The Death of Abradatas

Francesco Hayez1813/1813

Fondazione Cariplo

Fondazione Cariplo
Milan, Italy

This painting, formerly part of a private collection in Bergamo, has been part of the Cariplo Collection since 1987. Long believed to have been lost, it was presented for the first time to the general public in 1983 at the anthological exhibition of work by Francesco Hayez at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. On that important occasion, which marked the start of critical reappraisal of the artist’s work and key role in the romantic movement, it was identified as a section of the huge canvas The Death of Abradates, painted in the spring of 1813 during the artist’s stay in Rome for the first-class competition of the Brera Academy. In his memoirs Hayez outlines the events connected with the painting’s complex gestation, which involved two of the leading figures in the world of art at the time, both of whom played a crucial role in the moulding of the young artist, namely the sculptor Antonio Canova and Count Leopoldo Cicognara, then president of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts. It was in fact Cicognara that urged Hayez to take part in the annual competition of the Brera Academy early in 1813 through a letter addressed to their mutual friend Antonio Canova. This was prompted by the unsatisfactory results obtained by the painter the previous year, when his huge canvas Laocoon (Milan, Accademia di Brera) was awarded the joint first prize together with a work by Antonio De Antoni, the pupil of Andrea Appiani, premier peintre to the Emperor Napoleon and an authoritative member of the Milanese Academy. The decision was dictated by considerations of internal politics and deeply offended both the young artist, who was well aware of the marked superiority of his work, and above all his Venetian protector, who urged him to compete again in 1813, confident of an overwhelming victory this time. After a initial attempt to avoid this challenge and above all the risk of fresh disappointment, the painter yielded to Cicognara’s persuasion and addressed the set subject in a canvas of monumental proportions. Having completed the heads of the main group, however, he staged an accident so that a large easel fell on the painting and damaged it irreparably. The set subject of the competition that year, namely the death of Abradates, is taken from a passage in the Cyropaedia of Xenophon (VI, 3 and VII, 3) that relates the grief shown by Cyrus, the all-powerful king of the Persians, on the death of Abradates, initially his enemy and later his ally in the war against Croesus. It thus lent itself to glorification of the moral qualities of the Persian monarch and hence by association those of Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French. For this exemplary work of history painting, still bound by the dictates of the neoclassical school, Hayez combined the ancient text with elements drawn from his reading of the popular contemporary novel Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce by the Jesuit Jean Jacques Barthelemy (1793). The surviving section of the work shows the group of figures led by Cyrus, who indicates the funeral gifts with a wave of his hand while gazing upon the now lost main group of Queen Panthea embracing the corpse of her husband Abradates. The figure in the truncated conical hat looking in the opposite direction to the main event can be identified as the painter Tommaso Minardi, recalled by Hayez in his memoirs as ironic and insincere. This intense and realistic portrait of the future founder of the Purist movement provides significant evidence of the two artists’ relationship and period of training together in Rome before they went their separate ways.


  • Title: The Death of Abradatas
  • Creator: Francesco Hayez
  • Creator Lifespan: 1791/1882
  • Creator Nationality: Italian
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Milan
  • Creator Birth Place: Venice
  • Date: 1813/1813
  • Signature, Inscription: Adì 22 Aprile 1813 / Franc.o Hayez fece
  • Physical Dimensions: w94,1 x h73,5 cm (Without frame)
  • Inscription: N. 16 MAI
  • Exhibition: Gallerie d'Italia, Piazza Scala, 6, Milano
  • Provenance: Cariplo Foundation, 1987
  • Type: Painting, oil on canvas
  • Rights: http://www.artgate-cariplo.it/en/disclaimer.html
  • External Link: www.artgate-cariplo.it

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