The Calumny of Apelles

NONE of Apelles’ paintings have survived, except maybe in inferior copies in Pompeii or similar places, but we do have a detailed description of at least one. In his short essay on slander, or calumny, Lucian of Samosata relates that Apelles, having narrowly escaped execution on a slanderous accusation at the court of Ptolemy, vented his anger with an allegoric painting:

On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slender while she was at some distance from him. Near him, on one side stand two women—Ignorance, I think, and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has a piercing eye and look as if he had wasted away in long illness; he may be supposed to be Envy. Besides, there are two women in attendance on Slander, egging her on, tiring her and tricking her out. According to the interpretation of them given me by the guide to the picture, one was Treachery and the other Deceit. They were followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—Repentance, I think her name was. At all events, she was turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who was approaching.

Thirteen centuries after this description was written down, Botticelli used it to re-create a picture that he had never seen, could never see. Purportedly, this relatively small (about 3′ by 2′) panel was his last secular work, some time in the 1490s.

There are far larger reproductions found on the web, I chose this one because it is complete and seems to have the best colors.

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