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Diana and Callisto, by Richard Wilson

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About the artwork

Wilson may not have been aware of the gruesome rites of succession to the priesthood of the moon goddess practiced in the vicinity but he knew that the ancient name of the lake was Speculum Dianae, or ‘Diana’s Mirror.’ The name was apt. ‘The water is beautifully clear,’ according to a 19th century guide book, ‘and rarely ruffled by wind; the whole presents an exquisite picture, the gem of the Alban Mountains.’ The sight, from the temple precincts, of the moon reflected in the oval expanse of still water would readily bring to mind its goddess’s looking glass 

Wilson often placed figures in the foreground of his landscapes. This was partly to emphasise the grandeur of sublime scenery dwarfing the tiny human beings seen against it, as in his Lake Albano and Castelgandolfo nearby, and the Villa of Maecenas, Tivoli in Room 5. The figures provide a human focus of interest and it is surely no accident that in our time other people’s holiday snaps of landscapes, however beautiful, are invariably tedious unless enlivened by someone grinning in front of them.  In this case Wilson departed from his conventional repertoire of picturesque peasants, lovers or fishermen and presented the viewer with a scene from Ovid, directly related to the folklore of Lake Nemi. ‘The classical figures’, declared an early commentator, were designed to make the scene ‘agreeable to the taste of true connoisseurs and men of learning.’ In Book 2 of his Metamorphoses, the Latin poet tells of the seduction by Jupiter of Callisto, one of Diana’s nymphs. Guilt stricken, Callisto conceals her secret from her mistress until, forced by her fellows to undress for bathing, her pregnancy is revealed. Enraged, the virgin goddess banishes her. Callisto later gives birth to a boy called Arcas, whereupon Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno compounds the poor girl’s miseries by turning her into a bear. Arcas grows up to become a hunter, unaware of his origins and the predictable tragedy of son slaying hirsute mother is only averted by Jupiter’s last minute intervention. He scoops up Callisto and Arcas and places them in the sky as neighbouring constellations: the Great Bear and the Little Bear. On the bank of Lake Nemi, Wilson shows us the climactic point of the first part of Ovid’s story: the naked and heavily pregnant Callisto buries her face in shame among her companions while her mistress denounces her with an accusatory pointed finger.

There is another version of the picture which incorporates figures bathing but is not otherwise identified with the story of Diana and Callisto. Perhaps the most bizarre variant, however, was one which combined the landscapes of central Italy and Wilson’s native Wales. In The Lake of Nemi or Speculum Dianae with Dolbadarn Castle, the picturesque Welsh ruin in the Conwy valley dominates the skyline, while the figure composition of the goddess and her entourage in the foreground is reversed.