In a composition, alive with naked, twisting bodies, the story of Bacchus's birth unfolds as a wry commentary on the perils of passion. On discovering that the supreme god Jupiter had impregnated the young mortal Semele, Jupiter’s wife, Juno, hatched a plan to end the love affair. Disguised as Semele's nurse, and knowing that Jupiter's lightning and thunder were lethal, Juno persuaded Semele to ask Jupiter to visit her “in all his glory” so that she could be absolutely certain of his identity. Here, Semele gives birth to Bacchus, who falls into the arms of nymphs below while his mother’s body is consumed by flames. From the top of the clouds, Juno looks apprehensively at her husband, who is armed with thunderbolts, her raised hand and furrowed brow signaling uncertainty and perhaps regret over her violent revenge.
This scene was originally conceived as part of a series of paintings depicting mythological love stories for Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (reigned 1530 – 1540). Giulio Romano acted as architect for the ducal palace, the Palazzo del Tè, and later became artist to the Mantuan court. While the design of the series was conceived by Giulio himself, it is likely that this work was executed with the help of workshop assistants. The artist’s interest in this subject matter is demonstrated by a drawing of the same subject which is also in the collection of the Getty Museum and illustrates a different composition from that of the painting.