Odysseus has used his sword to dig a square pit in a cave. A group of naked figures led by Tiresias of Thebes approaches in the darkness. They are ghosts of the dead. Two kneeling ghosts drink blood from animals that Odysseus has trapped in the pit and sacrificed. A third figure, the ghost of Odysseus' dead mother, prepares to do the same. Drinking the blood enables the ghosts to speak a language intelligible to humans. After also having drunk the blood, Tiresias predicts Odysseus' future. He tells him that he will reach home safely only on the condition that, upon arriving at Helios' island, he does not touch the sun god's cattle. (Homer, book XI)
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|Title||Ulysses at the Entrance of Hades, the Underworld (Odyssey, Book XI)|
|Material and technique||Pen and brown ink, blue wash, heightened with white, framing lines with the pen in brown ink|
Drawing > Two-dimensional object > Art object
|Location||This object is in storage|
Height 178 mm
Width 271 mm
|Accession number||MB 1772 (PK)|
|Credits||From the estate of F.J.O. Boijmans, 1847|
|Department||Drawings & Prints|
|Creation date||in circa 1600-1605|
|Signature||'ioan stradanus' (at lower centre, in pen and brown ink)|
|Watermark||mermaid in a circle (diam. 30mm, on P4 from below, difficult to distinguish, only visible by raking light on the reverse; vV, 6P), similar to Briquet 13884-13892 (Rome 1501-35, Naples 1501-28, Florence 1507-09, Pistoia 1523, a.o.). The same type of watermark is present in drawings by Michelangelo from 1508-15 (J. Roberts, A dictionary of Michaelangelo's watermarks, Milan 1988, pp. 24-25, type C, ill.). [AE]|
|Inscriptions||‘9’ (verso, at upper centre, in pencil)|
|Collector||Collector / F.J.O. Boijmans|
|Mark||Museum Boymans (L.1857)|
|Provenance||F.J.O. Boijmans (1767-1847), Utrecht; bequeathed to the City of Rotterdam, 1847; in the museum since its foundation, 1849|
|Exhibitions||Rotterdam 2007b; Bruges 2008, no. 135, ill.; Rotterdam 2010 (coll 2 kw 6); Paris/Rotterdam 2014, no. 59.3|
De Collectie Twee - wissel VI, Prenten & Tekeningen (2010)
Vroege Nederlandse tekeningen - Van Bosch tot Bloemaert (deel 3) (2015)
Bosch to Bloemaert. Early Netherlandish Drawings from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2014)
Le Songe d'Ulysse (2022)
Netherlandish Drawings of the 15th and 16th Centuries.
|Literature||cat. 1852, no. 951; cat. 1869, no. 815; cat. 1901, p. 62, no. 848; Baroni Vannucci 1997, no. 179, ill.; Elen 2007, p. 106; Elen 2012, pp. 331-335, no. 135, ill.|
Highlight > Painting technique > Technique > Material and technique
Blue wash > Washing > Wash > Drawing technique > Technique > Material and technique
|Geographical origin||Southern Netherlands > The Netherlands > Western Europe > Europe|
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Entry catalogue Netherlandish Drawings of the 15th and 16th Centuries.
Author: Albert J. Elen
Johannes Stradanus, Four drawings from the Odyssey series
During the last years of his life Stradanus made a series of highly finished drawings representing the adventures of Ulysses as described by Homer in his famous epic, the Odyssey. They illustrate the eventful journey of the famous Greek leader Ulysses, king of Ithaca, after the sack of Troy. After a war that had lasted ten years, it took him another ten years to travel home. For seven years he was detained by the beautiful sea-nymph Calypso until Zeus, the supreme ruler of the Olympic gods, decided that he should be released and allowed to continue his journey, though not without first overcoming several obstacles.
These drawings are either designs for printed illustrations in an edition of Homer planned by Stradanus’ Florentine friend, the writer Luigi Alamanni, not completed due the latter’s death in 1603,1 or designs for a series of prints that were never engraved and published. The fact that they were meant to be engraved is clear from the orientation of the main characters. The draughtsman took into account the fact that the engraved composition would appear in mirror image when printed and the figures, left-handed in the drawing, would turn out to be right-handed, as required, in the print.
