After the death of the court painter Jacopo Amigoni in 1752, Corrado Giaquinto was invited to take his place in Madrid. Summoned by King Ferdinand VI, the painter spent nine years in Spain, between 1753 and 1762. During this period, and especially around 1760, Giaquinto was closely involved with the design of tapestries for the Real Fábrica de Tapices de Santa Bárbara, founded in 1720 by King Philip V. He mainly supervised the production of cartoons after designs by other artists (Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena). As established by Salomon (2013), Medea Rejuvenating Aeson is one of three known modelli by Giaquinto himself for tapestries, which were probably never executed. The other two are the Venus and Adonis and Alpheus and Arethusa now in the Casita del Príncipe at El Escorial. These were probably part of a set of tapestries depicting episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses designed for the apartments of one of the queens (possibly Elisabetta Farnese, Barbara of Braganza, or Maria Amalia of Saxony) in the Royal Palace of Madrid.
The source for the subject of the modello is Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 7: 162–293). Aeson was old and nearing death; his son, Medea’s lover, Jason, asked her if she could prolong his life with her magic. Ovid describes Medea’s ritual in detail, and Giaquinto faithfully followed his literary source. Medea waited for a full moon, and barefoot, with her hair loose, and wearing flowing robes, walked out at midnight. She called on the gods of the night and the moon, and flew over Thessaly in her dragon-drawn chariot to gather herbs for her potion over nine days and nights. She built two altars—one dedicated to Hecate and one to Youth—and started performing her rites by sacrificing a black sheep. She poured its blood into a ditch with honey and milk. Having made Aeson fall asleep she stretched him out on a bed of herbs. Giaquinto shows the two altars, and candles; the sacrificed black sheep is still burning on the altar, while Aeson sleeps over a pile of herbs and a magic circle on the ground. To the right is the cauldron in which Medea is preparing her potion. According to Ovid, the potion’s ingredients included "hoar frost gathered under the full moon, the wings of the uncanny screech-owl with the flesh as well, and the entrails of a werewolf, . . . the scaly skin of a slender Cinyphian water-snake, the liver of a long-lived stag, to which she added also eggs and the head of a crow nine generations old". Three supernatural creatures appear over the altars. With a crescent moon over her head and in the guise of a huntress is Diana, whom Medea had invoked as the moon. The male god to the right is probably Pluto, the "king of the shades," and the woman to the left may either be his wife Proserpina, or possibly Hecate, to whom one of the two altars was dedicated. Medea proceeded to cut the throat of Aeson, letting his blood flow out, and replaced it with her potion. He was immediately rejuvenated and looked forty years younger. The subject was previously represented in the volume of Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrated by Antonio Tempesta and published in Amsterdam in 1606 (see Additional Images). Giaquinto may have taken the etching by Tempesta as a starting point for his composition.
The back of the canvas is inscribed: "Arazzi / Medea / CG" (see Additional Images). The first word, arazzi ("tapestries" in Italian), reveals the work’s purpose, and the rest of the text establishes the subject, Medea, and identifies the work as Giaquinto’s via his initials. Twelve other modelli by Giaquinto (now in the Casita del Príncipe at El Escorial and at the Palacio de la Zarzuela) have matching inscriptions on their reverses, and were also destined for the designs of tapestries and for the frescoes on the staircase and chapel of the Royal Palace. The Metropolitan Medea is the only modello by Giaquinto of this kind outside of Spain.
The painting, with its delicately orchestrated rhythm and staged composition, is probably related to the operas and fashionable performances, especially those of Pietro Metastasio, which were popular at the court of King Ferdinand VI of Spain. It exemplifies Giaquinto’s art in Spain and bears witness to the splendor of the mid-eighteenth-century Bourbon court in Madrid.
[Keith Christiansen 2014]