Diana and Callisto Surprised
(Francesco Solimena (called l'Abbate Ciccio))


The story of Diana and Callisto is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses II, 442-453, a book both widely read and translated, of which a ‘moralising’ edition existed giving Christian interpretations to the ancient pagan myths and stories. The subject is again included in Ovid’s poetic treatment of the Roman calendar, Fasti, II, 155-192, of which only the first six months survive, and which combines seasonal rites and festivals with legend and history. Diana’s acolytes, her nymphs, were rather improbably expected to be as chaste as the goddess purported to be herself, an unlikely enough assumption as they appear to have spent a great deal of time cavorting around showing off their comely attributes to various deities and mortals, especially when disporting themselves bathing! As a result, they appear to have been fair targets for mischief and Callisto fell prey to the ever-roving eye of Jupiter himself. Jupiter, whose sexual appetite, if we believe Ovid, must have been considerable, was not above using wiles, camouflage, and on this occasion a rather unsporting approach for he gained access to the innocent nymph’s presence by disguising himself as non-other than her mistress, Diana. The resulting pregnancy took a little time to become noticeable but eventually invoked Diana’s wrath and she changed the unfortunate Callisto into a bear and then cruelly set her hunting dogs on her. Diana, goddess of the hunt, was not exactly renowned for her compassionate spirit! However, Jupiter, ever the gentleman, snatched the unfortunate nymph up to heaven before she was torn to ribbons. Artists from Titian to Rubens either portrayed the original and slightly unwilling seduction or, as here, the confrontation with Diana in her grotto. Solimena hints at the ‘grotto’ with a dark background of overhanging rocks. A gaggle of nymph’s fusses around the bashful Callisto, some chattering to each other about the scandal, others pulling away Callisto’s gown revealing her pregnancy while she averts her gaze in embarrassment. A kneeling nymph points, indicating Callisto’s stomach to a vengeful Diana, clearly identified by the half-moon in her hair, who sits to the left. The goddess, almost totally nude except for a piece of drapery covering her pudenda and looped over the shoulder, embraces a favourite with her right arm and with her left, outstretched, condemns the unfortunate Callisto. It has to be said that Solimena has chosen to portray Callisto’s form with much the same buxom fullness as the majority of the rest of the nymphs from whom she is barely distinguishable. In the foreground two very domestic looking spaniels sleep or lap water in the stream, presumably an allusion to the hunting dogs, but they look as if they would pose little threat to life and limb!


From this one may assume that the picture was a private commission for a wealthy patron and that the subject was intended to titillate rather than to moralise. This Diana and Callisto Surprised may be the picture mentioned in De Dominici[1] as having been executed for Casa Baglioni in Venice. Since we know that a number of other paintings were executed for Baglioni between 1705 and c.1708 it might seem probable that this canvas would also have been executed at this time. However, Nicola Spinosa has suggested a slightly later dating closer to 1710[2].


The evolution of Solimena’s style starts with his assimilation of Pietro da Cortona in the 1680s, much in the same way that Luca Giordano did in his career. Thus, Solimena, while progressively introducing tones of golden luminism into his compositions, oscillated for almost twenty years between this lighter style linked to Giordano’s colourism and a counter trend of monumental and tenebrous chiaroscuro provoked by a study of the Neapolitan heritage of Mattia Preti and Giovanni Lanfranco. Solimena grafted onto this individual style occasional elements of Marattesque classicism as well as an awareness of French art. Towards 1700 this Marattesque element gained the ascendancy. This style was nicknamed Solimena’s ‘grosso modo’ and was emulated by successive Neapolitan artists for the next three decades. At the very end of his career after 1732-34, Solimena, then aged seventy-five, returned to the high baroque style he had favoured between the mid-1690s and 1710. During this period the chromatic values are marked by intensive chiaroscuro relieved by splashes (macchie) of high local colour and strong highlights. Although there are elements of Maratta’s style in the relatively classicising female figures in Diana and Callisto Surprised, the modelling, chiaroscuro and colour values do not seem to betray the lightening of the palette or increasing academic monumentality of vision common during Solimena’s middle period when he received numerous Austrian commissions. Rather, the depth of shadow, strongly profiled faces with one side deep in shade and the splashes of high colour would all appear to indicate that this painting was executed during the artist’s final late ‘baroque’ phase, probably around 1710. A picture of The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs of very similar size has many similarities[3]. The agitated rhythms and similar profiles are only differentiated from Diana and Callisto Surprised by a cooler more silvery colour and more attenuated chiaroscuro.[4]


