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To Coincide with World Pride 2017 Museo Thyssen Unveils Newly Restored Tiepolo

July 9, 2017

Giambattista Tiepolo
The Death of Hyacinthus, ca. 1752-53
Oil on canvas. 287 x 232 cm
© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

On view through December 17 at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Spain, is the recently restored Giambattista Tiepolo painting The Death of Hyacinthus. According to the museum:

In conjunction with the celebration of the Museum’s 25th anniversary and to coincide with World Pride 2017 in Madrid, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is now presenting the results of the restoration and technical study of one of the most important and fascinating works in its collection and probably its greatest gay icon: The Death of Hyacinthus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Following its restoration in the Museum’s studios, the painting has now returned to its habitual location in Room 17, accompanied by a special display organised by the departments of Restoration and Old Master painting. This installation includes X-radiographs and infra-red reflectographs which show the most interesting aspects of the work undertaken, explain the methodology applied and reveal the outstanding quality of the painting. These images are accompanied by two preparatory drawings loaned by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and a video of the entire restoration process which also explains the most important discoveries made during this restoration and study project and features interesting details from the painting.

Given the widespread interest in restoration projects of this type, with this new display the Museum is aiming to introduce visitors to the working methods used by restorers, which are essential for determining the appropriate treatments to be applied in each case and which also provide art historians with important information. Knowledge of the techniques and materials employed by artists is fundamental for deciding on the procedures to be adopted when halting the deterioration of a work of art. Furthermore, focusing on the most detailed aspects of the creation of a work also allows us to enter into the artist’s mind to some extent and that of his/her period and to understand the creative act and its context on the basis of more solid arguments.

Detail of cleaning performed to The Death of Hyacinthus, by Tiepolo

The painting’s history
The Death of Hyacinthus (ca.1752-53) was commissioned by Baron Wilhelm Friedrich Schaumburg-Lippe, who lived in a town near Würzburg (Germany) where Tiepolo was employed with his sons Giovanni Domenico and Lorenzo from 1750 onwards on the decoration of the residence of the new Prince-Bishop, Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau. The painting seems to have an elegiac nature as a homage to the Baron’s lover, a young Spanish musician with whom he had lived in Venice and who had died in 1751.

The painting is inspired by an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X, 162-219): Apollo and his lover, the young and beautiful Hyacinthus, Prince of Sparta, were competing at throwing the discus when the latter was mortally wounded when struck on the head by the discus. In the classical account Hyacinthus was killed by his own clumsiness as he threw the discus during the competition but another version recounts that as it was thrown by Apollo, it was blown off course by Zephyrus, god of the west wind, who had been spurned by Hyacinthus in favour of Apollo. Unable to return him to life, Apollo immortalised the youth by making the hyacinth flower sprout from his blood on the ground.

Tiepolo depicts the scene on the basis of the Italian translation of Ovid’s text by Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (Venice, 1561), in which the discus throwing is replaced by a tennis match, a fashionable sport among the nobility of the time. In the foreground we see the racquet and some balls cast on the ground and in the background a net that indicates the tennis court. Hyacinthus lies dying in front of the despairing Apollo, who feels responsible for the accident and whose gestures indicate the fateful outcome. Apollo had neglected his duties as a god to devote his time to his lover and Tiepolo reminds us of this by including two of his attributes: the lyre and the quiver with arrows, abandoned on the ground on the left while he shows Apollo himself as a youthful athlete with blonde hair and a laurel wreath. Behind them Hyacinthus’s father King Amyclas and his retinue watch the scene with sombre expressions. Numerous iconographical details emphasise the painting’s symbolic language, from the figure of the macaw, a symbol of courtship, to the mocking expression of the statue of Pan, protector of male sexuality, with Apollo’s hand covering his genitals and his thumb imitating the shape of an erection.

The composition of the central group was tried out in numerous preparatory sketches by both the artist and his son and assistant Giovanni Domenico. These studies play with the different positions adopted by the two principal figures, bringing them closer together or changing the poses. Other studies feature specific details that were subsequently carefully reproduced in the final version, like the figure of Hyacinthus and the depiction of the small putto in the drawings from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart on display in the exhibition.

X- Ray Study of The Death of Hyacinthus, by Tiepolo

Technical study and restoration
The restoration of The Death of Hyacinthus has essentially focused on the complex elimination of the superimposed layers of oxidised and yellowed varnishes which had accumulated over time. Cleaning the painting has recovered its visual unity and the richness of the original palette with its vibrant, subtly nuanced colours. The architectural features and figures are now also easier to read and the original pictorial depth can once again be properly appreciated. Taking micro-samples of the pigments has provided new information on them and allowed for the materials used by the artist and their state of conservation to be analysed, while gigapixel images and macrophotographs have revealed the tiniest alterations and details of the painting. Ultraviolet and infra-red images have similarly provided valuable information on the creation of the work and the artist’s methods.

X-radiograph:
An X-radiograph of a painting shows the modifications introduced by the artist during the process of its creation. In The Death of Hyacinthus it can be seen that Tiepolo changed the position of the king, turning him to face the principal scene directly, which resulted in a modification of the folds of his clothing and the position of his arm. Behind this figure Tiepolo added a soldier and also changed the size and shape of both figures’ headwear. In the lower part of the composition it is evident that the straps of the quiver were originally longer. Unlike the other figures, the putto is not visible in the X-radiograph as it was painted with a type of pigment that can be easily penetrated by X-rays.

Tiepolo worked more confidently on the right part of the painting, locating the principal figures in a more emphatic manner and with hardly any changes. There are small modifications to the position of Hyacinthus’s arm and Apollo’s thumb, the position of which has been interpreted as an erotic reference. His knee, on which Cupid is leaning, was slightly moved, with the result that the latter’s left hand is suspended in the air. Tiepolo also changed the background motifs as the X-radiograph reveals what might be the sketch of a mountain as well as different architectural structures which he ultimately covered over with clouds or vegetation in order to create a greater sense of space.

Final varnishing of The Death of Hyacinthus, by Tiepolo

Infra-red reflectograph
This image reveals the preparatory drawing or study concealed by the paint layers and thus the changes introduced into the composition by the artist, some of them also visible on the Xradiograph. In this case it can be seen that the figure of Amyclas originally had a cloth headdress which was then replaced with a hat, while his right hand also reveals some corrections or changes with regard to the final position. The god Apollo appears in the preparatory drawing with some ornamental accessories such as an earring and a belt decorated with a pearl, which were subsequently covered over with brushstrokes of pigment. In addition, his left thumb was not originally superimposed over the figure of Pan as we see in the final painting and some lines of under-drawing are visible that locate Apollo’s knee in a more elevated position and in contact with Cupid’s left hand. Finally, Tiepolo made a slight change to the position of the drapery over Hyacinthus’s leg.

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