In an eerie coincidence, the Frick previewed an exhibit devoted to a lost fresco cycle by Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) on the very day last week that the world got the shocking news that Notre-Dame cathedral, another cultural treasure, was burning. It made the show's raison d'être seem prescient, and all the more urgent.
As the museum's director Ian Wardropper put it shortly before word of the fire circulated, “This exhibition allows us to contribute to a better understanding of what was lost. And at a time when many cultural monuments around the world are in jeopardy, it is a good opportunity for us to call attention to works of art that are in peril.”
Obliterated by BombsIn this case, the works gone forever were casualties of war. They include five ceiling paintings that Tiepolo created from 1730 to 1731 for the Palazzo Archinto in Milan, his first major commission outside the Veneto. Between August 13th and August 14th, 1943, 500 Allied bombers, mostly English, attacked the city, damaging or completely destroying 65 percent of its historic monuments.
“The palace is basically obliterated except for its exterior walls,” Xavier Salomon, the Frick's chief curator and a co-organizer of the show, said at the preview. “What we want to do in the exhibition is bring [the frescoes] back to life through preparatory works — preparatory sketches and drawings, but also through photographs taken before the war.”
The presentation in the lower-level galleries, comprising some 50 paintings, drawings, prints, black-and-white photos and illustrated books, is the first to gather surviving works for this cycle of ceiling paintings. The organizers took as a starting point an oil sketch from the Frick's own collection, “Perseus and Andromeda” (ca. 1730-31), purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1916.
Said Salomon: “This painting is one of the most easily forgotten paintings at the Frick. You see it as you walk in, you walk straight in front of it ... The question was to shine some light over this picture and look at the context as to why this picture was created and what it was for.”
A Patron with VisionIt was created in response to a commission from Count Carlo Archinto, a civic leader and great intellectual, who was descended from one of Milan's oldest aristocratic families. He lived in Palazzo Archinto with his wife and 11 children until his death in 1732. The palace was home to the city's largest private library, five rooms reflecting its owner's enthusiasm for math, science, philosophy and history. Carlo decided to redecorate Casa Archinto around the time of his eldest son Filippo's wedding to Giulia Borromeo in April 1731.
He had legacy on his mind — this was a house for the ages — and who better to tap for such a project than the talented Tiepolo, who, as Denis Ton, curator of the Musei Civici in Belluno writes in the catalog, “gave form to the aspirations of an intellectual elite that heightened historical and philosophical awareness in Italy and Europe.”
The exhibit spreads out over two rooms. The first covers the history of the palace and the intellectual interests of the Archinto family through photos, drawings and books. Carlo became a patron of a publishing house, the Società Palatina, “devised to republish old texts and put them in circulation again,” Salomon said. “The interesting thing is that Carlo sponsors this enterprise [and] contributes to it intellectually. He's publishing the books, but also contributing to them in a scholarly way.” Tiepolo is called on to produce illustrations for the texts. Note the eight delicate drawings in black chalk of Italian historical events, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum.
Mythology and AllegoryThe story of the lost frescoes unspools in the second room, with the spotlight on three ethereal oil sketches of mythological and allegorical subjects: “Triumph of the Arts and Sciences” (ca. 1730-31), “Perseus and Andromeda” (ca. 1730-31), and “Apollo and Phaëton” (ca. 1730-31). The works were arguably preparatory sketches or presentation models that were shown to Archinto so he could visualize the art.
Tiepolo's largest fresco in the palazzo was “Triumph of the Arts and Sciences,” represented here by a preparatory painting and three drawings. “It is the only [Tiepolo] fresco where we have both sketch and drawings,” Salomon said.
Grab a magnifying glass to study the painted sketch's glorious panoply of allegorical figures, representing the disciplines embraced by Archinto and his vast library: Painting, Music, History/Literature, Sculpture, Architecture, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Dialectic and Science.
The mostly female subjects are perched on billowy clouds under the watchful eyes of Apollo and Minerva. Painting appears at the center, wielding a palette and paintbrush. She is surrounded by the arts: Music, holding a viola; Literature and Poetry or History, perhaps, with open and closed books; and Sculpture, who leans on a marble bust and clasps a chisel.
“We promise not to dedicate all our efforts to lost works,” Salomon concluded. “But we are at a time when so much has been destroyed — in Syria, the Middle East and other parts of the world — that we have a duty to make sure that these great works of art are passed on to the next generations.”