Diego de Velázquez, Forge of the Vulcan, 1630

19 Jul

Velázquez’s Forge of the Vulcan is a large oil on canvas of the god Apollo visiting Vulcan within his forge, or blacksmith workshop. Now found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the painting represents the moment when Apollo tells Vulcan that Venus, his wife, is having an affair with Mars. Vulcan, who is crafting weapons in his workshop, stands to the right of Apollo, who can be recognized by the crown of laurel around his head. The other blacksmiths in the forge stop in the middle of their work due to the surprise of both the appearance of Apollo and the news he is delivering. Forge of the Vulcan is noteworthy because it marks a change in Velázquez’s painting style. The change was influenced by his journey through Italy as well as a visit from Peter Paul Rubens to the Spanish court in 1628. The colors used and rendering of the bodies and the forge shows the influence of Italian painting on Velázquez. However, his use of ordinary people represents the influence of his Spanish training.

Velázquez chose to center the subject of his painting on the moment the Vulcan hears the news of Venus’ infidelity from Apollo. For this reason, Apollo is swathed in an orange toga to mark his importance. This bold use of coloring by Velázquez shows influence from Italian Renaissance painting where painters like Michelangelo and Titian used bold and striking colors in their paintings. The forge is dominated by gray and brown colors but is punctuated by bursts of orange and yellow from the fire and the hot metal being made into weapons and armor. The contrast between the dusty brown forge and the bright fire and toga heightens the drama of the scene. Visually, the orange-yellow colors move the viewers’ eye across the canvas. The bright yellow halo around Apollo’s head also contrasts sharply with the dark surroundings further marking Apollo as important within the scene. Apollo’s gaze is directed at Vulcan which causes the viewers’ eye to move from Apollo toward Vulcan, emphasizing these two figures as the center of the action. The use of striking colors inspired by the Italian masters helps draw the viewers’ eye across the canvas while also emphasizing the important people.

Forge of the Vulcan shows Velázquez’s interest in nude figures and he renders them in a classical style influenced by Italian painters. The figures are large and muscular and portrayed in such a way as to show off their bodies. The dynamic positions of the men’s bodies speak to the dramatic gesture common in Italian Renaissance art and emphasize the shock and surprise felt by Vulcan and the other men in the workshop. However, these bodies are of contemporary men and the myth takes place within the human realm: in a blacksmith’s workshop that could be found in Spain. While the bodies are muscular, the figures are not idealized in the same way the Italian masters idealized their portrayals of the gods. Vulcan is portrayed as a blacksmith, surrounded by tools typically found in a forge. He stands in contrapposto, but has the face of an ordinary man. Vulcan is not idealized and is quite ugly. He only stands out from the other figures as Vulcan due to Apollo’s gaze. The same can be said for Apollo who also looks like an ordinary man and is only marked as a god by the halo and bright orange toga. While the toga falls in such a way to show as much of his body as possible, he is still representative of a contemporary man. The surrounding men are arranged in different positions so Velázquez can illustrate his mastery of the nude body.  The man in the foreground with his back to the viewer is also positioned in contrapposto while the man on the far right is bent over armor with his muscular leg extended out in front of him. The men are clothed in a simple brown cloth that allow their bodies to be visible but also marks them as everyday blacksmiths.

 After his visit to Italy, the style of Velázquez painting began to change. But even with an interest in dramatic gesture, space, the nude figure, and color learned from the Italian masters, Velázquez still found ways to make these Italian influences his own by incorporating characteristics of Spanish painting into his works. Forge of Vulcan is one such work where characteristics from both Italy and Spain can be found.


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