Unfortunately, this undocumented series of drawings is no longer complete. Baroni Vannucci included the six drawings then known in her monograph on Stradanus published in 1997.2 While the present whereabouts of one drawing, Ulysses and Scylla, which disappeared during World War II, is unknown, a previously unknown seventh drawing, Ulysses and Polyphemus (inv. no. MB 2007/T 1), appeared on the art market in 2007. It was acquired by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in order to strengthen the group of three drawings that had been in the collection since the museum’s foundation in 1849.3
The surviving drawings share the same technical characteristics: similar dimensions and the remarkable blue washes with white highlights over pen in brown ink. The artist himself added explanatory texts in Flemish below the drawings, some of which were cut off by a later owner, which explains why these sheets are approximately 2 cm smaller in height.4 The drawing for the frontispiece is signed on the open book in the lower right corner ‘Ioannes / Stradanus’ and is inscribed below in the centre ‘Navighatione di Ulisse da Lui narate Alla cenna / del Re Alcinoo in corfu / Cavata da Homero’. Equally remarkable are the explanatory texts in Stradanus’ own words in Flemish vernacular below the drawings of Ulysses and Polyphemus and Ulysses and Circe; they start with a number and a short title of the scene:
4. polifemus ciclopis - i waes in afgriselecke groote ruese met een hooghe allene in zen voerhoft adde gheeten 4. quatro compagnien van / ulisse, ciclopis wael weesende ghonk legghen slapen in een groete spelonka daer i de gheeten in pecoren hielden ulisse slande ghaede / dat i in slaep waes ghonck met 5. soldaten zen compagnen zij naemen in groete stock ghepunt in haert ghebrant in staken hem de hooghe ut / seclopus druch ock voor zen … in pin appel stam (?)
7 circes ghaf te drinken ulisse met den scale en tasten hem met de setter […] hem te doen veranderen in beste gheleck zij ghedaen adde an’ (the following one or two lines are missing). Signed ‘gioa strada’ in the lower right corner.
Stradanus seems to have numbered the successive scenes, with the exception of the frontispiece drawing, indicating that three drawings must have preceded Ulysses and Polyphemus. There were two drawings between this scene and Ulysses and Circe, which, in its turn, was followed by several more drawings. Fortunately, Stradanus left us another tool with which to fill in the puzzle. The finished drawings are based on preliminary compositional sketches, ‘primi pensieri’ that Stradanus recorded in small sketchbooks, possibly while reading Homer. These booklets were disassembled at some point in their history, and none has survived intact.5 Around 160 sheets with more than 300 sketches of individual compositions are housed in two museums in New York. They were once in the possession of the Bolognese artist Giovanni Piancastelli. The greater part of the group was purchased by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 1901, while eight drawings ended up in the Morgan Library & Museum.6 The four drawings in Rotterdam, as well as the drawing of Ulysses and Circe in London, are all based on these compositional sketches. Among the sketches there are three more that depict scenes from the Odyssey, of which a finished drawing is not known: Ulysses and Calypso, Ulysses and the Laestrygonians and Ulysses and the Sirens.7 As the artist obviously followed the sequence of the scenes in the Odyssey, the following series can be reconstructed.
The ‘titola’ or frontispiece shows an ornamental frame with the standing figures of Ulysses, dressed in armour and with the burning city of Troy in the background on the left, and Homer, holding a lyre and stylus on the right.8 In the centre is an empty rectangular cartouche in which the title would appear. Oval cartouches above and below it depict respectively Ulysses’s wife, Penelope, at a loom in the palace of Ithaca and Ulysses shooting Penelope’s suitors with his bow.9 The entire series can be reconstructed as follows: 1. Ulysses and the Phaeacians, Recounting his Adventures;10 2. Ulysses and the Cicons;11 3. Ulysses and the Lotus-eaters;12 4. Ulysses and the Cyclops Polyphemus13 (inv. no. MB 2007/T 1); 5. Ulysses and Aeolus in the Cave of the Winds14 (inv. no. MB 1777); 6. Ulysses and the Laestrygonians;15 7. Ulysses and Circe;16 8. Ulysses at the entrance of Hades, the Underworld;17 (inv. no. MB 1772); 9. Ulysses and the Sirens;18 10. Ulysses and Scylla;19 11. Ulysses and the Cattle of Helios, the Sun-God20 (inv. no. MB 332); 12. Ulysses and Calypso.21
On his way home to Ithaca from the captured Troy Ulysses is stranded on the island of the cyclopes and locked in the cave of one of them. The drawing, Ulysses and the Cyclops Polyphemus (inv. no. MB 2007/T 1), depicts the moment when Ulysses and four of his men blind the sleeping one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, with a sharpened stick in order to avoid being seen and killed. The naked cyclops had already eaten four men before Ulysses managed to get him drunk. He lies on his side resting on his long club, his herd of sheep and goats appearing in the background. Beneath is Stradanus’ own description of the grisly scene. Unfortunately, the inscriptions on the other three drawings exhibited here have been cut off at some point in their history.
