Caesar Contemplating the Head of Pompey
(Giambattista Tiepolo)


The sixteen year old Electoral Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony had been introduced to the connoisseur, collector and amateur dealer Count Francesco Algarotti in Venice when returning from Naples early in 1739. Algarotti proved to be an invaluable guide to the sixteen-year old Prince, taking him to visit the studios of Rosalba Carriera, Giambattista Pittoni and Giambattista Tiepolo, and introducing him to the young Bernardo Bellotto, then working as an assistant to his uncle, Canaletto. Over the next twenty-five years the Saxon Court became generous patrons to each of these painters, the Prince’s father, Elector Friedrich Augustus II, having consolidated his wealth with the reacquisition of the Crown of Poland (as Augustus III) a decade earlier. Poland during the eighteenth century had proved terribly vulnerable to the assaults of its ambitious neighbours, Austria, Prussia, Saxony and Russia, each contesting for parts of her territories. When war broke out between Austria and Prussia over possession of Silesia, Saxony sided with Austria and in 1743-44 assisted in a series of victories over the Prussian King, Frederick the Great. Although these successes were later reversed and Prussia ultimately triumphed, by 1743 Augustus was at the height of his powers.

The meeting between Algarotti and the Electoral Prince led to an introduction to the Elector himself. After visiting Dresden, Algarotti proposed in a letter dated 28 October 1742, that the Elector should add a small collection of modern paintings to the expanding Saxon picture collection. Augustus proved a willing client and generous patron: in the following few years Algarotti acquired for him works by Piazzetta, Pittoni, Tiepolo, Amigoni and Zuccarelli as well as pictures by Carle Van Loo and Boucher. Tiepolo received four commissions for the Royal collection: the Triumph of Flora (San Francisco, Museum of Fine Arts), and Mecenates Presenting the Arts to Augustus (Saint Petersburg, the Hermitage), both 35 inches (89 cm) wide, the Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra (Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria), 98 ½ x 137 inches (249 x 346 cm) and Caesar Contemplating the Head of Pompey, (lost), 53 ¼ x 73 inches (135 x 185 cm). The latter two works, delivered between 1744 and 1746, hung in Dresden for less than twenty years. Friedrich Christian had died just two months after succeeding his father as Elector, to be succeeded in turn by his thirteen year old son, neither of them were able to obtain election as Polish King. The Saxon court’s finances were now beyond repair, her losses in the Seven Years War had so devastated the treasury that these two paintings were included among several works from the Electoral collection sold at auction in Amsterdam in 1765. While the Banquet was bought by Catherine the Great, and was sold by the Hermitage to Melbourne in 1932, the Caesar has not been seen since and is now known only from the highly finished modello exhibited here.

The original plan had been for a painting of Timothy, or the Effects of Music, a subject in keeping with the themes of the Mecenates and Flora. The decision to change this to the more martial Caesar was made by the Saxon first minister, Count Bruhl, in a letter to Algarotti dated 9 August 1743 and was undoubtedly related to the choice of commissions for Pittoni and Piazzetta made at the same time. The commission, for a painting measuring 53 ¼ x 73 inches (135 x 185 cm), with the principal figures approximately 27 inches (68 cm) high, placed it in scale between the Flora and Mecenates and the much larger Banquet. Algarotti’s directions required that the scene be set in the centre of the great Imperial city of Alexandria, Tiepolo obliged by introducing a pyramidal obelisk as a reference to the Egyptian location. The choice of this subject, Caesar’s defeat of his bitter enemy the Consul Pompey, was perhaps a reference to Augustus’s own victory over the Polish King Stanislas Leszczynski in 1733, which had secured the Polish throne, and his more recent, but shortlived, successes against Frederick the Great in 1743.

The shifting alliances between the Powers in the second quarter of the eighteenth century may be compared with the complex relationship of the Roman Triumvirate founded by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus in 60 B.C. Pompey’s power had at first not been challenged by the returning Caesar, fresh from victories in Spain and Gaul, to whom he was distantly related through the latter’s first wife, Pompeia. Pompey, who divorced his second wife to marry Caesar’s daughter Julia, believed he could control the younger general, but when Julia died in 54 their relationship gradually deteriorated. Caesar had already achieved election as Consul, and in 55 had been joined by Pompey and Crassus. Pompey, who through a series of legislative moves attempted to erode Caesar’s power, did not accept Caesar’s offer of another marital alliance, marking a deeper breach between the two Consuls. In 51 Pompey announced that he would not countenance Caesar’s re-election as Consul as long as he remained in command of an army. Confident of the support of the Senate, Pompey believed that Caesar would capitulate, since even with the use of massive bribes Caesar was still unable to swing the majority in his favour. On 7 January 49 B.C. the Senate declared Caesar deprived of his command, an act which led four days later to Caesar crossing the Rubicon and his being declared an outlaw. Pompey’s strategy of isolating Caesar while he retreated eastwards was at first successful, but when their armies eventually engaged, Pompey was defeated at the battle of Pharsallus (48). He now fled to the protection of his erstwhile ally, Ptolemy, but the latter was unwilling to offend Caesar and had Pompey murdered on 28 September 48 B.C. as he disembarked on the Egyptian shore. Caesar demanded Pompey’s head as proof of his enemy’s death, and its delivery to the triumphant General is recorded in the scene portrayed here.

