Prometheus, a Titan, refused to join his kind in the battle against the Olympians, and subsequently disobeyed the god Zeus with his decision to create mankind. After shaping man from mud and water, in the image of the gods, Prometheus is seen here bringing him to life with a spark of fire. In the upper left, Prometheus steals the spark with the aid of Athena from the Chariot of the Sun, combining two episodes in the story.
The unusual mythological subject of Prometheus creating man was virtually absent from 17th-century painting, appearing instead in engravings. The unique subject and the imposing size of the canvas suggest that the work was commissioned by an erudite patron from Palermo’s cultured elite. Novelli and his patron also seem to have arrived at a novel interpretation of the myth, as here Prometheus uses the fire to bring man to life, rather than simply giving man the ability to use fire. The final scene from Prometheus's story was more popular among Baroque and later Romantic artists: Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and forcing him to suffer repeated disembowelment, a fate from which only Hercules could save the Titan.
Novelli’s dramatic chiaroscuro gives the effect of man emerging from darkness, and the naturalistic treatment of facial features and emotion conveys Prometheus's anxiety over the fate of his creation, seen in the wrinkles around his eyes, as well as man's naivety and confusion at the fact of his existence. Like the Neapolitan artists from whom he drew inspiration, Novelli used common people as models for mythological and divine subjects. His realism takes on narrative significance in the composition: the similar skin tones and similarly engaged muscles and tendons of both figures reinforce the similarities between the gods and mankind, and by extension, the viewer.
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