In Ulysses and Aeolus in the Cave of the Winds (inv. no. MB 1777) Ulysses’s ship is anchored by the coast while a sloop approaches the island of Aeolus, king of the winds. The king points with his sceptre to the cave of the winds. He had presented Ulysses with a bag containing the unfavourable winds to speed him on his homeward journey. But his suspicious soldiers had opened the bag while their leader Ulysses lay sleeping, allowing the unfavourable winds to escape. Personified as naked figures flying around like angels, the winds blow in all directions, driving Ulysses’s even further from home with a storm.
In Ulysses at the Entrance of Hades (inv. no. MB 1772), the Homeric hero visits the Underworld. Ulysses has used his sword to dig a square pit near the entrance of Hades. Naked figures, the ghosts of the dead, led by Tiresias of Thebes approach in the darkness. Two kneeling ghosts drink the blood of sacrificed animals from the pit. A third figure, the ghost of Ulysses’s dead mother, prepares to do the same. Drinking the blood enables the ghosts to speak in a manner that is intelligible to humans. After having drunk the blood, Tiresias predicts Ulysses’s future, warning him that he will reach home safely only on the condition that, upon arriving at Helios’s island, he does not touch the sun-god’s cattle. After this meeting a strong wind drives Ulysses and his soldiers onto the island of Helios. Their ship is left on the coast. Due to Tiresias’s dire warning in the preceding scene, Ulysses had expressly forbidden his soldiers to touch Helios’s cattle. However, while Ulysses sleeps in the foreground, his sword within reach, his men capture several cows and roast them on a spit as depicted in Ulysses and the Cattle of Helios, the Sun God (inv. no. MB 332). After they leave the island, Helios punishes them by destroying their ship in a storm. Only Ulysses is spared and on a raft he reaches the island of the sea-nymph Calypso, where he is to stay in custody for seven long years.
The limitation to scenes described in the first half of the Odyssey might be explained by the fact that there was at that time only one contemporary Dutch translation that covered the first eighteen books (Dirk Volkertsz. Coornhert, De dolinge van Ulysse, 1561).22 However, the series of drawings was restricted to the first half of the Odyssey from the outset, which is made clear by Stradanus himself in the subtitle written below the frontispiece drawing (see above): it depicts the wanderings of Ulysses as recounted by himself to king Alcinoos. These adventures are described in books IX through XII, preceded by Ulysses’s departure from Calypso (book V), his arrival on the island of the Phaeacians, and the warm welcome he received there from the lovely princess Nausicaä and her royal parents (books VI-VIII). After revealing his identity, Ulysses recounted his adventures since his departure from Troy in “flash backs” sailing from island to island, blown off track by ill winds and stormy seas caused by one angry god or another and overcoming various temptations and disasters. The identification and order of the scenes from 4 to 11 is clear, but that of the first three scenes is not. The series could either have started or ended with Ulysses and Calypso, which could be either scene 1 or scene 12. However, it seems most likely that Stradanus started with a drawing of Ulysses in Alcinoos’s banquet hall, beginning his long story, and then followed the course of events described in book IX preceding the story of Polyphemus: Ulysses and the Cicons (2) and Ulysses and the Lotus-eaters (3), and finally Ulysses and Calypso (12), which is literally the point of departure, as described in book V.23 One could also imagine the fall of Troy as the first scene, but this is not described in the Odyssey and it already appeared in the background of the frontispiece behind the figure of Ulysses. Thus, this series of drawings is limited to Ulysses’s adventures before his return to Ithaca. After his account to Alcinoos the Phaeacians brought him home by ship in a single day, showered with precious gifts and sound asleep (book XIII). Ulysses then defeated the suitors of his wife, Penelope, and was finally reunited with her and their son Telemachos (books XIV-XXIII).24 Hopefully, more of the missing Ulysses-drawings will surface over time ‘to complete the picture’ and prove that the above line of reasoning holds water.
