The refined aesthetic of Italian Mannerism is beautifully exemplified in this drawing by Parmigianino. Although the subject of the drawing has been associated with the myth of Diana and Actaeon, which Parmigianino had painted a decade earlier at Fontanellato near Parma, the exact moment of the narrative has only recently been identified. The myth, recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells the story of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, whom she transformed into a stag as punishment for having stumbled upon her while she bathed. Rather than focusing on the main narrative, it has recently suggested that Parmigianino took his subject from a minor part of Ovid’s story, turning his attention to Actaeon’s hunting companion, who is shown sounding a horn to alert his master to the stag’s capture (Fiona Brown, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 44, 2004). The unsuspecting hunter does not realise that it is Actaeon himself who is being set upon by the hounds:
his friends, not knowing what they did, urged on the ravening mob with their usual encouragements and looked round for Actaeon, shouted for Actaeon, as if he were not there, each trying to call louder than the other. They lamented that their leader was absent, and that his slowness prevented him from seeing the booty chance had offered.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3:242–6)
The fantasy elements of the huntsman’s costume and gigantic horn point to the fact that the drawing is a work of elaborate poetic invention.
Parmigianino may have based the pose of the huntsman on a terracotta figure by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti in Florence, which is thought to have been the model for the sculpture of David. It is clear that Parmigianino was particularly attracted to the pose, which he used in a number of drawings that explored the eroticism of the male figure.
Text by Maria Zagala from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 35.