Guarino da Verona gives instructions to Lionello d’Este on how to paint the muses
To Lionello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara
Most illustrious Prince and excellent Lord,
When I learned recently from your Lordship’s letter of your noble and truly splendid project of having paintings made of the Muses, it was right and proper that I should praise this your invention, worthy as it is of a Prince, not stuffed with pointless or licentious figures; but my pen should have passed on, the roll been unrolled further than you look for and the system of the number of the Muses laid out, concerning which many have given diverse accounts. Some insist there are three, some four, some five, others nine; let us leave the rest and follow those who say there were nine. Briefly, then, one is to understand that the Muses are, so to speak, conceptions and intelligences which by human endeavor and by industry have contrived various activities and arts. They are so called because they seek after all things or because they are sought after by all men, desire for knowledge being innate in man. For μώσθαι means seek in Greek, so that Μούσαι means seekers.
Thus, Clio is the discoverer of history and things that pertain to fame and antiquity; for this reason let her hold a trumpet in one hand and a book in the other; varied colours and patterns will be woven into her garments, like silken drapery in the ancient manner.
Thalia discovered one part of agriculture, that which concerns planting the land, as indeed her name shows, coming as it does from θάλλειν, to bloom; so let her hold various seedlings in her hands and let her drapery be decorated with flowers and leaves.
Erato attends to the bonds of marriage and true love; let her hold a boy and a girl one to each side of her, setting rings on their fingers and joining their hands.
Euterpe, discoverer of the pipes, have showing the gesture of one teaching to a musician carrying musical instruments; her face should be particularly cheerful, as the origin of her name makes clear.
Melpomene devised song and vocal melody; therefore she must have a book in her hands with musical notation on it.
Terpsichore set forth the rules of dancing and the foot movements often used in sacrifices to the gods; let her therefore have boys and girls dancing round her and herself show a directing gesture.
Polymnia discovered the cultivation of fields; let her be girt up and dispose hoes and vases of seed, bearing in her hand ears of corn and bunches of grapes.
Let Urania hold an astrolabe and gaze at a starry heaven above her head, for she found out its system, namely, Astrology.
Calliope, the seeker out of learning and guardian of the art of poetry, also provides a voice for the other arts; let her carry a laurel crown and have three faces composed together, since she has set forth the nature of men, heroes and gods.
I am aware that many will distinguish other functions of the Muses. To them I shall reply with Terence’s remark: quoi capita, tot sententiae [as many heads there are, so there are as many opinions]. Farewell generous Prince, pride of the Muses; let me beg you to look favourably on the affairs and labours of Manuel, my son.
Ferrara. 5th November 1447
Michael Baxandall, “Guarino, Pisanello and Manuel Chrysoloras,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 28 (1965). Baxandall’s translation: pp. 186–7; Latin original: pp. 201–2.