The composition recalls most immediately that of the Family of Darius before Alexander, painted in 1743 for the Villa Cordellina and seen here in the modello illustrated in this catalogue (number 18). Like Alexander, Caesar stands boldly on the right, dressed in Imperial purple and surrounded by his captains, banners and standards waiving, his magnificent white charger barely restrained from plunging forward into the scene. In the centre of the composition we may observe a kneeling servant offering a silver plate on which rests Pompey’s head, instead of the figures of Darius’s prostrate widow and family. The horizontal scale of this composition has dictated the need to disperse the action over a broader field, so where Alexander’s great horse Bucephalus stands on the left in the Darius, beneath his billowing standard, the artist has placed two bearded and turbaned Turks, with a Moorish boy servant standing behind them. Such incidental figures may be observed in other scenes set in the exotic East, their faces recalling the bold countenances of the dramatic Turkish portraits produced with considerable success by his son, Gian Domenico, in the 1750-70s. They stand before the shimmering white marble colonnade of the Egyptian ruler’s palace, the artist’s energetic brush expertly delineating their features and the silk of their splendid costumes. Ptolemy’s trumpeters stand above, heralding the arrival of the victorious Roman general, while an elderly man and his young companion studiously observe Caesar’s reaction to the grisly relic. Laid out behind we see the city of Alexandria, the greatest in the classical world after Rome, and the blue-grey summits of distant mountains beyond.

Brühl’s commission to Algarotti was for a series of five paintings, of near identical dimensions, from Pittoni, Piazzetta, Amigoni and Zuccarelli in addition to the Tiepolo, which were otherwise unrelated to the other three Tiepolo’s that he ordered. Giambattista’s slightly older contemporary Pittoni was chosen to paint Crassus Sacking the Temple of Jerusalem, illustrating an incident from the life of the third member of the Roman Triumvirate, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus had recognised that if he was to retain a pre-eminent position in the Triumvirate he needed to enhance his military reputation, so sought and obtained his appointment as governor of Syria. The sack of Jerusalem was of little importance in Roman history but of immense significance in the history of the Jewish people, and consequently Christianity, hence its choice as a subject by artists from the high renaissance onwards. Crassus’s failed attempt to defeat the Persians and his death at the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C. contributed to the conflict between Caesar and Pompey and the events which led to the latter’s murder. Algarotti owned the modello for this composition, which is now owned by the Gallery of the Accademia in Venice; it is exactly the same dimensions as our painting.

Piazzetta’s commission was for Caesar and the Corsairs of Cilicia, an event that took place during Caesar’s pursuit of Pompey. Unfortunately, as the modello for this work is unknown, it is impossible to speculate as to the format of this composition and its relationship with the Tiepolo and Pittoni. The Roman republican subjects of the Pittoni and Piazzetta are clearly related to the Tiepolo, but Amigoni’s Meeting between Anzio and Abracome at the Feast of Diana would probably have been paired with the arcadian Zuccarelli (whose exact subject has not been discovered). Like the Tiepolo, the whereabouts of the Pittoni and Piazzetta are unknown, however it is worth observing that the Amigoni, which had been included with the other paintings sold by the Elector of Saxony in Amsterdam in 1765, appeared in a Sotheby’s sale in London in 1982. Algarotti’s sketch for the Amigoni is now in the Gallery of the Accademia, Venice.

Algarotti has informed Bruhl that he intended to keep for himself a selection of sketches for the works he had commissioned, and an oil modello for the Banquet now in the Musée Cognac Jay, and watercolor drawings for the Flora and Mecenates, as well as the sketch for Pittoni’s Crassus, were included in the catalogue of his collection produced in 1779. Algarotti records having first offered Tiepolo 100 zecchini for the modello for the Caesar but this offer was rejected by Tiepolo, who demanded 130 zecchini, a considerable price. The modello for the Tiepolo Caesar did not appear in the 1779 catalogue so we may presume it was disposed of earlier by Algarotti. The dimensions given by Algarotti coincide exactly with those of this painting, and it is here proposed that the exhibited work is indeed the modello mentioned by the latter in his correspondence with Bruhl.

Its subsequent history is unknown until its appearance in the Giusti collection in Modena, from which it was sold at auction in the Galleria Geri, Florence, in 1914. Its whereabouts after that sale remained unknown until its recent discovery.

21 1/8 x 28 ½ ins. 53.8 x 72.6 cm.
Oil on canvas

Count Francesco Algarotti; sold by his heirs before 1779.
L. Giusti, Modena, until 1914; sold Galleria Geri, Florence, 18 May 1914, lot 176, illus. plate XLVI, and fig. 1.
Christie’s, London, 16 December 1998, lot 195 (as “Studio of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo”).


M. Precerutti Garberi, “Di alcuni dipinti perduti del Tiepolo”, in Commentari, April/June 1958, pp. 110-116.
A. Morassi, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G. B. Tiepolo, London, 1962, p. 29. Fig. 309, as “judging from the small reproduction, certainly by Giambattista.”
M. Gemin and F. Pedrocco, Giambattista Tiepolo, Dipinti, Opera Completa, Venice, 1993, pp. 362-63, catalogue number 299, illus. “La piccola e mediocre fotografia …..non consente di valutare se davvero si tratta di un bozzetto autografo di Giambattista o piuttosto di un ‘ricordo’, in ogni caso, un’interessante testimonianza di un’opera tiepolesca perduta”.

Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
Historical events
Italian - Venetian
1999-Collectanea 1700-1800.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in London and New York, 220 pages fully illustrated with 46 colour plates. £30 or $40 inc. p.& p.

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