Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione - d.t. 717

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-c. 1663)

The Sorceress Circe
1651 c.
oil on canvas  
99 x 141 cm
1976 deposit Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Inv. d.t. 717

Trivulzio Room
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The sorceress is sitting a little apart in this beautiful painting. She is holding a wand and is surrounded by many animals since, according to Greek mythology, Circe transformed all those who came to her island into animals, as happened to some of Ulysses’ companions in the Odyssey. In the background, a two-faced herm (a statue with two heads back to back) stands on a base with reliefs: a richly decorated vase, an elaborate torch holder from which smoke is rising, and a shell can also be seen.

Several large books, an armillary sphere, a copper basin and a skull are among the many objects lying around the sorceress: they are all instruments that refer more to study and contemplation than to magic. The pose of the enchantress too, with her head in her hands, recalls images of Melancholy, generally portrayed as a pensive woman seated among books, scientific apparatus and other objects referring to learning.

The painting is by the artist from Genoa, Giovan Benedetto Castiglione, known also as Il Grechetto, who painted the theme of Circe various times during his career. The subject was eminently suited to showing off his skills in depicting materials and diverse surfaces, such as the marble of sculptures or the feathers and fur of animals. In this mature work, Grechetto successfully combines the allegory of Melancholy with the subject of the sorceress Circe.