Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

An artist inspired by Classical mythology

Artists of the (early) modern era have helped shape our ideas about what the ancient world looked like. One of them was the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Josho Brouwers

Recently, I picked up a copy of Philip Hardie’s The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ll be writing a review of that eventually, but the cover featured artwork based on a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Tiepolo was a famous Italian painter who lived from 1696 to 1770. Two of his sons would later help him out and become painters in their own right, working in a very similar style. Their work has helped shape, for better or for worse (I’d like to think for better!), how we visualize the ancient world.

Influential works of art

Tiepolo created works that dealt with a wide variety of topics, but in this article I want to showcase some of the paintings he produced that took their inspiration from Classical mythology. Artwork like this has exerted a great influence that is felt to this day: when Hollywood looks for inspiration for their movies set in the ancient world, they take their cues to a large degree from painters of the Renaissance and later, including artists like Tiepolo.

Of course, back in the eighteenth century, people didn’t know as much about the ancient world as they do today. Artists like Tiepolo based their work on ancient written sources (or summaries of them), and kitted out ancient figures in contemporary dress or, at best, in clothing inspired by ancient statuary. It’s worthwhile to point out that the eigtheenth century witnessed the first excavations at Pompeii, with research conducted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) exerting a large influence on the neoclassical movement.

Since the works of artists of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries are now all firmly in the public domain, they are often reproduced in books that deal with the ancient world, including Latin and ancient Greek textbooks, popular magazines, and so on. Use of such pictures is cheap (essentially free!) and besides, they look great.

However, keep in mind that these are simply works inspired by the ancient world and not intended to be historically accurate. Note, for example, the lack of colour on the ancient statues in the paintings below.