Although Zuccarelli probably trained in Rome and Florence, he was drawn to the flourishing artistic capital of Venice where he would make his reputation and work for most of his life. He achieved almost immediate success upon his arrival in the city circa 1730, when he was taken up by its most distinguished art patrons: Count Algarotti, Marshal Schulenberg and Joseph Smith, British Consul to the Serenissima. Algarotti recommended Zuccarelli's services to the Elector of Saxony and Consul Smith encouraged his extended visits to England, and very quickly the artist -- like so many of the best Venetian painters of the 18th century -- developed an international career.
Nothing is known of the earliest history of this appealing Rape of Europa, but it amply displays Zuccarelli's principal gift as a painter: his talent for uniting history painting with view painting in effortless and sophisticated landscapes of great decorative effect. Here, the sweeping pastoral landscape reflects Zuccarelli's familiarity with the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Andrea Locatelli, whose works he had studied in Rome, and Marco Ricci, whose landscapes could be seen in many Venetian collections. The mythological subject matter, lively arrangement of figures, and sumptuous employment of richly colored fabrics and flowers reveals the influence of two of the greatest history painters of the Venetian tradition: Paolo Veronese and Sebastiano Ricci. Zuccarelli would certainly have known the Renaissance master's celebrated rendering of the subject in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. Ricci's finest depiction of The Rape of Europa was made for the Salone da Ballo in Palazzo Taverna, Rome (circa 1720), and the young Zuccarelli could have seen it; in any event, he knew Ricci personally and was profoundly influenced by the older artist's innovative style. Zuccarelli brings to his depiction of the subject a more open composition, light-filled and airy, with great prominence given to the rolling landscape setting with its corner of unruffled sea.
Like both Veronese and Ricci before him, Zuccarelli chose to depict the playful, pacific prelude to Ovid's tale (Metamorphoses 2:836-875), rather than the terrifying abduction itself which had been Titian's preferred subject. Beguiled by the snow-white bull's apparent good nature, the princess climbs upon his back as her attendants garland his horns with flowers, unaware that the beast is Jupiter in disguise, about to carry her out to sea to ravish her.
A variant version of the composition in vertical format (188.5 x 158.3 cm.) was with Piero Corsini, New York, in 1987.