Circe in Sampierdarena?

Alix Wilkinson writes:

The dome of the central chamber in Sapierdarena's grotto showing the transformations from Ovid (photo by Charles Boot)

The dome of the central chamber in Sapierdarena’s grotto showing the transformations from Ovid (photo by Charles Boot)

The GHS tour to ‘The Two Rivieras’ organized by Robert Peel and Charles Boot, visited an amazing grotto created by Galeazzo Alessi (1512–72), in a garden belonging to nuns in Sampierdarena, west of Genoa. Professor Lauro Magnani, our guide to Genoese gardens, has written that the animals represent ‘wild nature’, and the whole design is an ‘interpretation of nature along scientific, magical and literary lines’. Some of the ‘literary lines’ are to be found in scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which emphasize the ‘transforming power of water’. It struck me that these ‘literary lines’ could be further extended into the overall design of the grotto. It is an island, surrounded by caverns, inhabited by smiling animals, which makes one think of Circe’s island, visited by Odysseus. Here, after a little bother, when Circe turned some of his sailors into pigs, but soon restored them to human form, Odysseus and his shipmates were feasted for a year in palatial surroundings ‘On sides of meat and drafts of heady wine’.

This cheerful lion sits just below the dome (photo by Tess Canfield).

This cheerful lion sits just below the dome (photo by Tess Canfield).

Circe’s animals were cheerful creatures  The sailors found:

‘Mountain wolves and lions were roaming round the grounds, …
But they wouldn’t attack my men; they just came pawing
Up around them fawning, swishing their long tails, …
Nuzzling around my men — lions, wolves, with big powerful claws.’

When Circe discovered her magic did not work against the protection provided Odysseus by the god, Mercury/Hermes, she became Odysseus’ lover, and bore him a son, Telegonus. After this romantic interlude, she agreed to let him leave her, and told him how to avoid the whirlpool of Scylla and Charybdis, and get past the Sirens, without being lured by their songs onto rocks. So, she qualifies as a friend to sailors.

Odysseus was something of an inspiration for merchants, who built their palaces in Genoa. Some decorated their homes with frescoes representing scenes from the Odyssey. ‘The ‘Return of Ulysses’ was painted in the Palazzo Grimaldi (now Meridiana), and there was a Ulysses cycle in the Villa della Peschiere. Polyphemus, who was blinded by Ulysses (Odysseus), features in the decoration of the Fonte Doria.

The interpretation, of the design of the grotto Pavese suggested here, depends on the expression on the faces of the animals, and on the island inside the grotto, for Circe’s palace was on an island. Alessi made an island, with a rustic grotto, in Adamo Centurione’s park at Pegli, but the island was free-standing in a lake. He made another freestanding island outside the grotto at the Fonte Doria. The grotto Pavese was probably constructed to celebrate the marriage of Camillo Pavese with Maria Doria in 1594. On that occasion there may have been a banquet for the couple. The grotto was a marvel, and could lend itself to many interpretations, teasing the guests who were invited to see it.


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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith