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Allegory of Life
Founder's Bequest 1816
Ghisi was primarily a reproductive engraver, executing plates after the designs of other artists, but this composition appears to be largely his own invention. The tablet at the lower-left of the image states RAPHAELIS VRBINATIS INVENTUM ('Raphael of Urbino invented it'), but only the pose of the male figure is thought to derive from his work (from a male youth in The School of Athens, which Ghisi engraved in 1550). The female figure is thought to derive from a medal by Leone Leoni of 1551, which portrays a member of the Gonzaga family as the goddess Diana, although there is no lettering on the print to confirm (or even suggest) this.
The lettering on the other tablets further compounds the mysteriousness of the print. The plaques near both figures contain quotations from Virgil's Aeneid: the one to the right of the male figure's feet translates as 'The unhappy one sits and will sit forever' (Aeneid, VI.617), while the quotation on the tablet below the female figure's left foot reads 'do not yield to adversities, but go out to meet them bravely' (Aeneid VI.95). Much else about the print remains as yet unknown, including the significance of two tiny coats of arms that appear on the buildings in the sun-lit distance, and the identity of Philippus Datus, whose name appears before Raphael's on the lower-left tablet. According to the inscription this man commissioned the plate 'for the good of his soul'.
In creating this wealth of detail, Ghisi undoubtedly drew on his skills as a damascener, a craftsman who incises lines into a metal object and inlays them with a wire of precious metals. The print's meaning has remained elusive, perhaps signifying that the audience relished the mystery: the print provoked thought as well as being a feast for the eyes.