The Birth of the Sun and the Triumph of Bacchus1761. Oil on canvas, 168 x 141.5 cm.
This is a sketch of the fresco that Corrado Giaquinto painted in the former stairway at the Madrid’s Royal Palace, which is now the Hall of Columns. That fresco, his last work at the Royal Palace, is undoubtedly one of the finest paintings from Giaquinto’s Spanish period.
He concluded it in 1762, so the sketch presented here must have been made slightly earlier. At the top is the figure of Apollo, identified with Sol (Helios), god of light and by extension of purity, the enemy of darkness and bad deeds. He is shown holding a flaming torch and with the solar disc that identifies him. Above the disc are the signs of the zodiac, reflecting Apollo’s rule as the divinity who orders time. His image is one of a benevolent god, identified here with the Spanish monarch. Apollo’s role as god of light was interpreted in a moral and spiritual sense and he was thus seen as the emblem of order and legality, and hence of good government.
Below are the Four Seasons, positioned in a zigzag arrangement. The figure at the top, set slightly further into the pictorial space, is the goddess Ceres, riding a chariot pulled by dragons and crowned by a nymph. This figure represents summer. Behind her are two little putti, one with a flaming torch and the other with ears of corn. Autumn is represented by the god Bacchus who receives his offering of wine while seated on a donkey, as if on a throne, in a manner that recalls Giaquinto’s Bacchanal, 1735, in the Galleria Pitti in Florence. Further down on the left, representing spring, is Venus, recognisable from the presence of Cupid asleep on her lap, as well as by her doves. She rejects a man, representing harsh winter, leaning on an iron staff and accompanied by a boy wearing a helmet.
Giaquinto departed for Naples before 10 April 1762, motivated by a variety of circumstances. First among these was his delicate health. We know that Giaquinto had already suffered two strokes before returning to Italy, for which he took medicinal baths to recover mobility in his braccio addolorato e torpe (painful and immobile arm). The artist was to suffer two further strokes in Naples, the last of which caused his death on 18 April 1766. Besides his health problems, Giaquinto was adversely affected by the radical changes in art that took place during his final years in Spain, as well as by the arrival of new artists. The most important of these were painters Anton Raphael Mengs and Giambattista Tiepolo, and architect Francesco Sabatini who took on responsibilities previously assigned to Giaquinto, such as interior decoration and the direction of the Royal Tapestry Factory, Madrid.
A few years before his departure, the first criticism of Giaquinto’s art began to appear in print. It focused on two aspects of his work: a lack of clarity in his treatment of subjects, and an overly facile style that contrasted with the rigour defended by lovers of the Greco-Latin aesthetic that arrived with Mengs (Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain´s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 244).