Morbetto (The Plague in Phrygia), after 1520
After Raphael's drawings
Engraving. 199 x 251 mm
Inventory number: E1936
This is morbid. In the foreground there lies a dead woman with a child. There is an acrid smell. The man is holding his nose as he tries to push the child away. If it is to live, this child must not drink its mother’s milk. But this is a situation full of contradictions in that the child will also find it difficult to survive without. A divine light is flooding into the otherwise dark room through the window on the left. If you have faith, there is hope. But the scene is one of contrasts.
The motif starts out from one of Raphael’s drawings, but it is also based on a literary model that may itself have had a historical background. In Virgil’s great poem The Aeneid, the story is told of the ten-year-long war between Greeks and Trojans, a people who lived on the Asian side of the Dardanelles – once known as the Hellespont. The Aeneid relates how the surviving Trojans had very skilfully adapted to their new surroundings. They had just started building the city of Pergamea: “…when suddenly the air was poisoned, and a terrible, insidious sickness took possession of human bodies, the leaves on the trees and the seeds in the field and led to a devastating failure of the crops.” Raphael’s drawing of The Plague in Phrygia, c. 1512, along with the other drawings that Marcantonio Raimondi took as models for his print, came at a time when images of the plague were still uncommon in visual art. Raphael’s drawings became models for Raimondi and others. And the popularity that portrayals of the plague achieved in succeeding centuries was perhaps due to the fact that many could recognise their own experiences in the recurrent outbreaks of the disease.