The Family of Darius Before Alexander
(Giambattista Tiepolo)


RELATED WORKS: Fresco: 193 by 216 ¼ inches (490 by 550 cm.), Montecchio Maggiore, Villa Cordellina; Oil on canvas: 40 ½ by 47 ¼ inches (103 by 120 cm.), Würzburg, University Museum. This painting is a modello for one element of Giambattista’s celebrated fresco decorations for the Villa Cordellina in Montecchio Maggiore, the seat of Carlo Cordellino, the Vicentine Giuresconsulto. The villa was designed by Giorgio Massari, who was also the architect of the new church for the convent of Santa Maria del Rosario, better known as the Gesuati. The date of the Villa Cordellina commission is established as 1743 in a letter from Tiepolo to Algarotti where the artist states that in October half the ceiling was ready and that he hoped to complete it by the 10th or 12th of November.[1] There is no mention at this time of the large historical scenes for the saloon which in any case would probably have followed after the completion of the ceiling above, so that they may have been executed early the following year.[2] It is unknown whether the subject matter for the two large scenes of The Family of Darius before Alexander and The Continence of Scipio was stipulated by his patron, or as seems more likely, suggested by his friend Algarotti, but the highly classicising nature of the compositions which are reminiscent of Veronese, as well as the choice of colouring, probably, in part owe more than a passing inspiration to Algarotti’s latest theories propounded in his Newtonianismo per le dame.[3]

The ceiling of the saloon (for which there is a preparatory bozzetto in Dulwich) may be intended to portray The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility over Ignorance. This fresco was detached in 1917 owing to its deteriorating condition and was only replaced in situ in 1956. Immediately beneath the ceiling are placed a series of six violet-grey monochromatic medallions. Those placed at the four corners depict Politics, War, Poetry and Painting and Music. At the centre of the long walls are grisaille quadrofoils representing Merit and Council while over the doorways are four shield shaped grisailles on a gold background depicting the four continents, Africa, America, Asia and Europe. Europe is symbolised crowned and with the attributes of both a classical temple and a musical instrument so as to represent her domination of the arts. It has been suggested that these last four grisailles may by the young Giandomenico.[4]

Both the Darius and the Scipio frescoes illustrate examples of generosity drawn from classical sources. In the case of our modello and the finished Darius the literary source is The Story of Alexander the Great by Curzio Rufo though this would have been based on earlier works.[5] However, there is also a pictorial source which helps to explain Veronese’s considerable impact on this composition. In 1742 Giambattista had worked in Palazzo Pisani Moretta where Veronese’s canvas of the same subject was located (now London, National Gallery). There are striking similarities in the pose and grouping of Alexander and his companions on the right (see Fig. 1).

The events recounted in our picture tell of how, after Darius, the King of Persia had lost the battle of Issa and fled, the victor, Alexander who is here shown embracing his friend Haephestion, granted an audience to the family of his vanquished foe. Sisygambis, Darius’ mother, had in error first prostrated herself before Alexander’s friend Haephestion and was covered in confusion. Once set at her ease, Alexander proceeded to grant Sisygambis together with Stateira, Darius’ wife, and the defeated king’s sister, who was famed for her beauty, clemency and freedom.

Our bozzetto was probably conceived some time late in 1743 or early the following year. The final composition varies little from the first idea (see Fig. 2). The fresco extends the scene a little on the left side to include the whole figure of the horseman and the addition of an African in profile. The central portion of the composition is widened to allow a more spacious vista through to the Veronesian backdrop of architecture surmounted by a balustrade. The figure grouping beneath the mounted horseman is also opened out in sympathy and appears less compactly crowded together than in the bozzetto. At the same time the whole scene is pushed slightly further back into the picture plane with the result that the opening to the tent on the right no longer looms up to the edge of the picture beckoning the viewer to enter, but instead is more spaciously planted within the picture allowing for a greater expanse of sky. Exactly the same changes can be noted if one compares the Stockholm bozzetto for The Continence of Scipio with the second completed fresco painting. Although the final fresco compositions are more imposing in their monumentality some of the mystery, tension and drama present in the two preparatory bozzetti is effectively lost.

Morassi [6] states that our picture is one of the very finest of its type to date from this period when the artist was at the height of his powers [7] and that it is remarkable for he lightness of the palette and the transparency of the colouring. He was also of the opinion that there could be no doubt but that this is the picture recorded in Algarotti’s own collection on his death.


[1] G. Fogolari, loc. cit., 1942.

[2] Cf. F. Schiavo, op. cit., 1975.

[3] Cf. A. Mariuz, loc. cit., 1978, pp. 197-8.

[4] R. Schiavo, Op. cit., 1975.

[5] Cf. Plutarch, Lives, 33:21; Valerius Maximus, De Factis Dictisque Memorabilis Libri IX, 4:7.

