Apollonio di Giovanni
Italian, 1415/17–1465
The Adventures of Ulysses

Tempera on panel
42 x 131.7 cm (16 9/16 x 51 7/8 in.)
Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1006

Apollonio di Giovanni portrays the major events in the journey of Ulysses, the main character of the ancient Greek tale The Odyssey by the poet Homer. This famed epic tells the adventures of the hero Ulysses, or Odysseus, after the Trojan War as he tries to return home to Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, has been waiting patiently. In the original text the reader first meets Ulysses imprisoned by the goddess Calypso in the 10th year of his journey. The narrative depicted in this work represents 13 of the warrior’s exploits in the order they occurred after his departure from Troy. Included, from left to right, are his escape from the cyclops Polyphemos (his first major adventure), his encounter with Circe and the sirens, and his arrival home to Penelope.

The use of an ancient Greek theme as the subject of this painting is typical of early Renaissance art in Italy, which often featured Classical subjects and contained realistic depictions of the natural world inspired by ancient art. Older medieval traditions are also present, such as the artist’s use of punched and incised gold (in Ulysses’ costume, for example) and the fanciful, panoramic landscape, both of which flatten the space in the painting. The portrayal of several episodes of the story requiring the artist to repeat the same figure (here, Ulysses) at different moments in time is known as continuous narrative and is seen in both ancient and medieval art.

In early 15th-century Florence, Apollonio was a leading supplier of cassoni, gilt wooden chests decorated with scenes from ancient history or Italian literature that were commissioned when a young couple married and were used to hold the bride’s possessions in her new home. Apollonio’s workshop was the most fashionable firm in the city. In the 17 recorded years of its existence, the workshop produced more than 300 cassoni. The Adventures of Ulysses is less commonly found on such early Florentine chests but is nonetheless an appropriate subject for a marriage chest given the story’s account of Penelope’s loyalty to Ulysses, who was absent for 20 years.