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Monday, June 14, 2010

Amateur Classicists & Art Historians: The National Trust Asks “What’s Going On Here?”

One might wonder how an important and historically valuable painting can end up languishing in storage for 30 years, especially when it’s a huge (approx. 8’10’ x 7’ 9”) masterpiece by Jacopo Tintoretto! Very often, it’s the poor condition of a painting and the lack of funds for restoration that are the culprits.

That was the case for the magnificent octagonal canvas recently put on display at the 17th-century Kingston Lacy House, in Dorset, UK. When The National Trust acquired the house and its contents in 1981, it was impossible to identify the subject matter of this painting – much less to attribute it with any certainly to the hand of Tintoretto – due to layers of darkened varnish and discolored, flaking touch-up paint.

Put in storage during restoration work on the house, the piece was then discredited by some scholars who, perhaps deceived by its bad condition, expressed doubt that it was by Tintoretto himself. Those doubts made a conservation effort seem less imperative … so the piece remained hidden away.

Happily, a recent fundraising effort has allowed the canvas to be cleaned and restored. In the process, X-rays and infrared analysis helped to expose the unquestionable energy, fresh coloring, and loose, broad brushstrokes of the master himself, confirming the attribution to Tintoretto that was stated in a 1847-1852 Kingston Lacy inventory.

At that time, the painting was referred to as Apollo and the Muses, although in Greek mythology there were nine Muses, whereas the painting contains only seven figures, besides Apollo and two cupids. As a result of the cleaning, some of the figures have been otherwise identified, and the painting has been given a rather cumbersome new title: Apollo (or Hymen) Crowning a Poet and Giving Him a Spouse.


Tintoretto painted the canvas in the 1560s or 1570s. It was one of many works acquired in 1849 by William John Bankes*, the owner of Kingston Lacy, when he was living in Italy. Supposedly, it came from the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, but there is no record of it there, and it is possible the dealer who sold it to Bankes fabricated its prestigious provenance.

The National Trust’s Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, Alastair Laing, said: “This is undoubtedly a work of great significance. Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto are the three great masters of the mid- to late-16th century in Venice and to have a painting by Tintoretto in an English house, rather than still in its original location in Venice, or in an Italian museum, is extraordinary.”

“It is all the more fascinating that we do not yet know who or where it was painted for, or what the actual subject is,” he added.

Art experts believe that the painting depicts Apollo, or possibly Hymen, the god of marriage, placing a crown on an androgynous figure who holds a book, probably a poet. Mythical figures surround them, including the god Hercules and a woman believed to be the betrothed. Fortune sits with her back to us, extending a brimming cornucopia toward them.


Although the iconography would likely have been readily understood by viewers in the 16th century, today the identity of some of the other figures is still uncertain … as is the significance of various objects, including a die depicting five dots**, a gold box and a dish of gold coins. Here are some of the mysteries the National Trust is trying to resolve:
  • Why is Hercules (identified by his usual attribute: a lion’s head and pelt) in the picture, with spear (or staff) and bow?
  • Is the young man his son, Hyllus, whom Hercules, once he became immortal, encouraged to marry his former mistress, Iole?
  • Who is the woman whose left hand is linked to Apollo’s left hand?
  • What is the significance of the objects beneath Apollo/Hymen’s feet, which appear to include a gold cup, a gold dish containing coins, a gold box, and a golden steeple? Is he trampling them to signify his contempt for wealth?
  • What is the significance of the enormous die under the figure of Fortune, showing five dots?
  • Could all the symbols and the players be related in some way to the content of the book that the ambiguous “poet” figure holds?

The restoration of Apollo (or Hymen) crowning a Poet and giving him a Spouse has raised as many questions as it answered, and The National Trust is asking the public to help solve its mysteries. If you have any ideas about the subject matter of this wonderful canvas, contact The National Trust through their website. Oh, yes …and please tell me, too!

* His close friend, Lord Byron, called William John Bankes "the father of all mischief'". As a result of homosexual indiscretions, Bankes fled to live in exile in Italy, as sodomy was then considered a grave crime in England, deserving of the death penalty. Nonetheless -- despite the fact that he could never return to England -- he continued to acquire and send artworks back to his 8,500-acre estate. It is believed that before his death he secretly returned to have a last look at his collections in his beloved Kingston Lacy, which had been in the Bankes family since 1663.

** The 5-dot die is found in another painting by Tintoretto, Mercury and the Three Graces (Palazzo Ducale, Venice). In the 17th century Claudio Ridolfi, explained that: “One of [the Graces] leans on a die, because the Graces accompany offices [which, in Venice, were chosen by lot]. ”

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