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Study for the Head of Charon for "Aeneas and the Cumaean Sybil Showing the Golden Bough to Charon"

Pietro Testa, Italian, 1612 - 1650

Made in Italy, Europe


Black chalk on laid paper

Sheet: 9 15/16 x 7 5/8 inches (25.2 x 19.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, 1985

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Testa was one of the most intriguing artists of seventeenth-century Italy. A melancholy and isolated individual, his primary artistic production took the form of prints and drawings, often expressing complicated allegorical and theoretical ideas. This arresting study is for a figure in a painting depicting an incident from Virgil's Aeneid and was done in the last years of the artist's life, which ended in 1650 with his suicide by drowning in the Tiber.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Most of Testa’s drawings are pen-and-ink compositional sketches, but the present sheet shows how he exploited the medium of chalk to depict intense facial expressions. The drawing is a study for the head of Charon in a painting (now in a private collection; Pietro Testa, 1612 - 1650: Prints and Drawings, no. 127, fig. 127) that portrays the dramatic incident from Virgil’s Aeneid in which Aeneas tries to cross the Styx in search of his father, Anchises, in the underworld. The attempt entails bribing the fearsome boatman Charon to take him across the river, which Aeneas, helped by the Cumaean Sibyl, succeeds in doing by offering Charon the Golden Bough, the bough of destiny long hidden. Virgil, who dwelt deliciously on the unspeakable horrors of hell, described the boatman thusly: “a grim ferryman guards the waters of this river, Charon, hideous in his squalor, on his chin there lies a mass of untrimmed gray hair; his eyes are fixed and fiery” (Aeneid 6.298 301, ed. James Lansdale and Samuel Lee, 1903). Testa’s challenge was to depict Charon’s terrifying face while at the same time showing the boatman’s wonder at the spectacle of the Golden Bough. The painting and therefore the drawing have been dated to the last years of Testa’s life, around 1648-50. Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 14.

    Sotheby’s, London, 22 October 1984, lot 463 (as French, seventeenth century), repro.;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art; Cambridge, Massachusetts, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University. Pietro Testa, 1612 - 1650: Prints and Drawings. Exhibition catalogue by Elizabeth Cropper et al. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988., no. 128, fig. 128.

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