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Midas’ Ears of a Donkey

Poetic contests are one of the main events of courtesan life. In the academies, supported by great aristocrats, the poets get together to recite verses, to praise, and to be awarded.

Poetic contests are one of the main events of courtesan life. In the academies, supported by great aristocrats, the poets get together to recite verses, to praise, and to be awarded.

In 1663, in Lisbon, the Academia dos Generosos proposed to hold a poetic contest to celebrate the victory of Portuguese weapons at the Battle of Ameixial. In the text of the announcement, the king is the protector of the Arts, while the poets are compared to the knights who fought for the defense of the kingdom. So the poster said when summoning all academics:

The successes of this warfare, like their applause, are due to Your Majesty. Under the patronage of your real greatness, both those who fought in the battles and those who now contend in the Academy will be venerated and safe. Your Majesty, like our Portuguese Apollo, has rays to burn in combat. With that brilliance in both parts of the event, it is expected to see Your Highness the true hero of the best poem, to accompany you, and celebrate the winner in the Sacred Conquest.

The Judgement of Midas. Quinta dos Marqueses de Fronteira, c. 1669. © Teresa Verão.

The gardens of the Quinta dos Marqueses de Fronteira also celebrate the victories of the Restoration Wars. But on the tile panel of the stair that goes up to the balcony of the kings, we witness another contest. As the poet Ovid tells us, King Tmolus, with his head crowned with a holm-oak branch, presided over the musical challenge that opposed Apollo’s lyre to Pan’s flute.

For the depiction of the episode, the painter followed the beautiful engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, published in the late 16th century, with Apollo in the center, accompanied by the Muses, and Midas, the avid king who wished the touch of his hands to turn everything into gold, represented on his back, embarrassed, with donkey ears protruding from the crown. As is well known, the donkey ears were a punishment for the Phrygian king being the only one to disagree with the contest’s verdict, preferring to hear the melody of the crude instrument of Pan.

The Judgement of Midas. Hendrick Goltzius, 1590 © Rijskmuseum
The Judgement of Midas. Hendrick Goltzius, 1590. © Rijskmuseum.

This is the second representation of a musical dispute in the program of the Villa, and on the terrace that links the palace with the chapel we can find the sculptures of Apollo and Marsyas – who was also defeated by the favorite of the Muses.

In these mythic competitions, we do not see the opposition between two nations, but the primordial confrontation between the representatives of a wild nature against the representative of all Arts and Sciences, of Dramatic Poetry, Epic, Lyric, History, and Astronomy. It is the triumph of civility over the uncultivated land. King Midas has been forgiven for his greed, but the ears of ignorance and lack of taste, these remained forever.

ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

NEVES, José Cassiano. The palace and gardens of Fronteira: seventeenth and eighteenth century Portuguese style. 3rd rev. ed. by Vera Mendes and Fernando Mascarenhas. Photography by Nicolas Sapieha. Lisbon: Quetzal Editores, 1995. ISBN 978-0935748987.

Lisbon, Quinta dos Marqueses de Fronteira

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