The subject of Ulysses was first represented on a large scale by Francesco Primaticcio (1504/05-1570) in a series of frescoes in the Galerie d’Ulysse in the Chateau de Fontainebleau. The frescoes were destroyed but several preliminary drawings survive, including one in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.25 However, Stradanus probably never saw these frescoes and the choice of the Ulysses theme was probably not his own idea but was suggested by Alamanni.
Ulysses at the Entrance of Hades, the Underworld
In this scene the Homeric hero visits the Underworld. Ulysses has used his sword to dig a square pit near the entrance of Hades. Naked figures, the ghosts of the dead, led by Tiresias of Thebes approach in the darkness. Two kneeling ghosts drink the blood of sacrificed animals from the pit. A third figure, the ghost of Ulysses’s dead mother, prepares to do the same. Drinking the blood enables the ghosts to speak in a manner that is intelligible to humans. After having drunk the blood, Tiresias predicts Ulysses’s future, warning him that he will reach home safely only on the condition that, upon arriving at Helios’s island, he does not touch the sun-god’s cattle. After this meeting a strong wind drives Ulysses and his soldiers onto the island of Helios. Their ship is left on the coast. The story is continued in the next drawing (inv. MB 332).
This number 8 in the reconstructed series of 12 scenes. A small preliminary sketch for this drawing is in New York.26
* This entry was published separately by the author: Albert Elen, ‘Odyssey’, in: A. Baroni and M. Sellink (eds.), Stradanus (1523-1605), Court Artist of the Medici, Turnhout 2012, pp. 331-335, nos. 133-136
1 According to Ger Luijten in Rotterdam 1990, p. 71, under no. 20.
2 Baroni Vannucci 1997, nos. 178, 180, 179, 181, 182 and 177, respectively, all illustrated in black and white.
3 Elen 2007, no. 31, pp. 105-106.
4 Luijten (Rotterdam 1990, no. 20) surmises that the explanatory notes identifying the scenes, which are also found on the compositional sketches, are by Alamanni. However, it is clear that Stradanus made these notes himself, if only because some of them are in Flemish. Moreover, the handwriting is the same and in the same colour of ink. Dorine van Sasse van Ysselt agrees with this point of view (verbal communication July 2008).
5 The compositional sketches in New York are all on individual leaves, divided into two horizontal registers. The similar dimensions, waterline pattern and traces of stitch-holes are clear indications of sketch-book origin. Apparently, Stradanus availed of at least one pocket-size octavo booklet (measuring c. 156 x 112 mm).
6 Benisovich 1956, pp. 249-251; Stampfle 1991, nos 92-99, ill.
7 Baroni Vannucci 1997, nos. 183-185, 187-192.
8 Rotterdam 1990, p. 69, fig a.
9 Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, inv. 1963.24.371 (211 x 305 mm), no compositional sketch is known, a detailed sketch for the figure of Homer is in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-141.
10 Book IX, unknown (no sketch).
11 Book IX, unknown (no sketch).
12 Book IX, unknown (no sketch).
13 Book IX, based on the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-146r
14 Book IX, based on the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-146v.
15 Book X, only known from the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-161r.
16 Book X, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, inv. 2395 (193 x 278 mm), based on the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-161v.
17 Book XI, based on the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-2657v.
18 Book XII, only known from the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-2657r.
19 Book XII, no sketch and no photograph existing, only an old description, stolen from the Frits Lugt collection during World War II (185 x 275 mm). Boon 1992, vol. II, pp. 64-65, no XXII. This drawing is referred to by Luijten and Meij (Rotterdam 1990, note 4) as originating from the Baron Roger Portalis collection, with auction references from 1927 and 1937. Dorine van Sasse van Ysselt kindly informed me that this drawing was acquired by Lugt in 1937.
20 Book XII, based on the sketch in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, inv. 1901-39-115.
21 Book XII, only known from the sketch in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, inv. 1979.14:6.
22 The 1939 edition by Th. Weevers has been used here.
23 At the end of book XII, after describing his adventure on the island of the sun-god, Ulysses ends his story with his arrival on Calypso’s island, referring to his earlier account of his long stay with her, thus closing the narrative circle. Earlier on I assumed that the preceding scenes are Ulysses and Calypso (1), Ulysses and the Daughter of Cadmus (2) and Ulysses and Nausicaä (3); Elen 2007, p 106.
24 Telemachos’s own adventures in search for his father are narrated in books II-IV of the Odyssey.
25 Ulysses and Telemachos; inv. no. I 297.
26 New York, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, inv. 1901-39-2657v; Baroni Vannucci 1997, pp. 218-219, no. 188, ill.