EXTERNAL HISTORY: Considered, along with LAS MENINAS, to be one of the most important masterpieces of DIEGO DE VELAZQUEZ in his final period, this mythological scene depicts Minerva’s dispute with Arachne over weaving abilities. Traditionally considered to represent women working at the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel, but it is now proven to be a mythological subject. It was probably painted around 1657.
The title of THE SPINNERS”, as it is popularly known, is a later invention and seems to have been inspired by the women who are spinning in the foreground. They were workers in the Santa Isabel tapestry factory in Madrid. This Velazquez painting, considered for a long time to represent a generic theme, actually hides the depiction of a mythological theme draped in the everyday labor of a tapestry workshop. In the mid-forties, specialists refused to interpret it as a simple everyday scene. Their doubts were clarified when researcher Maria Luisa Caturla brought to light an inventory in which an unknown Velazquez’s Fable of Arachne was mentioned, owned by huntsman to King Philip 4th, Don Pedro de Arcc.
One of the problems that hindered the identification of the subject lay in the fact that the work did not belong to any collections and there was no documentary information about it.
INTERNAL HISTORY: The Fable of Arachne, as related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells how Minerva, goddess of the arts and of war, competes with Arachne, famous for her skill in spinning and weaving a tapestry. The young spinner was insolent enough to depict in her work one of the love adventures of the goddess’s father, Jove. As punishment, she was transformed into a spider.
ICONOGRAPHY: Velazquez used the Baroque technique of inserting a picture within a picture, and he reversed the order of importance of the story (i.e., putting the trivial forward and the fundamental behind) when he was a young man. This canvas was added to it in the 18th century on the upper part and both sides. It is not known if this was done to restore it to its original state (it was thought to have suffered damage in the Alcazar fire of 1734) or if it was simply an attempt to complete the scene and make it larger.
Some scholars say it is an apology for fine arts, intended to show the superiority of the art of painting over handcrafts, while others see it as a political allegory following Ripa’s Iconology. TECHNIQUE: The spinning wheel turns rapidly, showing the loose Velazquez technique. The canvas was probably damaged by the fire in the Alcazar in 1734, and an upper section was added. An arrepentimiento” can be appreciated in the head of the girl in profile, represented on the right side of the painting.
As a goddess of war, she appears in the background in military dress. The fable is recounted in the back of the workshop, while the actual labor of the workshop is shown in the foreground. Both spaces are graced with magnificent and meticulous use of light, and a freedom and looseness of brush strokes that make the painting one of the most valuable predating Impressionism. The key painting is accompanied by a tapestry depicting the Rape of Europa by Titian, serving as a declaration of the superiority of art over mere manual dexterity. It has been in the Prado since 1819.