The Triumph of Galatea is a fresco completed about 1514 by the Italian painter Raphael for the Villa Farnesina in Rome. 
Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story. He chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (Stanze, I, 118–119). Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures whose forms are somewhat inspired by Michelangelo, [ citation needed ] whereas the bright colors and decoration are supposed to be inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left, a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducts a sea nymph; behind them, another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins.
As subject Raphael chose a verse from a poem by the Florentine Angelo Poliziano which had also helped to inspire Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. These lines describe how the clumsy giant Polyphemus sings a love song to the fair sea-nymph Galatea and how she rides across the waves in a chariot drawn by two dolphins, laughing at his uncouth song, while the gay company of other sea-gods and nymphs is milling round her.
The Sienese banker and art patron Agostino Chigi, whose great wealth made him one of the most powerful men of his age, built his Roman villa in the Trastevere district. Its construction and decoration were conducted by the Sienese painter and architect Baldassare Peruzzi, who, in turn, brought in other painters, including Sodoma and Sebastiano del Piombo, to execute parts of the fresco decorations. The ground-floor grand salon of the house has an ingenious and highly intricate ceiling fresco that treats Chigi’s horoscope; the stars were painted in the guise of personifications arranged in the sky at the moment of his birth. On the walls were planned a series of frescoes dealing with the gods of the earth and of the sea. Only two were ever executed: Sebastiano’s Polyphemus and Raphael’s Galatea. In contrast to its counterpart next to it, Raphael’s fresco offers continual turmoil and swift movement, as the graceful Galatea streaks across the sea in a shell propelled by dolphins.
Although the fresco is inspired by the tale of Acis and Galatea, Raphael has not chosen a scene that depicts the ill-fated lovers together. Instead, he has portrayed Galatea as she achieves apotheosis, which meant that upon her death she would ascend to join the fully divine beings, as a reward for her patience and endurance of trials and tribulations experienced in her life.
There are elements which suggest the scene has a chaotic, frenzied mood. Although Galatea has a beatific expression on her face, her robe and hair are whipped behind her in a manner that suggest a strong wind. The other characters portrayed in the fresco all suggest a sense of chaos; a Triton half-man, half-fish wrestles a sea-nymph at the left of the piece, while another blows a trumpet on the right. Three Cupids hover above Galatea, preparing to shoot their arrows. The musculature of the bodies surrounding Galatea show Raphael’s mastery of painting the human form, and the figures have been compared to those of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, tells the story of the mortal peasant shepherd, Acis, who falls in love with Galatea, a Nereid or water nymph, whose Greek name translates as ‘she who is milk white’. The jealous Cyclops, Polyphemus, bludgeoned Acis with a boulder and, in response, a distraught Galatea transformed him into the Sicilian river that bears his name. Their tale has inspired numerous works of art, including Handel’s pastoral opera of 1718, Acis and Galatea, with a libretto by John Gay, and paintings by Lorrain and Poussin.
Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, a fresco created around 1512 for the Villa Farnesina in Rome, depicts a scene later in the Nereid’s life, when Galatea stands triumphant in a shell chariot pulled along by dolphins. To the left, a Triton, half-man and half-fish, abducts a sea nymph, while another sounds a shell trumpet. The work is inspired by La Giostra (‘the Carousel’), a work by the poet Poliziano, who was tutor to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, and one of the great pan European intellectuals of the age. He had begun to write La Giostra in honour of Giuliano de’ Medici’s victory in a tournament in 1475. He abandoned it three years later, following the conspiracy by the Pazzi family, which attempted to oust the Medici as rulers of Florence, during which Giuliano was stabbed to death during High Mass in the city’s Duomo. Poliziano saved the life of Giuliano’s brother, Lorenzo, by locking him in the Cathedral’s sacristy.
Fresco, 295 x 225 cm
Villa Farnesina, Rome
To start with the small boys with Cupid’s bows and arrows who aim at the heart of the nymph: not only do those to right and left echo each other’s movements, but the boy swimming beside the chariot corresponds to the one flying at the top of the picture. It is the same with the group of sea-gods which seems to be ‘wheeling’ round the nymph. There are two on the margins, who blow on their sea-shells, and two pairs in front and behind, who are making love to each other. But what is more admirable is that all these diverse movements are somehow reflected and taken up in the figure of Galatea herself. Her chariot had been driving from left to right with her veil blowing backwards, but, hearing the strange love song, she turns round and smiles, and all the lines in the picture, from the love-gods’ arrows to the reins she holds, converge on her beautiful face in the very centre of the picture.