Listening to Art

04.08: Dosso Dossi, Gyges and King Candaules

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume four, number eight: Gyges and King Candaules by Dosso Dossi.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

Dosso Dossi was an Italian painter who died in 1542. Gyges and King Candaules was painted in 1510. It depicts a mythical scene, which I will describe by quoting from Anthony Powell’s 1973 novel Temporary Kings (pp. 92–93). This is the penultimate in his twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. (That title comes from Nicolas Poussin’s painting of the same name, which we heard in volume two number six.) In Temporary Kings there is a scene in Venice where many of the major characters, including the narrator Nick Jenkins and Dr. Emily Brightman, a don at an unnamed English university, meet at a palazzo and look at a painting of a similar scene. Dr. Brightman explains the story.

“Candaules was king of Lydia—capital, Sardis, of the New Testament—Gyges his chief officer and personal friend. Candaules was always boasting of the beauty of his wife. Finding him, as the King thought, insufficiently impressed, Candaules suggested that Gyges should conceal himself in their bedroom in such a manner that he had some opportunity to see the Queen naked. Gyges made some demur at that, public nakedness being a state the Lydians considered particularly scandalous.”

“The Lydians sound just full of small-town prejudices,” said Glober.

“On the contrary,” said Dr. Brightman. “The Greeks did not know what being rich meant until they came in contact with the Lydians, now thought to be ancestors of the Etruscans.”

I remembered the text, from the Book of Revelations, inscribed in gothic lettering on the walls of the chapel that had been the Company’s barrack-room, when I first joined. Now it seemed particularly apt.

“Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”

“Exactly,” said Dr. Brightman. “Gyges tried to be one of the worthy at first, but Candaules insisted, so he gave in, and was hidden in the royal bedchamber. Unfortunately for her husband, the Queen noticed the reluctant voyeur stealing away—we see her doing so above—and was understandably incensed. She sent for Gyges the following day, and presented him with two alternatives: either he could kill Candaules, and marry her en secondes noces, or—no doubt a simple undertaking in their respective circumstances at the Lydian court—she would arrange for Gyges himself to be done away with. In the latter event, familiarity with her unclothed beauty would die with him; in the former, become a perfectly proper aspect of a respectably married man’s—or rather married king’s—matrimonial relationship. Gyges chose the former course of action. His friend and sovereign, Candaules, was liquidated by him, he married the Queen, and ruled Lydia with credit for forty years.”

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 54 cm wide by 41 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Gyges and King Candaules by Dosso Dossi, recorded at the Galleria Borghese, in Rome, on 30 May 2018.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was Gyges and King Candaules by Dosso Dossi. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Denton, William. “Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time.Listening to Art 02, no. 06 (01 February 2018).

Galleria Borghese. “Galleria Borghese.” Galleria Borghese.

Picturesinpowell. “XI. Temporary Kings.” Picturesinpowell.

Powell, Anthony. Temporary Kings. London: Fontana, 1974.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Dosso Dossi.”