Gods and Myths in Cartari’s 16th Century Imagini

written by Sophie | Art History



Despite its title, Vincenzo Cartari’s (1502? -1570s?)  Images of the Gods (Le imagini degli dei delli antichi, Venice, 1556) was initially published without illustrations.1 But that did not stop this wonderful book from becoming one of the most important visual guides to ancient gods and myths in late 16th and 17th century Europe.2All of the subsequent editions (and there were over 30 within the next century or so) were extensively illustrated with etchings or woodcuts, created by a variety of artists (whose names are not always known).3 The 88 images that illustrated the second and later editions show gods and monsters in phantastical imagery. Although these images are perhaps not the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, they are charming and very interesting. It also provides a peek into how the late 16th century imagined the ancient world, just at a time when an increasing amount of antique sculpture was being discovered and authors explored the history of pagan religion in relation to their own Christian beliefs.

Encyclopaedia of Gods and Monsters

The ‘Images’ is an encyclopaedic work describing how the people of ancient times (Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc) represented their gods in statues, paintings and text. So if anyone in late 16th century Italy was wondering what Jupiter looked like to the ancient Greeks, then this book will tell you. Or perhaps you are wondering what the harpies looked like to the ancient Romans; this book will tell you how the ancient Roman author Vergil described them. Who was the god Pan? Cartari will tell you who he was to the ancients.

The frontispiece of the 1608 edition

The frontispiece of the 1571 edition

Cartari and his publisher hoped that his book would be particularly useful for sculptors, painters and poets. They made the then unusual decision to publish the book in Italian, and not Latin, which was more commonly used for learned publications like this. Similar books (there was definitely a trend going on) were published by Gregoria Giraldi (De Deis Gentium, 1548), and by Natale Conti (Mythologiae, 1520), both in Latin. Only Cartari’s work included illustrations. Giraldi and Conti organised their mythographies around genealogical or moral characteristics. Cartari sought out the iconographical traits of the ancient gods, working with ancient descriptions of art works, attributes and, at times, rituals.4

Cartari relied mainly on written antique sources. At this time antique statues were discovered regularly in Rome and Italy, but for Cartari and his fellow mythographers, literary texts were still the main sources of information. These mythographies were a new type of publication; no such mythographies were published before this time, at least not in this format. However, they describe the ancient myths in traditional ways, providing them with a euhemeristic, or allegorical deeper meaning. In doing this they were following medieval traditions. This ‘moralising’ of the ancient pagan texts was the familiar approach to antiquity.5

One of the first authors who wrote a mythography was Boccaccio, who in his Genealogia deorum (1360, first published in Italian in 1472) attempted to provide his reader with a history of ancient pagan religion and an intricate genealogy of the ancient gods. This mythography proved highly influential well into the 16th century, and Giraldi, Conti and Cartari made extensive use of it, often literally quoting large passages.  However, Boccaccio’s text did not include any illustrations.6

Mythographies expert (and editor/translator of Cartari and Conti) John Mulryan found that Cartari used over 200 sources and states elsewhere that there “is scarcely a sentence in the Images that is not derivative of a classical, late antique, or early medieval source”.7 Often-quoted sources range from antiquity, the Middle Ages to contemporaries and included Philostratus, Pausanias, Microbius, Pliny the Elder, Seneca, Aristotle, Plato, Apuleias, Plutarch, Eusebius, St. Augustine, Martianus Capella, Boccaccio and even Giraldi. Cartari also took texts from well-known emblem books such as the Emblemata by Alciato (1531) and antiquarian books full of recent Roman finds. Through his selection and presentation Cartari created much more than a encylcopedic work and provided his reader with his own interpretation – through text and image- of the ancient gods.

Images in Text and Form

Cartari’s title, The Images of the Gods of the Ancients, points to written as well as visual images, and so not exclusively to the illustrations. In his book he is creating images in the mind’s eye of the reader by describing ancient statues and paintings (usually taken almost literally from ancient writers). The ‘images’ are descriptions of the gods first and foremost, supported with etchings here and there. Here is Cartari’s description of the Tritons, as translated by John Mulryan in his 2021 edition, for example, who are Neptune’s companions:

“Their hair looks like marsh celery, of a color that makes it impossible to see where one hair follicle begins and the other ends. In fact the hairs are woven together like the leaves of the parsley plant. Their bodies are completely covered by hard crusty little scales. They have fins under their ears, and noses like human beings, although their mouths are much bigger than ours. They have pantherlike teeth and greenish-colored eyes. Their fingers and fingernails resemble mollusk shells, while the dolphinlike flippers they have on their chests and stomachs substitute for feet.” 8

