In classical mythology, in which Renaissance culture showed a renewed interest, it is the characterisation of the Cyclops Polyphemus that is congruent with the iconographic elements; elements that characterise the giant in Dürer’s painting. Specifically, in Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the love between the shepherd Acis and the nymph Galatea is narrated, the giant, in a jealous rage after surprising his beloved in the company of Pan’s son, is described as he is about to hurl himself at his rival:
“insequitur Cyclops partemque e monte revulsam mittit, et extremus quamvis pervenit ad illum angulus e saxo, totum tamen obruit Acin”.
“The Cyclops was chasing him, broke off part of the mountain and hurled it at him, and although only one end of the boulder hit him, it buried Acis completely“.
The next verses report that Acis was allowed to continue to exist, undergoing a metamorphosis: the blood that flowed under the boulder became a river, which took its name.
The Latin poet’s ties with Sicily are well known, as documented in the Epistulae ex Ponto, in which he nostalgically recalls the period he spent on the island (c. 26-25 B.C.) with his friend Pompeius Macer, to whom the letter was addressed.
The invention of printing made it possible for Ovid’s works to be widely circulated. Already in 1471 there are several editions of the Metamorphoses, including one by Baldassarre Azzoguidi,a machine compositor working in Bologna, where Dürer stayed.
The presence of the giant’s anamorphosis provides the observer with a clue to the identification, including toponymy, of the river landscape in the background, leading him, by means of an analexis, to the origins of Acireale – the ancient Aquilia Vetere – a town in the province of Catania, located on the Ionian coast overlooking Calabria, which reached its peak in the 16th century, becoming, albeit briefly, the capital of the Alagona dynasty.