The painting depicts a mythological scene of the musical competition between Apollo, god of the sun, skilled lyre player, and Marsyas or Pan, a satyr who lived in the woods and who played perfectly the lute. The competition was naturally won by Apollo, whose beautiful figure is seen on the left with the lyre in one hand while his right arm is stretched towards Midas, the man sitting on the rock. Midas, the Phrygian king who abandoned his throne to take refuge in the woods where he met and became friends with Marsyas, had judged the competition in satyr’s favor. Apollo’s revenge came fast. He made Midas grow donkey ears, an animal that has always been associated with little intelligence, which in this case implied to his inability to choose the right winner.
Tiepolo depicts the mythological episode written by the Latin poet and writer Lucian in his Dialogues of the Gods quite truthfully.
Even though the work is from his early period, it is already characterized by the typical elements of Tiepolo’s painting. The composition is dramatic with ample but at the same time loose figures, while the colors are reflecting the strong contrasts and chiaroscuro that he had learned from the paintings of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Federico Bencovich but they are already starting to become lighter towards those bright tones that will be the most recognizable stylistic element of his work. The same can be said of the flashes of light that illuminate the figures, especially the god of the sun and the woman kneeling on the right, enhancing the spatial composition, which Tiepolo created mostly through the arrangement of the figures. In fact, the protagonists are grouped as a triangle on different levels, with Midas and ancient ruins on the top.
The painting is part of a series consisting of four paintings of the same size and mythological subjects taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which also depict Diana and Actaeon, the Rape of Europe and Diana and Callisto. Currently the works are preserved in the Gallerie dell’Accademia of Venice, but in the past, they were all in Belluno. In fact, in 1898 Count Francesco Agosti, who lived in this city in Veneto, bought the Rape of Europe and Diana and Actaeon, while in 1907 the counts of Capponi bought Diana and Callisto and Apollo and Marsyas. The paintings were attributed to Venetian painter Sebastiano Ricci at the time and they were probably purchased to furnish a palace in Belluno. In 1922 the four paintings were exhibited at the 17th and 18th century Italian painting exhibition, curated by Ugo Ojetti (Florence, Palazzo Pitti). On this occasion the paintings, that were presented as works by Ricci, were correctly attributed to Tiepolo and considered works of his early period.
Giovanbattista Tiepolo was born in Venice, where he studied in the workshop of the Venetian painter Gregorio Lazzarini, who introduced him to the painting of the great Venetian masters of the past, such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, but also his contemporaries Sebastiano Ricci, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Federico Bencovich. From them Tiepolo learned the theatrical style and violent chiaroscuro that characterized his altarpieces and great fresco decorations.
From the middle of the 1710s’ Tiepolo obtained important commissions and began to paint altarpieces for the churches of Venice, among them Madonna del Carmine and the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, as well as the paintings for doge Giovanni II Cornaro.
From the 1720s the painter began to gain more reputation, and both the clergy and the Venetian nobility commissioned paintings of religious subjects and portraits and especially frescoes with mythological and allegorical themes to decorate the great city palaces and the country villas. The wide and scenographic compositions with astonishing perspective views that Tiepolo expressed through clear graphic style, with bright colors and strong chiaroscuro which met the taste of his new clients. His popularity led him to paint the frescoes of the chapel of SS. Sacramento for the cathedral of Udine in 1726, Castello and Palazzo Patriarcale of the city, while the following year he traveled to Milan where he worked on the decoration of Palazzo Archinto and Palazzo Dugnani, with the Stories of Scipio Africanus.
He went back to Venice in the 1730s where he worked on various decorations, also in Vicenza and then in Padua, where he painted the Martyrdom of St. Agatha. He also painted the works Madonna of the Rosary, Madonna with Child with Saints Hyacinth and Dominic, both preserved today in America, as well as the large altarpieces with the scenes of the Passion of Christ for the church of Sant’Alvise in Venice.
The artist was still very much in demand, when he assumed his Giandomenico and Lorenzo as his assistants and he was called again to Milan, where he decorated Palazzo Clereci, then to Venice to paint the frescoes of the hall of Palazzo Labia with the Stories of Antonius and Cleopatra. In 1750 the Tiepolo family was in Würzburg, Germany, to decorate the residence of Prince Bishop Karl Phillipp von Greiffenklau with the Stories of Frederick Barbarossa.
Once the works were complete, the Tiepolo family returned to Italy. In Vicenza they frescoed Villa Valmarana with the stories of Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ariosto’s Iphigenia and Orlando Furioso and the Liberation of Jerusalem by Tasso.
In 1761 Tieopolo moved to Spain with his sons to work in the service of King Charles III, who invited him to decorate the rooms of the Royal Palace in Madrid. Here he painted the allegorical subjects such as the Allegory of Spain, mythological pieces and the altarpieces for the church of Aranjuez.
Tiepolo never returned to Italy because he died in Madrid at the height of his career in 1770. His sons returned to Venice and continued, especially Giandomenico, their father’s work dedicating themselves to fresco decorations.
The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.
In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.
The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480).
The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.
The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.
The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.
In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.
In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.