This painting, by the Italian artist Francesco Albani (c. 1578–1660), depicts the beginning of a raucous myth involving three deities. The female character on the left side of the painting is Daphne, a Naiad nymph who was fathered by a river god. Chasing after her is the god, Apollo, and hovering mischievously above them is Eros (or Cupid). As told in the myth, Daphne had the misfortune of being near Apollo and Cupid while the two archer-gods insulted each other in an argument over which of them had a better claim to their favorite weapon—the bow. Apollo won the verbal debate, but Cupid was eager to seek revenge through a palpable display of his power over desire. What Cupid would do next would ignite the scene displayed above in Francesco Albani’s painting. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) described the event:
“[Cupid] beat his wings and cut a path through the atmosphere,
nimbly alighting upon the heights of shady Parnassus.
Once there he drew from his quiver two arrows of contrary purpose:
one is for rousing passion, the other is meant to repel it.
The former is made of gold, and its head has a sharp, bright point,
while the latter is blunt and weighted with lead [on] one side of the reed shaft.
That was the arrow which Cupid implanted in Daphne’s bosom;
the other was aimed at Apollo and smote to the core of his being.
Phoebus [Apollo] at once was filled with desire, but Daphne fled
from the very thought of a lover”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.466-475)
Such is the scene playing out in the painting above. It shows the events that unfolded after Cupid forced Apollo to fall in love with Daphne, who, in turn, was conversely inspired to reject all erotic urges. And so, the chase began. Ovid skillfully continued the tale:
“Flight made her all the more lovely; but now the god in his youthful
ardour was ready no longer to squander his breath on wheedling
pleas. Spurred on by desire, he followed the trail with new vigour.
Imagine a greyhound, imagine a hare it has sighted in open
country: one running to capture his prey, the other for safety.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.530-534)
Apollo was faster than Daphne and was steadily gaining ground on her. In the end, the Naiad nymph had to take drastic action to escape her pursuer. As the story goes, Daphne thwarted Apollo’s desires by transforming into a laurel tree. Although Apollo could not fulfill his Cupid-inspired passions, his devotion to Daphne was said to have continued after her transformation through a newfound platonic affection for laurels.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.