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Muses Gone Wild!

The rock star god of classical antiquity, Dionysos reigned supreme over wine and theater, with maenad groupies and satyrs following in his wake. But what happened when his followers found a little too much inspiration in the grape? Come take a closer look at the Renaissance prints in Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints to find out! The nine muses, who live placidly with the god Apollo on Mount Olympus, are usually content to inspire theater, poetry, and the other arts from a safe distance, or sometimes put hubristic challengers in their proper place. In the famous Raphael fresco in the Vatican (about 1511), they inspire the poets through song and music. Everything is tranquil, orderly and serene—in short, the perfect setting for creativity. Or so one would think from our Marcantonio Raimondi engraving after the fresco:

Shortly after this well-known print was published, however, a still-unidentified artist, the Master HFE, parodied the composition in such a visceral way that his version could only be known as Parnassus Profaned.

In this version of Parnassus, the god of wine has left his intoxicating mark. Instead of perching on separate mounds, here the muses, poets, and even the trees are violently intertwined. The goats and sheep mingling throughout the composition demonstrate their legendary lecherousness even more clearly, and, as onlookers gasp, even Apollo’s trusty steed Pegasus flies away in disgust. The Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings was very lucky to be able to acquire this exceptionally rare engraving earlier this year, but even this lusciously printed, deeply black impression on creamy paper does not tell the entire story. Indeed, an even rarer-surviving impression of the print (now in the British Museum) pulled before the artist burnished out select details shows the extent of the drunken chaos. The muses and poets are indistinguishable in their fumbling, while some of the trees respond rather humorously to the carnal appetites of their woody neighbors. In the London impression, Dionysos has even intoxicated the forest, making Parnassus home to the world’s most botanical bacchanal.

Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, Apollo on Parnassus, 1517/20, engraving. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr. Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, after 1520, engraving, second state. The Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Fund. Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, details from engraving, first state. © Trustees of the British Museum.