A typhon as per Cartari’s description, from the 1571 edition of the Imagines

The Harpies and furies

Existing Traditions and New Ideas

It has been noted that Cartari and the others did not bring much innovation to the topic, because he relied solely on other authors.9 But Cartari’s book was published in Italian and has a charming writing style. He was one of the first to focus on imagery and iconography. Cartari is clearly trying to be all-comprehensive by including Greek, Roman, and Egyptian versions of the main gods (later editions, published after Cartari’s death, also included gods from the New World). The earlier publications of Pictor, Giraldi and Conti focussed on the etymology of the names, the genealogy of the gods, and the allegorical meaning of their stories.10 Cartari, however, brought a new take on the mythographies of old: iconography. His publisher, Marcolini, made a point of it when he stated that others had written on the ancient gods, “but nobody except Vincenzo Cartari has spoken about their statues and their images”.11

Although the mythographies were a new category of writings in the Renaissance, they should be placed within the context of an increasing interest in and knowledge about the ancient world. There was already a rich and long tradition of translations, commentaries and editions of Ovid, Homer and Virgil.12 To this we can now add an increasing number of discovered antiquities and the growing discipline of antiquarianism. Publications included Du Choul’s Discours de la Religion des Ancient Romains (1556), which contained a huge number of illustrations of Du Choul’s own collection of coins, as well as numerous illustrations on Roman military tactics. Other publications included a growing number of Roman guidebooks with illustrations of Roman monuments and statues, such as, for example, Giovanni Cavalieri’s Antiquarum Statuarum Urbis Romae (1561), and of course the famous Vitruvius translation (1556) by Daniele Barbaro, with illustrations by Palladio and Giuseppe Porta Salviati.13 All these different types of publications show a growing interest in the ancient world, although these different strands did not always intersect.14

The first edition of the Imagini was published without any illustrations, which could have been done as a test case, only to proceed to publish a more elaborate edition if the first one proved successful.15 The publisher was Francesco Marcolini whose publishing house enjoyed great success with richly illustrated books in Venice in the 1550s.16 Marcolini gathered a small group of like-minded people around him who were all keen to promote the study of antiquity. The mysterious group called the Accademia della Pellegrini included the writer Pietro Aretino, Francesco Sansovino (scholar and son of the architect Jacopo Sansovino), Cartari, the writer Anton Francesco Doni and perhaps the artist-engraver Enea Vico, Francesco Salviati, Vasari and Titian.17

After Marcolini’s probable death in or soon after 1559, Cartari was forced to find another publisher, but would have been able to rely on his contacts from Marcolini’s publishing house.18 The independent engraver Bolignino Zaltieri had worked with Marcolini on multiple occasions and would provide the illustrations for the second 1571 edition. The new publishers were Ziletti and Valgrisi who both published near-identical editions. The book was enlarged, and 88 etchings were included. Cartari himself wrote in the preface that the illustrations formed an essential supplement to the text.19 Zaltieri is named as the facilitator of the images but we must note that he was an engraver and publisher and not an artist. He would have outsourced the design of the engravings to someone else. It is unclear who the artist was. There are some suggestions that it was Giuseppe Salviati but if we compare his work with the illustrations in the ‘Images’ there are too many differences in style and so this remains an unsolved mystery.20

Structure of the Book

The Imagini consists of an introduction, in which Cartari briefly explained the history of religion, and then moved on to describe the ancient imagery of the main gods. He limited the gods to twelve ‘chief gods’ and then organised it all into 15 chapters. First, we are treated to a discussion of the concept of Eternity (this is at the end of the Introduction), then we move on to the first chapter on Saturn (Time), Apollo, Diana, then the four elements in Jupiter (fire), Juno (air), the Great Mother (earth) and Neptune (water). Next, we move to some lower ranked gods: Pluto, Mercury, Minerva, Bacchus, Fortuna and then finally gods related to love: Cupid, Venus and the Three Graces. Throughout other minor gods are discussed when and where appropriate, such as Janus in the chapter on Saturn and Pan in the chapter on Jupiter.

Two different depictions of Apollo

Two depictions of Jupiter; left with an egg in his mouth and holding a circle; right holding a small statue of Victory.

