consider that Mercury is also the traditional protector of the arts. In this context we see that the group to the left represents artists judged to be ''pure in spirit'' (Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo and Giovanni da Udine), while those on the right are greedy for worldly fame and wealth (Bramante and Giuliano da Sangallo). The drawing would appear to be a satire on the folly of ''commercial'' artists who aspire to riches rather than sublime artistry. Whatever its precise meaning, the picture is the perfect expression of the free, inquiring spirit of a truly ''Renaissance man'': Peruzzi the architect, stage designer, draughtsman and scholar.

Bibliography

Frommel Christoph Luitpold, notice 125, in Baldassarre Peruzzi als Maler und Zeichner, A. Schroll cop., Wien-München, 1967-1968, pp. 155-158.
Vasari Giorgio, notice 120, in Les Vies des meilleures peintres, sculpteurs et architectes, 12, in Vasari illustré : du texte à l'image, édition commentée par André Chastel, Christiane Lorgues-Lapouge et Catherine Monbeig-Goguel, Paris, édition Berger-Levrault, 1969, p. 228.
Ragghianti Collobi Licia, Il libro de' disegni del Vasari, Firenze, 1974.
Notice 52, in Italian Renaissance drawings from the Musée du Louvre, New-York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974-1975.
Prevpyer P., notice 68, in Représentation de l'architecture sacrée. Le temple, Nice, Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, 1982, p. 89.
Bacou Roseline, notice 20, in Autour de Raphaël, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des Musées nationaux, 1983.
Reifenscheid Beate, notice 65, in Zeichnungen aus der Toskana, das Zeitalter Michelangelos, München-New York, édition Prestel, 1997, p. 200.

Technical description

  • Baldassarre Tommasso PERUZZI (Siena, 1481 - Rome, 1536)

    Satirical Allegory: Mercury Purged

    1530-32

  • Pen, brown ink, brown wash

    H. 33.2 cm; W. 5.15 cm.

  • Giorgio Vasari; Pierre Crozat collection; Pierre-Jean Mariette collection; sold, Paris, 1775, lot 584; acquired for the Royal Collection.

    INV1419

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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