La fragua de Vulcano (1630)

Velázquez, Diego (1599-1660)

La fragua de Vulcano (The Forge of Vulcan)
Oil on canvas, 223 x 290 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

A figure suddenly appears on the left in a forge where various blacksmiths are working, dressed in an orange robe and wearing a laurel wreath, with rays of light emerging from his head. This is Apollo, who addresses himself to Vulcan, the blacksmith nearest to him, whose stance reveals his lameness. Everyone has stopped working, astonished by the news Apollo is recounting: the adultery of Vulcan’s wife, the goodness Venus, with Mars, god of war, whose armour is being made at the forge. This episode, taken from Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, provides the basis for one of Velázquez‘s most ambitious and unique works, marking a before and after in his career from both a technical and a compositional and spatial viewpoint.

The first known reference to the painting dates from 1634 when it was sold by the artist to Phillip IV for the Buen Retiro palace. In 1724 Palomino stated that it was painted during the artist’s first trip to Rome, at the same time as Joseph’s Bloody Coat brought to Jacob (monastery of El Escorial). The two works are of similar (although not identical) size and are also comparable in theme: they are large history paintings in which the artist directly confronted issues of pictorial narration rather than moral or devotional questions. In both works the central episode in the narrative is the transmission of a surprising piece of news and the range of reactions on the part of those hearing it. The representation of emotions notably interested the most important artists working in Italy around 1630, such as Guido Reni, Pietro da Cortona and Nicolas Poussin. In this sense, Velázquez‘s two paintings can be seen as an immediate response to the local context and one of a bold and direct nature. The artist made no attempt to encumber his figures with concealing garments, rather choosing an episode that obliged him to demonstrate his perfect mastery of the system of human proportions and his ability to transform the entire body (not just the face and hands) into a bearer of emotions. The resulting painting is a remarkable demonstration of his abilities.

The ultimate significance of Vulcan’s Forge has been the subject of considerable debate. Some authors have drawn attention to the fact that Homer used this episode with a didactic intent, giving Apollo the role of the eternal watchman of truth. According to this interpretation, the scene can be read in allegorical, Christian terms, with the god representing Christ as the legitimate owner of Truth. Other writers have considered the painting to be an allegory of art: the luminous figure of Apollo suddenly appears in the forge in order to illuminate the world of darkness with the light of the principal art forms. Following this idea, several authors have observed the similarities between this painting and Joseph’s Bloody Coat brought to Jacob with regard to the circumstances of their execution, their compositional ambition and the number of figures. As a result, they have proposed a global reading for the two paintings based on the idea of the power of the word to influence human emotions and behaviour, implying a discourse on the superiority of the world of ideas over that of mechanical labour. Aside from these significances, however, within Velázquez‘s mythological output this canvas stands out for its narrative clarity, in the sense that what is happening is what we see, while the action is set out in perfectly recognizable terms. As a result, it can be seen as a work in which the artist deployed one of his more classical structures.

Within Velázquez‘s development, Vulcan’s Forge marks his definitive conquest of space, the nude and expression, aspects that are intimately related in this work. Prior to his trip to Rome, the artist had experienced some problems in representing realistic spatial settings, which he always resolved through the juxtaposition of figures and objects. A good example is Los Borrachos (P01170), in which the drinkers are crowded together in the foreground. In Joseph’s Bloody Coat brought to Jacob Velázquez took a step forward in this sense, making use of a checkerboard floor, while in Vulcan’s Forge he completed the process, constructing his most complex and realistic spatial setting to date.

He achieved this by tacking the figure of Apollo and the blacksmiths as his starting point, rather than a pre-existing setting in which to locate the figures. It is these figures with their volume, turning movements and bodily gestures that create space. Here Velázquez made use of the nude, which has a capacity to generate space around it far greater than that of a clothed figure. This is immediately evident from a comparison between the crispness and quality of the space created by the blacksmiths and that generated by Apollo, who is partly clothed. In this sense, Vulcan’s Forge has one of the most coherent and successful descriptions of space to be found in any work by the artist, in which he had no need to make use of effects of aerial perspective of the type that would yield such outstanding results from The Surrender of Breda (P01172) and the equestrian portraits.

Vulcan’s Forge clearly reveals some of the consequences of Velázquez‘s Italian trip, including his study of classical sculpture, and the skill in the depiction of emotions that he acquired by copying Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Together, these elements give rise to one of his most successful compositions with regard to the unified, natural interaction of the figures. Technically, Vulcan’s Forge also represents a milestone in Velázquez‘s career as it is his first large-scale work in which he used the lead white priming that would become a distinctive trait of his technique from this date onwards, resulting in exceptionally luminous compositions (Text from Portús, J.: Velázquez, Kunsthistorisches MuseumVienna, 2014, pp. 301-302).

See also:

Homer (fl. 9th or 8th century BC): The Iliad (English) | Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD): The Metamorphoses (English)