Illustrations: Jupiter and Pan

Let’s look at some of the images of Jupiter for example. In each chapter Cartari shared many descriptions of each god. Some are descriptions of statues, others are descriptions of what the god was thought to look like. In the chapter on Jupiter, we learn that the Egyptians depicted Jupiter sitting on a lotus tree and Cartari explained that this was because it shows that “the world’s matter is subject to Jupiter, for he rules over matter and governs it without ever touching it”.21 Cartari then moved on to explain how Jupiter was also known as Fate, Providence, Nature or even the World “because everything that we see comes entirely from him”. Pan is introduced in this chapter because “of the similarity between the two”.22 Cartari quoted Justin and Virgil and explained Pan’s connections with earth, shepherds and sheep. He explained the story of why Pan is depicted with a conch shell, a tortoise, a pipe and a goat, referring to Pausanias, Silius Italicus, Virgil, Herodotus, Boccaccio and many others. The stories continue, each providing various descriptions of Pan taken from a variety of sources. Each focus on what Pan looks like, what his attributes are, and why. Cartari mixed up descriptions of statues with stories of the god’s adventures and characteristics as well as rituals.

Cartari described a statue of Jupiter from the port of Piraeus, taken from Pausanias, and then retells a different description of the god by Martianus. He tells us that the Spartans gave their Jupiter statues four ears, and how the Thebans removed his hands.23 He described rituals such as the painting red of statues of Jupiter. And he also appeals to the senses when he described how statues, especially big or beautiful ones, could “add a certain something to the religion”.24 Cartari described the statue of Jupiter in Olympia by Phidias, taken directly from Pausanias, where a huge golden enthroned Jupiter is holding a small statue of Victory in one hand and a scepter in his other hand.25

The number of image descriptions (statues, coins or literary descriptions) is large and varied. Cartari mentioned famous statues and sculptors, as well as obscure rituals and less known interpretations. The descriptions of Jupiter are detailed and explain how and why they are as they are. The descriptions are visual; it is fairly easy to imagine what Jupiter would have looked like. To enhance this experience, we have, of course, the illustrations.

Composition of the Images

Many illustrations feature two figures: usually two different versions of Jupiter. The images are spread out over each chapter, but always inserted close to the description that matches the image. Not every Jupiter description is illustrated. We don’t get to see the Olympian Jupiter, but we do get a depiction of an Egyptian Jupiter, painted sky-blue: “They put a circle in one of his hands, and a royal sceptre in the other. […] He has an egg sticking out of his mouth from which the god they call Vulcan will be hatched. This egg is a symbol for the world […].”26 In the illustration this figure is positioned oddly in the sky with a rocky landscape beneath his feet. Right next to it is a small podium where another version of Jupiter is depicted: a small Greek Jupiter holding a sceptre and small statue of Victory and with an eagle at his feet. Both these figures sit slightly awkwardly within the overall image. Most of the illustrations in Cartari’s book have this dual composition. The figures seem to have been composed separately and stuck together where possible. There was clearly no intention to create single compositions or art works, but the focus was soleley on the transferring of information, giving many of the illustrations a formal and dry appearance. It is only the landscape that ties the figures together into a single image. These dry rocky landscapes seem to be a fairly traditional feature in Italian painting in the 16th century, as can be found in works by Bellini and Georgione.27

There are only a few single-composition images amongst the etchings where the image has been designed as a whole. These images stand out as much more elaborate and successful as art works, and function much less as dry textbook illustrations. In the chapter on Jupiter, we only get one single design like this, and it is one of the oddest of all. In this image we see a crowd of women follow some elderly men who are carrying a boat with a circular pyramid in it. Cartari explained that the Egyptians worshipped an image of Jupiter in the shape of a pyramid. During rituals they would carry it in a boat in procession, with women following it chanting poetry.28

A depiction of Jupiter as a pyramid in a boat

Ship of Bacchus

Throughout the book the most unusual images are the ones depicted within a single composition, while the more familiar figures are depicted as combined single figures, in a rocky landscape. Examples of such more elaborate illustrations are Neptune, Mother Earth, the Sirens, the Ship of Bacchus and more. The illustrations of the harpies and the Nile are wonderful for their bizarre quirkiness. Still, such words show a modern appreciation of 400-year-old illustrations and should (in this instance) be understood as they would have been in their own time. So, are these images “strange and bizarre” as Mulryan stated in his introduction to his Cartari translation?29 I imagine that many of these creatures are fairly familiar to 16th century eyes, especially ones which have read Ovid, Herodotus, kept up to date with the stories coming from the New World, or even opened a book like Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia (Bologna, 1642), but I would not hasten to claim that the reader was not as much amused as we are, or even shocked by it. Mulryan mentioned some possible sources for the images such as Apiano’s Inscriptiones, Du Choul’s Discours and Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica.30

