This painting, by the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (c. 1615-1673), depicts a scene from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. In particular, the artwork re-creates an episode from the poem in which the main character, Odysseus, was washed ashore by one of Poseidon’s great storms onto the coastal territory of a mythological or legendary people called the Phaeacians. Due to the influence of Odysseus’ guardian goddess, Athena, it was divinely planned that the stranded hero would soon be introduced to new allies among the Phaeacians who would help him on his journey. This help came in the form of Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacian rulers, King Alcinous and Queen Arete.
As it happened, Odysseus was beached at Nausicaa’s favorite spot where she and her maids often cleaned laundry and bathed in a tributary river. Much to the stranded traveler’s benefit, it was currently laundry day, so Nausicaa and her companions traveled to the river with armfuls of clothing, as well as some provisions and toys. It was from the loud revelry of these merry women that Odysseus was awakened from his shipwrecked stupor. Homer described the memorable first interaction between these characters:
“So Odysseus, naked as he was, made a move towards these girls with their braided hair; necessity compelled him. Grimy with salt he was a gruesome sight, and the girls went scuttling off in every direction along the jutting spits of sand. Alcinous’ daughter Nausicaa was the only one to stand firm. Athena put courage into her heart and took away the fear from her limbs, and she stood her ground and faced him. Odysseus considered whether he should throw his arms round the beautiful girl’s knees and beg for help, or just keep his distance and beg her with all courtesy to give him clothing and direct him to the city. He decided that as the lady might take offence if he embraced her knees it would be better to keep his distance and courteously plead his case” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 6, approximately lines 120-150).
It is this scene of naked Odysseus—strategically covered by some vegetation—revealing himself (pun intended) to the Phaeacian women that Salvator Rosa re-creates in his painting. Despite Odysseus’ awkward introduction, he succeeded in winning over Nausicaa. She, in turn, helped Odysseus gain an audience with her regal parents, the king and queen. Fortunately, Odysseus and his hosts got along well, and the Phaeacians ultimately agreed to ferry the traveler back to his home in Ithaca.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.