[6] A. Morassi, Op. cit., 1962, p. 27.

[7] 1743 is the year that Algarotti charged Tiepolo with King Augustus III’s commission for work for the Royal Gallery in Dresden; when the ceiling for the Scuola della Beata Vergine de’ Carmine was completed; in which the Martyrdom of St. John, Bishop of Bergamo was painted and delivered and The Triumph of Flora and Maecenas presenting the Arts to Augustus were also being completed. Early in 1744, contemporaneously with the Villa Cordellina commission, Tiepolo must have been working on the Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra for Augustus (now in Melbourne) and the Caesar Contemplating the Head of Pompey, for which a modello is exhibited here. .

22 by 16 1/8 in. 56 by 41 cm
Oil on canvas

PROVENANCE: Count Francesco Algarotti, Venice; Gompertz Collection, Vienna; Heimann Collection, Beverly Hills; Private Collection.


LITERATURE: P. Molmenti, G. B. Tiepolo: La sua vita e le sue opere, Milan, 1909, pp. 42-3, 97, 281, fig. p. 281; E. Sack, Giambattista und Domenico Tiepolo: Ihr Leben und ihre Werke: Ein Beitrag zur Kunstgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts, Hamburg, 1910, pp. 173, 206; Morassi, G. B. Tiepolo, Milan-Bergamo-Rome, 1943, p. 25-6 (new ed. 1955) p. 43; G. Lorenzetti, Tiepolo, exh. cat., Venice 1951, pp. 70 & 72, fig. 54; A. Morassi, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G. B. Tiepolo, IncludIng Pictures by his Pupils and Followers Wrongly Attributed to Him, London, 1962, pp. 27, 29, 48, fig. 180; M. Levy, Giambattista Tiepolo His Life and Art. New Haven, 1986, pp.19, 119, 122, 129-130, 149, 151, 169, fig. 116; M. Gemin and F. Pedrocco, Giambattista Tiepolo, Venice, 1993, pp. 350-1, fig. 273a, and cf. colour plates 58-9.

RELATED LITERATURE: G. B. Fontanella, Memorie intorno la vita di Carlo Cordellina, Vicenza, 1801; O. Sirén, Dessins et tableaux de la Renaissance Italienne dans les collections de Suéde, Stockholm, 1902, p. 103; G. Fasolo, Le Ville nel Veneto, Vicenza, 1929, p. 103; Moschetti, I danni ai monumenti e alle opere d’arte delle venezie nella guerra, 1915-18,, Venice, 1932, pp. 672-3; G. Fogolari, ‘Lettere inedite a Francesco Algarotti’, Nuova Antologia, 1942, (1621), pp. 34-5; T. Pignatti, Tiepolo, Verona, 1951, pp. 73-7; R. Cevese, ‘La nuova paternità di Villa Cordellina a Montecchio Maggiore’, Vita Vicentina, 1954, p. 34; G. Mazzotti, Ville Venete, Treviso, 1957, pp. 285-6, 303 (and new ed. Rome 1966); R. Pallucchini, La Pittura Veneziana del Settecento, Venice-Rome, 1960, pp. 88-9; R. Pallucchini, L’Opera Completa di Giambattista Tiepolo, Milan, 1968, n. 147; M. Precerutti Garberi, Affreschi settecenteschi delle Ville Venete, Milan, 1968, pp. 339-42; R. Cevese, Ville della provincia di Venezia, Milan, 1971, (2nd ed., Milan, 1980), I, pp. 257-271; A. Rizi, Tiepolo a Udine, Udine, 1971, p. 90; R. Schiavo, Villa Cordellina Lombardi di Montecchio Maggiore, Vicenza, 1975, pp. 85-129; A. Mariuz, Gli Affreschi nelle Ville Venete del Seicento al Ottocento, ed. R. Pallucchini, Venice, 1978, pp. 197-8; P. Murray, Dulwich Picture Gallery, a Catalogue, London, 1980, no. 278; M. Levey, Giambattista Tiepolo. La sua vita, la sua arte, Milan, 1988, pp. 118-124; I Tiepolo e il Settecento Vicentino, exh. cat., Milan, 1990 (see Mazza, pp. 306-315; Alberti Gaudioso, pp. 316-20); National Museum Stockholm, Illustrated Catalogue, Västervik, 1990, p. 352; R. Schiavo, Tiepolo – le Ville Vicentine, Menegozzo, 1990, pp. 43-60; R. Pallucchini, La Pittura nel Veneto: Il Settecento, I, Milan, 1994, pp. 416-418, ill. 421.


Matthiesen Gallery, London, ‘The Settecento’, 1999

Where is It?
Acquired from the Matthiesen Gallery by a Swiss Collector for the Kunstmuseum Zurich
Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
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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