The God of the Nile sitting on a hippo (?) in the bottom right corner

The style of the images do seem to fit an existing tradition of book illustrations we also find in Pictorius, Alciati and many of Marcolini’s publications such as Le Sorti (a popular book on fortune telling). The content of the images in Cartari, however, is more innovative in its purely iconographic character (it is solely about the visual and symbolic meaning of the image), its lack of moralising nature and often complete lack of narrative (the images rarely show a story). In this way they do not relate to emblem books, antiquarians’ publications, nor Ovid editions, but they do enhance the increasing understanding of the interaction between image and text.31

The illustrations are very precise in their inclusion of each attribute described. They give a literal depiction of what is described in the text. Figures are executed in a contemporary, slightly mannerist style, with elongated limbs and overly posed figures. Some of the male nude figures echo the contrapposto of ancient statues, but none, so far, seem to be literal copies of known ancient works. The many different depictions of the gods can be studied side by side, through text and image. Without the text the images would be more difficult to decipher, something that was partly solved with extensive captions in later editions. The illustrations provide an interpretation and specific form to what was otherwise a textual image only.

Cartari was one of the first mythographers to take an iconographic approach. He explained ancient visual imagery through the gathering and ordering of ancient sources, merging them at times. He might not have written anything ‘new’, but through his method he created his own interpretation of the ancient gods.32 In his interpretation, he left the gods in their own ancient world, so to speak, and maintained a historical distance, disconnecting them, as it were, from his own time. He connected textual sources with visual images, providing artists with something concrete to work with. As the century turned, an increasing number of publications would follow in his footsteps, with later authors such as Franciscus Junius’ The Paintings of the Ancients (1638) and Karel van Mander’s guide to Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his Schilder-Boeck (1604). There is no doubt that Cartari played an influential role there.

A Disconnect Between Text and Art

In the early days after Cartari’s publication it is interesting that there are three areas that do not connect: the contemporary art of Cartari’s Italy; the discoveries of the antiquarians; and finally, the literary sources on ancient myths. Malcolm Bull mentioned this disconnect when he wrote “you will hardly ever find an antique statue juxtaposed with verses from Ovid and an interpretation drawn from Boccaccio or a later mythographer”.33 Cartari did not refer to any known classical statues, while by the late 16th century quite a few had been found, recorded and published. Cartari seemed dedicated to the literary sources only.34 Contemporary art focussed more on Ovid than gods, if they featured ancient mythology at all. As again Bull pointed out, most mythological art can be found in ‘secondary art’ and artists would only dedicate a tiny fraction of their oeuvre to mythological subject matter.35 Some popular subjects in art were Jupiter’s many love conquests (Danae, Venus, Europa, Leda, etc) but as Cartari stated he was “not going to say any more about them, because I don’t find that the ancients ever used them as models for any image of Jupiter”.36

It seems that the stories of the classical literary tradition, the contemporary art scene, and the findings of the new antiquarians did not match. The literary tradition that Cartari worked with showed a very different ancient world than what the antiquarians were digging up at Roman monuments, and a whole other story was being told in visual art. These three worlds of classical reception could not be merged yet, and further analysis would shed light on this process. Cartari’s illustrations would have helped shape the interpretation of ancient myths. They put into form what was only imaginary at first and brought text and image closer together. For us, now, they help us understand how 16th century minds imagined what the ancients thought their gods looked like and the images give us a richly layered representation of ancient visualisation as well as Renaissance interpretation. The cherry on the cake for us is perhaps the sheer joy of seeing these imaginative creatures in form and shape.

The Apollo Belvedere, discovered in the late 15th century and well-known in the late 16th century. But how does it relate to mythographies published at that time? (image Wikipedia)

Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1560-62, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Jupiter’s love conquests feature in Renaissance art but depictions of the gods as themselves are much rarer. (image Wikipedia)

All images taken from Google Books, especially the 1571 edition of the Imagines: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Le_imagini_de_i_dei_de_gli_antichi_nelle/9dRcAAAAcAAJ 


