This curious painting, created by the Italian artist Girolamo Troppa (c. 1637-1733), displays a scene from a horrific myth. On the right side, the childlike figure with blonde hair is a representation of the god Apollo. Restrained beside him is Marsyas, a hairy-legged satyr who made the mistake of challenging Apollo to a music contest. The god did not take kindly to the challenge, and after Apollo won the melodious duel, he imposed a merciless and gruesome penalty on the defeated satyr. Girolamo Troppa, in his cool-colored painting, did his best to conceal the horror that would come in the seconds and minutes after this scene was unfrozen. No blood can be seen, and the expression on Marsyas’ face is obscured. Nevertheless, what happened next was quite bloody and extremely painful. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), vividly described Marsyas’ punishment—flaying:
“In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body
was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him,
muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively
quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted,
and so could the organs glistening through the wall of his chest.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 6.387-391)
Such is the horrific myth that this painting subtly alludes to. Marsyas, of course, did not survive the flaying that was imposed on him. As the story goes, Marsyas’ many friends shed such a quantity of tears in mourning the loss of their loved one that a river was formed, carrying their grief to the sea.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.