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Jupiter and Io
  • Artist Paris Bordone (Italian, 1500 - 1571)
  • TitleJupiter and Io
  • Dating 1550-talet
  • Technique/MaterialOil on canvas
  • Dimensions136 x 117,5 cm
  • AcquisitionGift of Gustaf Werner, 1922
  • CategoryOil painting
  • Inventory NumberGKM 0715
  • Display StatusOn display in The Cabinets III (Room 7)
Signatures etc.
Exhibition History
The subject is taken from the first part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There, the Latin poet describes how the supreme god, Jupiter, who was always looking for new amorous adventures, fell in love with the beautiful nymph Io. In order to make love to her, he hid her and himself in a cloud. Jupiter’s wife Juno, goddess of marriage, suspected that her husband was deceiving her, but, before she could discover the couple, Jupiter turned Io into a white heifer. Juno forced Jupiter to give her the heifer, and handed it to the giant Argus—who had a hundred eyes—to guard. To recover Io, Jupiter commanded his son Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury managed to get Argus to fall asleep by playing the flute for him. He cut off the giant’s head. Juno took Argus’ eyes and placed them at the end of long peacock feathers. Then Juno drove the heifer down to the Nile, where a new transformation took place, and Io regained her human form.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses was an endless source of subjects for the visual arts from the Renaissance onwards. The stories were entertaining and explained the origins of different phenomena. It was no coincidence that it was peacock feathers that Juno decorated with Argus’ eyes; the bird was her symbol and companion. In Paris Bordone’s painting, Juno is to be seen in the top-left corner, descending on the lovers in her chariot drawn by two peacocks. In the foreground, Io sits in Jupiter’s lap. Caught in a state of undress, the god realizes that his jealous wife is approaching, and raises his green cloak to hide his mistress. The next moment he will turn her into a heifer. Jupiter’s own symbol, the eagle, is looking down at the couple from the top-right corner.

Paris Bordone (1500–1571) was a pupil of Titian’s in Venice for a few years in his youth, and was inspired by his painting. He went on to become an international artist. As well as Venice, Bordone was active in Northern Italy, Bavaria, and France. He is usually thought of as a Mannerist painter. By the mid sixteenth century, the High Renaissance’s quest for harmony and clarity was being superseded by Mannerism’s penchant for artifice and the exquisite. The Mannerists often relied on complex compositions to achieve their effects. The dominant compositional element in Bordone’s painting is the diagonal that runs from the lower-right corner up to the left. Based on this »great form«, the figures were intertwined in an elegant manner.

In his famous mid-century book about his artist contemporaries, Giorgio Vasari mentions that while Paris Bordone was working at the French court he had done a painting of Jupiter and Io for the Cardinal of Lorraine. Modern research believes this to be the painting in the Gothenburg Museum of Art. The problem is that no one knows if Bordone travelled to France more than once. According to Vasari, he was there in 1538, while the style of the picture suggests that it was painted about twenty years later. Researchers have shown that it was possible Vasari only knew of one stay in France, whereas Bordone may also have worked there in 1559–61.

Starting with the Renaissance, nudity became a feature of art. It could be justified as being appropriate to its ancient, mythological subjects. The fact that Paris Bordone’s painting, with its uniquely erotic motifs, was owned by a cardinal shows how pragmatically they viewed the issue. The moral aspect takes an extra twist when you know that Io, with her curly red hair, is probably shown as a Venetian courtesan. The identification would seem to be confirmed by the wisp of yellow and pink silk fluttering from her arm—yellow was the prostitutes’ colour in La Serenissima. Io’s skin is white except for the light pink tone of her décolletage. The blue silk dress that frames and highlights her bare flesh has the carefully rendered fine pleats often seen in Paris Bordone’s work. He was only too happy to immerse himself in details. According to convention, men were shown as darker than women. It is for this reason that Jupiter has been given slightly darker skin, and the artist has chosen to expose the god’s back to demonstrate his skill in portraying rippling muscles.

Björn Fredlund from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014