Allegory of Life
Giorgio Ghisi, designer
Allegory of Life, 1561
Engraving, trimmed within platemark
Plate: 37.8 x 54.1 cm (14 7/8 x 21 5/16 inches)
Museum Works of Art Fund 57.032
(September 18, 2009 – January 3, 2010)
This engraving—with its myriad effects, such as shining stars, turbulent water, and a distant rainbow—exhibits Giorgio Ghisi’s organized, rich chiaroscuro approach at its finest. By varying the direction and density of lines, Ghisi retained the clarity of composition even while filling every inch of the plate in a kind of horror vacui. Such overall tonal coverage would become the standard for reproductive engravings in the late 16th and 17th centuries.
A tablet at the lower left claims Raphael as the inventor, but scholars are not convinced that he devised the print (made several decades after his death); rather, it is probably of Ghisi’s own invention. The engraving is an allegory, which, in the most general terms, depicts the two paths of good and evil. The bearded man, at left, has badly guided the boat of his own existence to a shore populated by jagged peaks and ferocious beasts. He reaches out toward a woman on the other side of a turbulent sea. She may represent Reason, or perhaps Glory, as she rests her hand on a palm tree, a symbol of victory. A rainbow in the distance intimates the possibility of hope and perhaps salvation. Two tablets featuring quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid near each of the figures reference unrequited love, adding even more mystery to the ultimate meaning of the image.