The subject of this painting is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and depicts Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, ruler of Ethiopia. She is tied to a rock and being attacked by an orca, sent by Poseidon at the request of the Nereids. According to mythology, the young virgin was offered to the terrible monster as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of the fifty sea nymphs, offended by the words of Cassiopeia, Andromeda's mother, who claimed to be more beautiful than all of them.
The canvas portrays the exact moment in which Perseus, after killing the Medusa, flies down to free the beautiful maiden, depicted here with an iconography that was particularly cherished by artists between the end of the 16th and the first decades of the 17th century.
Rome, Borghese Collection, 1693 (Inv. 1693, room VI, n. 24); Inv. 1790, room VI, no. 16; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 25; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
It is not precisely known when this painting became part of the Borghese Collection. It was cited for the first time in the 1693 inventory as a work by Annibale Caracci and recorded as number 699 – the number is still visible in the bottom left corner. It was described as ‘a large painting with a nude woman seated on a cliff with her hands chained, while a whale in the sea is about to devour her’.
From the late eighteenth century, experts began to attribute the work to Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavalier d'Arpino; the painting was indeed listed under his name in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833 as well as in the catalogues of Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) and Adolfo Venturi (1893). Agreeing that it showed the influence of the painter from Arpino, in 1928 Roberto Longhi proposed that it was the work of the Roman school of the early seventeenth century, pointing in particular to the style of Giovanni Baglione, who collaborated with Cesari in his early career.
Basing his hypothesis on an engraving by Bernardino Capitelli, which bore the inscription Rutilius Manettus pinxit (Gori Gandellini 1771, I, p. 223), in 1932 Voss identified the Sienese Rutilio Manetti as the painter, an attribution that was inexplicably rejected by Aldo De Rinaldis (1937), who placed the work in the Roman school of the later sixteenth century.
In 1959, Paola della Pergola made the definitive attribution to Manetti. The work was in fact displayed at a 1978 exhibition on the Sienese painter, where Alessandro Bagnoli proposed the approximate date of 1612. Bagnoli based this chronology on the soft representation of the flesh as well as the refined depiction of certain details which he claimed can be found in two other works by Manetti of the same years, namely The Beheading of St Paul (Palazzo Barberini, Rome, inv. no. 2216) and Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, inv. no. GK 967). In 2010, Marco Gallo gave a more precise date, proposing that Andromeda was painted between 1611 and 1612, that is, during the artist’s ‘proto-naturalist’ phase in which he became familiar with the work of Cavalier d'Arpino.
While the iconography derives from prints of Ludovico Carracci’s works (Capitelli 2006; Gallo 2010), the subject is drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, namely the vanity of Cassiopeia, the queen of Ethiopia and wife of Cepheus, who claimed to be more beautiful than the Nereids. The latter appealed to Poseidon, asking him to punish the haughtiness of the presumptuous sovereign. The god of the sea then sent a monster to ravage the coasts of the Ethiopian kingdom; the creature’s rage could only be appeased by the blood of a virgin. The king therefore planned to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda, who was tied to a cliff as a victim for the terrible sea monster, before being rescued from her sad fate by the hero Perseus.
According to Della Pergola (1959, p. 39), Manetti modelled his work on Titian’s Andromeda (Wallace Collection, London), depicting the moment that Perseus, riding his winged horse, sees the young princess chained to a cliff in a state of anguish. Contrary to Ovid’s telling of the story, the painter decided to portray Andromeda with her hair gathered in carefully groomed braids and resigned to her fate. Her demeanour is reinforced by the calm of the sea, which has washed up a still life of shells at her feet; meanwhile, a boat with unsuspecting witnesses sails by.