Shipwrecked at night in a wild and barren land, an old man stumbles onto a rocky shore, inhabited by ferocious and venomous creatures. Among the beasts snarling and snapping at him are a leopard, a dog, and a wild boar. In the water a crocodile, a snake and a sharp-toothed sea monster rush towards him. In the shallows a skeleton lies, its eye being picked out by a bird. In the distance but hastily making their way in his direction are a lion, a bear and a griffin, while owls perching on a dead tree glare at him from above, and a bat flaps overhead. Beneath the man on a tablet an inscription in Latin, from Virgil’s sixth book of The Aeneid, reads “The unhappy one sits and will sit forever”. It seems that the old man’s fate is sealed, yet at right he reaches out to a figure of a crowned woman holding a spear striding towards him through a lush and verdant landscape, inhabited by an elephant, a hare and a peacock. She is accompanied by three winged putti. Below her on a tablet another Virgilian dictum reads: “Do not yield to adversities, but go out and meet them bravely.” In the background we look towards a rising sun above a hilly river landscape, scattered with farm houses and bridges – a promise of prosperity and security.
The general message of this print is clearly spelled out in the inscriptions, yet much is left for interpretations in this dreamlike, overcrowded scene, teeming with creatures and charged with mysteries. Just as the symbolism has always been subject to speculation, so has the authorship of the composition. The inscription at the lower left “RAPHAELIS VRBINATIS INVENTUM” has never convinced the scholars that image should really be the work of Raphael. Whatever the meaning and the sources of this highly ambitious yet cluttered pastiche, as Suzanne Boorsch concludes, ‘this combination has resulted in an engraving with extraordinary strength and presence, one that has fascinated viewers for over four hundred years’. (Suzanne Boorsch & Michal and R. E. Lewis, The Engravings of Giorgio Ghisi, New York, 1985, p. 119)