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    Sale 12109

    Old Masters

    26 October 2016, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 82

    Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, called il Grechetto (Genoa 1609-1664 Mantua)



    Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, called il Grechetto (Genoa 1609-1664 Mantua)
    signed and dated 'G.Benedetto / Castiglione 1653' (upper right, on the architectural detail)
    oil on canvas
    85 1/8 x 95 ¾ in. (216.2 x 243.1 cm.)

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    In the Odyssey (Book X), Homer recounts how Ulysses and his companions came to the island retreat of the cruel sorceress Circe, a goddess of magic, on their journey home from the Trojan War. It was Circe’s way with travelers to feast them on viands containing a magic potion that transformed them into swine. Forewarned by Mercury, Ulysses ate an herbal antidote that protected him against the fate that would befall his comrades. At sword-point, the Greek hero forced Circe to restore the pig-men to their former state. In later Latin literature, notably Virgil’s Aeneid, Circe’s victims take the forms of many beasts besides the swine of earlier legend; indeed, Virgil describes the haunting cries of her many victims: ‘The roars of lions that refuse the chain/ The grunts of bristled boars, and the groans of bears/ And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors ears’.

    Celebrated throughout Europe as a great painter with an unrivalled gift for portraying animals, Castiglione often turned to the subject of Circe, which afforded him an opportunity to depict an almost endless variety of animals, both wild and domesticated. He was fascinated by magic and witchcraft, and themes of magical transformations were always close to his heart. Indeed, Circe was a generally popular subject in the 1650s, when Castiglione painted the present work, perhaps because of the continued fame of G.B. Gelli’s essay Circe (1549), which still stands as a compendium of Ancient and Renaissance notions on the nature of animals, humanity and the soul, as Timothy J. Standring has observed.

    Although he revisited the subject of Circe often, Castiglione created entirely new compositions each time he did. The present canvas, one of his largest and most poetic depictions of the ancient tale, is signed and dated 1653 and was painted in Genoa during a four-year long return (1651-1655) to his native city following an extended stay in Rome. In it, the sorceress reflects contentedly on what she has wrought just moments after her heartless act of transmutation, perched above a virtual barnyard of animals – rabbits, turkeys, ducks, roosters, parrots, monkeys, deer, even a yowling cat and perplexed looking hound – that an instant before had been men.

    Lying in a pile beside the animals are the helmets and armor that they had once worn when they were Ulysses’ proud warriors. The excitement of metamorphosis conveyed in a work such as this accompanied a dark philosophical outlook on the existence of life and the transience of earthly endeavors and worldly glory. Castiglione’s own tortured and troubled personality, marked by reckless and impulsive behavior, frequently landed him in court and occasionally forced him into exile to avoid imprisonment.

    The present painting is most similar in composition – yet with extensive differences and variations – to the large canvas (182 x 214 cm.) in the Uffizi. Two other depictions of Circe are also of the highest quality and date from the same period in the mid-1650s: one, from the collection of Marchesi Spinola and now owned by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (97 x 146 cm.), is also dated 1653; the other, depicting the very instant when Ulysses’ companions are transforming into boars (109.5 x 161 cm.), was offered at Christie’s New York, 26 January 2011, lot 41 (private collection).


    Cavalier Guido Sanguineti, Genoa, 1928-1938.
    Anonymous sale; Semenzato, Milan, 16 October 1990, lot 60.


    G. Delogu, G.B. Castiglione detto il Grechetto, Bologna, 1928, pp. 25-26 and 49, pl. XXII.
    P. Costa Calcagno, 'Gio Benedetto Castiglione, il Grechetto', in La Pittura a Genova e in Liguria dal Seicento al primo Novecento, Genoa, 1971, p. 189.
    A. Percy, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione: Master Draughtsman of the Italian Baroque, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia, 1971, p. 40.
    Gli Uffizi: Catalogo generale, Florence, 1979, p. 211, no. P391.
    B. Suida Manning, 'The transformation of Circe: The significance of the sorceress as subject in 17th century Genoese painting', in Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Federico Zeri, Milan, 1984, II, pp. 691-694.
    T. Standring, 'Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione il Grechetto', in La Pittura a Genova e in Liguria dal Seicento al primo Novecento, Genoa, 1987, II, p. 165, fig. 148.
    M. Newcome, 'Castiglione, Giovanni Benedetto', La Pittura in Italia: Il Seicento, Milan, 1989, p. 680.
    G. Dillon, et. al., Il genio di Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione: Il Grechetto, exhibition catalogue, Genoa, 1990, p. 130, under no. 18 (catalogue entry by F. Simonetti).


    Genoa, Palazzo Reale, Mostra di pittori genovesi del Seicento e del Settecento, June-August 1938, no. 63.