  1. Cartari, Vincenzo, ‘A quelle che leggono’, Le imagini de I dei degli antichi, nelle quali se contengono gl’idoli, riti, ceremonie & altre cose appartenenti alla religione de gli antichi (Venice, 1571). I have used this wonderful recent translation by John Mulryan: Cartari, Vincenzo, Cartari’s Images of the Gods of the Ancients. The First Italian Mythography, trans. Mulryan, J. (Arizona, 2012).
  2. Allen, Don Cameron, Mysteriously Meant. The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical interpretation in the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1970), p. 233.
  3. A list of all editions can be found on the website ‘Vincenzo Cartari. Le Imagini de I Dei de Gli Antichi di V. Cartari’ by the University of Bergamo: https://dinamico2.unibg.it/cartari/edizioni.html (accessed 1/4/21). For this essay I am using the second edition from 1571, published by Francesco Ziletti in Venice and translated by Mulryan. Most of images were not reproduced for the 2012 translation but can be accessed online. The 88 etchings were re-used in subsequent editions. The 1571 edition can be accessed online: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Le_imagini_de_i_dei_de_gli_antichi_nelle/9dRcAAAAcAAJ (accessed 1/4/21).
  4. Mulryan, John, ‘The Renaissance Mythographers’, in Zajko, V, Hoyle, H., A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology (Hoboken, 2017), 62-64; Allen, Mysteriously Meant, p. 221-232; Enenkel, K.A.E., ‘The Making of 16th century Mythography …’, Humanistica Lovaniensia, 2002, vol. 51, pp 10-32; Seznec, J., The Survival of the Pagan Gods (Princeton, 1972), pp. 229-257.
  5. Allen, Mysteriously Meant, p. 201, 215; Mulryan, ‘The Renaissance Mythographers’, p. 61; Brisson, L., How Philosophers Saved Myths (Chicago, 2004), p. 146-147.
  6. Boccaccio had followers like Pictor who published his Theologia mythologica (1532) and Apotheseaos (1558) which did contain many illustrations and which, like Cartari later, had an iconographical slant.
  7. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. xxiii; Mulryan, J., ‘Translations and Adaptations of Vincenzo Cartari’s Imagini and Natale Conti’s Mythologiae: The Mythographic Tradition in the Renaissance’, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, vol. 8, no. 2 (1981), p. 275.
  8. Cartari, p. 192. Taken from Pausanias 9.21.1.
  9. Cartari, Vincenzo, Cartari’s Images, p. xxi; Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, p 233, 242, 250; Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths, p 147.
  10. Hartmann, Anna-Marie, English Mythography in its European context, 1500-1650 (Oxford, 2018), p. 47-50.
  11. As quoted in Hartmann, English Mythography, p. 44.
  12. Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths, p. 139.
  13. Bull, M., The Mirror of the Gods. Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (London, 2006), p. 9.
  14. Allen, Mysteriously Meant, p. 263; Pierguidi, S., ‘Porta’s Illustrations for Cartari’, Print Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4 (2005), p. 432.
  15. Lennon, M., ‘Cartari’s Imagini: Emblematic References in the Relationship of Text and Image’, Emblematica, vol. 3, no. 2 (1988), p. 266-267.
  16. Pierguidi, S., ‘Porta’s Illustrations for Cartari’, Print Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4 (2005), p. 433.
  17. Lennon, ‘Cartari’s Imagini’, p. 266; Stimac, J., Palumbo, M., “After Spirito: Fortune-Telling Books by Fanti and Marcolini”, PRPH Books, 6 May 2020, https://www.prphbooks.com/blog/fanti-marcolini, (accessed 1/4/21).
  18. On Marcolini see: Guerra, F., ‘The Identity of the Artists involved in Vasalius’s Fabrica 1543’, Medical History, vol. 13 (1969), p. 43.
  19. Cartari, Vincenzo, Le imagini, preface; Mulryan, J., ‘Captioned Images of Venus in Vincenzo Cartari’s Imagini’, Emblematica, vol. 22 (2016), p. 125.
  20. Pierguidi, ‘Porta’s Illustrations for Cartari’, p. 431.
  21. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 101.
  22. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 102-103.
  23. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 116-117.
  24. The referral to red paint was taken from Pliny, 35.45 and 33.36, where Pliny described the use of minium to paint statues red. “To add a certain something” was taken from Quintilian’s XII.x.9 of the Institutio Oratoria, where Quintilian writes about style.
  25. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 122.
  26. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 113.
  27. See also: https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/venetian-painting-in-the-early-renaissance.html#slide_1 
  28. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 129, where Mulryan notes this imagery was taken from Quintus Curtius’ History of Alexander.
  29. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. xxxi.
  30. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. xxxi; See also John Moffitt’s analysis of a ‘hidden sphinx’ in Bronzino: Moffitt, J., ‘A Hidden Sphinx by Agnolo Bronzino, “ex tabula Cebetis Thebani”, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 46, No.2 (1993), pp. 227-307.
  31. This connection between text and image was already set in motion by emblem books. Lennon, ‘Cartari’s Imagini’, p. 264.
  32. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. xxxi.
  33. Bull, The Mirror of the Gods, p. 36; See also Freedman, ‘Cinquecento Mythographic Descriptions’, p. 49.
  34. See also Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, p. 246.
  35. Bull, The Mirror of the Gods, p. 83.
  36. Cartari, Cartari’s Images, p. 133.
Published June 21, 2021

Related Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}