Tiepolo's arrival in Madrid in June 1762 to fresco the throne room of the royal palace was preceded by the departure of the brilliant Neapolitan artist Corrado Giaquinto, who had been employed in that city by Charles III's father, and by the arrival of Anton Raphael Mengs, who, like Tiepolo, had been invited to the court in 1761. Both Giaquinto and Mengs worked on the extensive decorations of the royal palace together with a number of Spanish painters, including Francisco Bayeu. Giaquinto frescoed the ceiling over the main staircase—a commission that would have brought out Tiepolo's best—and Mengs carried out work in other rooms. Tiepolo had anticipated finishing the fresco in the throne room in two years and then returning to Venice; once in Madrid, however, he must have seen that the palace offered the possibility of far more extensive employment, and on August 7, 1764 he wrote a Venetian correspondent that he was engaged on "molti soffitti" (many ceilings). Whether he was referring to commissions in hand or, instead, was actively soliciting work through the production of modelli
must remain a matter of speculation. In any event, he painted ceilings for two additional rooms, but a total of six oil sketches for four projects—including a particularly enchanting one for the ceiling of the queen's bedroom (The Met 1997.117.7
)—survive. This work and another in the Museum's collection (37.165.3
) are alternative modelli
for the saleta
, or small room, adjacent to the throne room. The program of the saleta
was described in detail by Francisco José Fabre in a guide made for King Ferdinand VII in 1829.
Not surprisingly, the modelli
have many allegorical elements in common (see fig. 1 above). Each shows, in the heavens, beneath a flapping canopy and accompanied by Minerva, Jupiter and his eagle with, to the side, a trumpeting figure of Fame. Below, in the center, crowned by a flying figure of Mercury, are the Spanish Monarchy and her lion with, in this picture, Neptune and Prudence (holding a snake), and, in the other, an old woman and a tower symbolizing Old Castile, the most eminent of Spain's provinces. Immediately under them are Mars and Venus, accompanied in this modello
by the personification of Castile and in the other by Saturn-Time. In the lower left are Hercules (with a column symbolizing the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Spain from Africa and the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean) and figures representing the continents: Africa (wearing the elephant headdress prescribed by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia
), America (wearing feathers), and Europe (the female figure with a miniature temple), who is barely discernible in this sketch and highly prominent in the other. Asia may be personified by a fourth figure in the other picture, but she is excluded from this one.
There are a host of differences between the secondary allegorical figures included in each work. For example, this modello
presents Fortitude (with her column) and an American puma leaping out over the clouds. In the alternative sketch Merit and Justice appear next to the tower of Castile, with Bacchus and Victory in the clouds behind the Spanish Monarchy. In this one, Jupiter is surrounded by a golden aureole, while in the other he is seen against a blue sky. The most important iconographic shift, however, is the reduction of the role of Neptune, shown in the other picture above the continents offering the riches of the sea to the Spanish Monarchy but overshadowed here by the prominence accorded Apollo, who advances proffering a scepter. The conceit behind the sculptural decoration of the facade of the royal palace was the enlightened, that is, Apolline, rule of Spain—the Regia Solis
—and Apollo plays a prominent part in the saleta
ceiling fresco. If the modelli
were done sequentially, it is the Apollo-based picture that must be the later proposal, since it is conceived around the one, crucial figure that the other sketch lacks.
What is remarkable is not that two, alternative modelli
, each with its own emphasis and compositional dynamics, should have been produced, but that the final ceiling should incorporate elements of both and, at the same time, introduce completely new features. Nothing could better demonstrate Tiepolo's inexhaustible ability to respond to the sometimes niggling demands of his patrons and the way his modelli
were but a stage in his creative process, rather than fixed patterns he enlarged onto plaster surfaces. Fortunately, the relative scale of figures in the saleta
fresco was only half that in the modello
, allowing Tiepolo plenty of room to maneuver. Not only was Apollo given pride of place, but there was also space for the chariot from which he leaps. The prominent roles accorded Neptune and Castile in the presumably earlier modello
were retained, and Europe was given broader treatment. Mercury is shown in a pose that reverses that in the earlier modello
, while Jupiter and his eagle combine features from each sketch: the god is the benign figure of the other modello
, and his eagle is the vigorously flying creature of this one. The poses of Fame and of a host of other figures are thought out anew. The mind at work is at once pragmatic, thrifty, and unfettered, and the result is Tiepolo's most brilliant scheme of decoration in the royal palace—one in which he deployed to the full his incomparable gifts as a narrative eulogizer: Jupiter, from his seat in Olympus, raises his hand to welcome into the empyrean the Spanish Monarchy, crowned by the gods' messenger, Mercury, guided by Apollo, and blessed by the wealth of Neptune.
[2010; adapted from Christiansen 1996]