The present work depicts an episode recorded in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book I, lines 588-750 ). Jupiter had transformed his beloved Io, a young Argive girl and priestess of Juno, into a white heifer to conceal his infidelity from his jealous wife. Jupiter swore he had never loved the animal, whereupon Juno cunningly asked for it as a gift and set the hundred-eyed giant Argus to guard over it. Anxious to save his lover, Jupiter sent Mercury to recover the heifer. With a flash of his magic bracelet, Mercury put fifty of Argus' eyes to sleep, while the other fifty were already sleeping, and then killed the giant with his javelin. Juno took Argus' hundred eyes and placed them in the tail of the peacock.
The present painting is an unpublished version of a work in a private collection in Verona (exhibited in La pittura a Verona tra Sei e Settecento at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia, Verona, 30 July-5 November 1978, no. 123, and discussed in L. Ghio and E. Baccheschi, 'Antonio Balestra', in I Pittori Bergamaschi, Il Settecento, II, 1975, revised ed. 1989, pp. 215-6, no. 103). The differences between these two works are largely confined to the handling of the grass at the base of the tree in the upper background. In her essay on Balestra in the exhibition catalogue (op. cit., pp. 196-206), Professoressa Francesca D'Arcais notes that there are two other versions of the painting, both in private collections in Verona. A further version, which lacks the winged putto beneath the peacock, is also recorded in Ghio and Baccheschi (ibid., p. 244, no. 150, and p. 288, illustrated), where an attribution to Balestra's studio is suggested.
Balestra also treated this subject in two other known compositions: one in the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA, datable on stylistic grounds to circa 1714 (see the catalogue for the travelling exhibition, Paintings in Italy in the 18th Century 'Rococo to Romanticism', The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 19 September-1 November 1970, and other locations); and the other recorded as being in a private collection in Venice (see E. Martini, La Pittura del Settecento Veneto, 1982, II, p. 472, no. 39, fig. 30). The latter work bears the provenance of an 'antica collezione di Lucca', which has led Martini to identify it with one of the two mythological paintings that were part of a series of five works sent to the senator Stefano Conti of Lucca in 1704, following his visit to Venice. However, it should also be noted that the work exhibited in Verona, which is the prototype for the present painting, has also been dated to this period (see D'Arcais, in the catalogue of the exhibiton in Verona, pp. 199-200; and Ghio and Baccheschi, op. cit., p. 216) suggesting that it is this treatment of the subject which was in fact in the senator's collection.
We are grateful to Professoressa Francesca D'Arcais for confirming the attribution to Antonio Balestra on the basis of a photograph (no date).