Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto
Commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte in 1597 for the ceiling of his alchemical laboratory, this oil on plaster work is the only mural painting by Caravaggio. Though known to the art biographer Bellori in the late 17th century, the ceiling was at some point covered, and rediscovered only in 1969 by Giuliana Zandri.
Room for alchemy in Casino Aurora with ceiling painting by Caravaggio (1570) by CaravaggioArchivio Boncompagni Ludovisi
Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi with videographers in the former alchemy laboratory of Cardinal Del Monte, who owned the Casino Aurora 1596-1621. The room with its ceiling painting by Caravaggio is only 2.75 meters wide.
Casino Aurora. Painting by Caravaggio of "Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto" (1597) by CaravaggioArchivio Boncompagni Ludovisi
Caravaggio painted an allegory of the alchemical elements using three Olympian gods: Jupiter (representing air and sulfur), Neptune (water and mercury), and Pluto (earth and salt).
Jupiter, identified by the eagle which he straddles, appears to spin a celestial globe. Giovanni Pietro Bellori in his 1674 biography of Caravaggio claims that the artist in this composition wanted to demonstrate his mastery of perspective.
The translucent globe shows the sun orbiting the earth, and the zodiacal signs of Pisces (on which Jupiter places his hand), Aries, Taurus and Gemini (20 February-21 June)—a reference to the beginning and development of the alchemical process.
Casino Aurora. Painting by Caravaggio of "Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto", vertical view (1597) by CaravaggioArchivio Boncompagni Ludovisi
Just as Jupiter is accompanied by his eagle, Neptune receives a sea-horse and Pluto his three-headed dog Cerberus (with three different displays of his teeth). It has been suggested that each of the three deities is a self-portrait of Caravaggio.
Original entrance to room for alchemy in Casino Aurora (1570) by UnknownArchivio Boncompagni Ludovisi
In the time of Caravaggio's patron Cardinal Del Monte, the room for alchemy was quite removed from the rest of the palace, accessible only by this single narrow door. Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi on purchasing the Casino added an additional entrance.
Cover to vent in room for alchemy in Casino Aurora (1596-1597) by Cardinal Francesco del MonteArchivio Boncompagni Ludovisi
In November 2019 a team from University of Bologna at Ravenna made a new photographic survey of the Caravaggio work and its context. This oval feature was identified as the cover for a vent, which implies that alchemical experiments were conducted in the room.
Text by T. Corey Brennan, in collaboration with †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.