There is an inferior version of Diana and Callisto Surprised in Florence[5]. This is considered workshop and may be a derivation of a lost original for which there is also a studio drawing in the British Museum, London (1946.0713741). The Uffizi composition was engraved much later by Davide Antonio Fossati with an inscription stating ‘Solimena inventò e dipinse in Casa Baglione in Venezia’. Spinosa (ms. communication 25 April 2001 mentions an autograph version of our composition but with considerable variants as being in the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Mass. V  (140 x 166cm) as well  a workshop copy of this latter composition last known in a private collection in Stuttgart. De Dominici also records a further painting by Solimena representing Diana bathing in the Palazzo Bonnacorsi in Macerata which would have been executed by 1714.This latter work may well be the painting under discussion[6].

[1]. B. de Dominici, Vite dei Pittori, Scultori e Architetti Napoletani…, Naples 1742-45, III, p.594.‘bagno di Diana …di bel componimento, e con Ninfe nude disegnate al naturale’. The nudity in our picture might explain the identification with ‘Diana bathing…’ but ‘al naturale’ would appear to indicate a larger picture.

[2]. Ms. Communication to Patrick Matthiesen, April 2001. Spinosa compares this Diana and Callisto Surprised with a Diana and Endymion (Liverpool, Merseyside County Art Galleries) or a Bacchus and Ariadne (formerly Vienna, Wolfrum Collection). Both these paintings appear to be more classicising and have less marked chiaroscuro – see below. A closer comparison might be made with the Venus Receiving Arms from Vulcan or the Aurora and Tithonus (both ex Matthiesen Gallery, now Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum), which share characteristics of lighting and ‘crinkly’ drapery and which can again be dated 1705-10.

[3]. Formerly Matthiesen Gallery, London and now private collection, Naples – see The Settecento: Italian Rococo and Early Neo-Classical Painting 1700-1800, London 1987, no.37, ill., pp.160-161. Oil on canvas 116 x 152 cm. where dated 1705-10. However, the use of a very similar figure to the protagonist, Aeneas, in Solimena’s masterpiece The Royal Hunt of Dido and Aeneas (with the Matthiesen Gallery, London 1981 and in 1999) executed for the Marchese Bonnacorsi in 1714 might indicate a rather later dating. Spinosa 1986, I, no. 67 opts for a late dating in the 1730s.

[4]. It should be noted that dating Solimena is never a straightforward exercise. He frequently reused or reworked specific models from earlier compositions into later works. It is worth noting that the figure of the crouching huntress with a quiver on her back in the left foreground of this Diana and Callisto Surprised is reused in a similar position in the late Dido and Aeneas (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte dated by Spinosa 1986, I, no.64 to 1739-41).

[5]. We are grateful to Prof. Nicola Spinosa for this information (Alinari photo 1009). Spinosa 1986 p.110 records this painting as being in the Galleria degli Uffizi but it seems more likely to be housed in the Pitti.The picture is reproduced in Arte Illustrata , September 1970.

[6]. We are again grateful Prof. Nicola Spinosa for this information.

51 x 60 ¾ in. - 129.5 x 154.4 cm.
Oil on canvas

Palazzo Buonacorsi, Macerata 1710-15?[1]

Gattino Collection, Turin until c. 1920/21

Jacond Collection, Moustiers, Savoie ?

Sothebys, London, 3 December 1969 lot 59

Galleria Manzoni, Milan, 1970

Piccinotti, Quinzano, 1980

Private collection, England

Sotheby’s, London 24 January 2008, lot 108

Matthiesen Gallery, London, 2000

Spiers Collection, 2004

Matthiesen Gallery, 2012.

[1]. Communication from Prof. Nicola Spinosa 07/07/2016.


De Dominici, Vite dei Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Napolitani, III. p.594

Arte illustrata, 1970

  1. Spinosa, Pittura napoletana del Settecento dal Barocco al Rococò, Naples, 1986, I, no.31, p.110, fig. 361[1]

2001: An Art Odyssey, Exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery, London, held in aid of ANIA, Peru, pp.324-30

  1. Caretenuto, Dall’attività giovanile agli anni della maturità (1674-1710), Nuova Cultura 2015, p.267

N.Spinosa, Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) e le Arti a Napoli, Ugo Bozzi, Rome, 2018, pp.421-22, no. 181.

[1]. Where the picture is dated shortly after 1710.

RELATED LITERATURE: L’attività di Francesco Solimena dal 1674 al 1706, Simona

Carotenuto, (Thesis,Universita degli studi di Salerno, 2014)

Historical Period
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Italian - Neapolitan
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