I spent Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum (in NYC) with two friends. I’d gone there specifically to see and study this painting, the “Crowning of Apollo.” It depicts the castrato Marc’antonio Pasqualini (one of the foremost singers of his day) being crowned with laurel by the God of music Apollo, with Marsyas the satyr bound in the background. I’ve written about this before, analyzing the story of Marsyas and Apollo and that whole piece is largely a visual representation of that article.
The singer depicted, M. Pasqualini was a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir, a composer in his own right, and the leading singer in numerous operas. Andrea Sacchi was a baroque painter of some note who received regular patronage from the Vatican. He had a flourishing school and his style was noted for its exuberance.
I wanted to see this painting in person for two reasons. Firstly, I honor the castrati as a group in my own ancestor practices and secondly, I wanted to study the painting as an artist.
It’s a huge painting, and quite dramatic. Pasqualini stands looking directly at the viewer, his hand resting lightly on a harpsichord (decorated with an image of Daphne turning into a Laurel and another bound satyr). Apollo is radiant, standing naked save for a crimson wrap and caught in the act of placing the laurel crown of the victor atop Pasqualini’s head. Marsyas writhes in the background, a testament to the sacrifices necessary to achieve excellence in one’s art. Apollo’s virility shines through in His pose, His image, and His very prominent phallus whereas the castrato’s virility is given over and through to his music completely and through that sacrifice he has been elevated to the attentions of this God. It’s a stunning piece and a powerful story.
Usually it’s difficult to see actual brush strokes in this style of painting. It simply wasn’t the norm, as one of my artist friends recently commented, for painters to betray their craft in that fashion. Here though, there are a couple of places where the brush strokes are apparent:
Pasqualini is robed in a leopard skin, linking him symbolically with the God Dionysos. At the bottom of that skin, one can see the masterful brush strokes hinting at a lace pattern of his robe.
Then there is the blue lacing on Apollo’s slipper. Blue is the rarest color in nature and is often used in art of this time to convey some connection to the Heavens, to the Holy, to God or in this case Gods.
I rather like the cold defiance in Pasqualini’s eyes as he stares down the viewer. Castrati were revered for their phenomenal voices, elevated to the status of rock stars at certain points in history, and yet condemned for the very physical mutilation that made those voices possible. They were mocked for being less than fully men yet apparently, this castrato at least was man enough to win the accolades of a God.