It is only in recent years that the Bolognese artist Lucio Massari has emerged as a more complex artistic personality than the simple follower of Ludovico Carracci that Malvasia suggested in his Felsine Pittrice, 1678, ed. G. Zanotti, Bologna, 1841, I, pp. 389-390 (for a detailed discussion of Massari's career, see Marina Cellini, La Scuola dei Carracci. I seguaci di Annibale e Agostino, Modena, 1995, pp. 217-250). The first recorded work by the artist is a large altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Saints, in the church of Santa Maria dei Poveri in Bologna, executed in 1604. The sobriety of mood and simplicity of the composition recall the art of Bartolomeo Cesi, while the sculptural and monumental figures reveal the influence of Annibale Carracci - indeed it has been argued by a number of scholars (Cellini, op. cit., p. 220) that Massari may well have collaborated with Annibale on the latter's altarpiece of 1593, Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna).
Towards the end of the 1590s, Massari travelled to Rome, where he was to come into full contact with the classical revival he had been introduced to in Bologna, and he met the movement's other leading protagonists, including Albani, Domenichino and Lanfranco. It was here in the Eternal City that he produced some of his finest works, including Lot and his Daughters and two rare mythological paintings, Rinaldo and Armida and Juno and Aeolus (the first two in the Galleria Pallavicini, Rome, the last in the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome). Arguably his most notable achievement of this period was the large Triumph of David in the Galleria Pallavicini, Rome, whose importance 'per la storia del classicismo seicentesco è fondementale' (F. Zeri, La Galleria Pallavicini in Roma, Florence, 1956, p. 176, no. 300). By 1613 Massari had returned to Bologna, where he produced, over the next two decades, a number of large altarpieces, essentially in the same restrained classical idiom outlined above. He died in 1633.
The subject of the present work is drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses (X, 532-539 and 705-709). Although it was a popular theme among artists in the 17th century, the most famous treatment of the subject was undoubtedly that of Titian, known in several versions, some of which were executed with studio assistance (Prado Museum, Madrid; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). A lost version was also executed for the Palazzo Farnese in Rome and it is tempting to speculate that Massari might have seen Titian's original during his Roman sojourn. Certainly the position of Adonis' head in the present work recalls that of the Greek hero in Titian's masterpiece. In keeping with the artistic personality outlined above, Massari's handling of the subject shows a degree of restraint not to be found in the more dramatic, near-contemporary renderings of the subject by Rubens (Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf, 1610-11) and Van Dyck (sold, Christie's, New York, 29 January 1998, lot 63, circa 1618-21). However, the artist has introduced a degree of animation to the scene in the form of the billowing drapery of Venus and the sharp twist of the hound's head. The Roman feel to the landscape and the similarity of the facial types here to other works of the period by Massari (Adonis to the figure of David in The Triumph of David, and Venus to the leftmost daughter in Lot and his daughters) would suggest a dating of the present work to Massari's Roman period or shortly thereafter; that is circa 1610-15.
We are grateful to Dr. Stephen Pepper for suggesting the attribution to Massari on the basis of a transparency (verbal communication, 2 August 2000).