Ascalaphus turned into an owl, Italian school from the 17th century


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Rare subject from Ovid’s metamorphosis.
Ascalaphus turned into an owl, Italian school from the 17th century.

Italian school, 17th century

Ascalaphus turned into an owl

Inscribed Ascalfo acusatore mutato in Guffo with pen and brown ink.

Red chalk, pen and brown ink, red and brown wash. 

147 x 205 mm – 5 3/4 x 8 1/16 in.

Provenance: Sotheby’s New York, 13 janvier 1988, attributed to Elisabetta Sirani ; Paris, Collection d’un amateur. Dessins anciens, Artcurial, 30 March 2011, lot 12.


This beautiful anonymous drawing illustrates a rarely represented episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollodorus’s Bibliotheca. After Hades had kidnaped Persephone, her mother Demeter obtained from Zeus the promise of her return, but Ascalaphus, the son of river Acheron and nymph Orphne, who had seen her eating seven seeds of a pomegranate, accused her of breaking the fast ordered by the Parcae. Persephone was condemned to spend six months in hell every year. Demeter (or Persephone herself, according to Ovid) took her revenge by transforming Ascalaphus into a screech owl, a notoriously ill-omen bird.

As in prints by Antonio Tempesta or Johan Ulrich Kraus, the drawing shows the man during its metamorphosis: he is still standing on his legs, but he is already covered with feathers, a beak has appeared on his face, and his two arms have changed into wings. The former attribution to Elisabetta Sirani suggests the drawing’s Bolognese origin. Its technique, combining red chalk lines and brown wash, and the elongated shape of the figures, also recall some drawings by Domenico Maria Canuti (Paris, Louvre Museum, Olindo and Sophronia condemned to the stake, INV 18031). 

Condition report – Writings on the verso. Laid down on its mount.