Apollo and Phaëton

In this fresco, Tiepolo followed Ovid’s Metamorphoses in describing Phaëton, the son of Apollo and Clymene, standing in front of his father. Uncertain about his divine origins, the youth had asked his mother about his father, and Clymene had encouraged him to go and meet him in his heavenly palace. To prove his paternity, Apollo grants Phaëton a single wish; Phaëton asks to drive the Sun’s chariot for a day. Apollo provides the exact course he should take across the sky and warns his son about the dangers of such a trip, particularly from the constellation Scorpio. Once guiding the chariot, however, Phaëton is terrified by Scorpio and quickly loses control. Falling too close to earth, he scorches it. Incensed, Jupiter hits him with a thunderbolt, hurling him out of the chariot to his death in the river Po. The fresco at the palazzo was surrounded by eight grisaille scenes depicting other stories of Apollo.
  • Study for a fresco depicting scenes from the story of Apollo and Phaeton

    Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770)
    Apollo and Phaëton, ca. 1730–31
    Oil on canvas
    25 1/4 × 18 3/4 in. (64.1 × 47.6 cm)
    Los Angeles County Museum of Art


    Tiepolo set this scene in the dwelling of the Sun, described by Ovid as decorated with high columns and resplendent in golden light. Two winged figures close the composition at top and bottom. Above is Saturn, the god of Time, swooping down from the sky, holding his scythe. On the ground, fast asleep, is Morpheus, god of slumber, accompanied by another winged, sleeping figure. To the right are the Four Seasons, precisely described in Ovid's text: Spring (Flora) with her flowers; Summer (Ceres), naked and with ears of wheat; Autumn (Bacchus) with grapes; and Winter with his frozen, white beard. Below them are two putti and sunflowers, plants usually associated with the sun and linked to the myth of Clytie, known for her love of the Sun god. On the opposite side, the Sun's impetuous horses are regimented by the Hours, who are tethering them to Apollo's chariot. The moment shown by Tiepolo is the granting of the request, after Apollo has tried, in vain, to dissuade his son from the dangerous enterprise. Holding a torch while standing in front of Apollo, Phaëton points with a rod toward the zodiac, where Scorpio is clearly visible, between Libra and Sagittarius. Bathed in golden light and crowned with laurel, Apollo holds a small urn, presumably the magical ointment used to protect his son's face from the rays of the sun.

  • Photograph of a frescoed ceiling.

    Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770)
    Apollo and Phaëton, ca. 1730-31 (destroyed 1943)
    From Attilio Centelli and Gerardo Molfese, Gli affreschi di G.B. Tiepolo raccolti da Gerardo Molfese con uno studio di Attilio Centelli (Turin, 1897), pl. 9
    Page from unbound book
    23 1/2 × 17 5/8 in. (598 × 448 mm)
    Azienda di Servizi alla Persona Golgi-Redaelli, Milan
    su autorizzazione dell'Azienda di Servizi alla Persona Golgi-Redaelli di Milano


    The compositions of the final Archinto fresco and that of the Los Angeles sketch are almost identical. The positions of Autumn and Winter vary slightly, with the two figures closer together in the fresco. The depiction of sunflowers is also altered, as is the position of Phaëton's proper right arm. He holds the whip at a different angle.

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