Giacomo Amiconi
Mercury About to Slay Argus 1730–2

Artwork details

Giacomo Amiconi 1682–1752
Mercury About to Slay Argus
Date 1730–2
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 655 x 645 mm
frame: 730 x 720 x 72 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1971
Not on display


This is a preliminary oil sketch for one of the four large canvases by Amiconi which still decorate the lower part of the Hall at Moor Park, Hertfordshire. Together they illustrate the story from Greek mythology of Jupiter and Io, told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 1. Io was seduced by the god Jupiter who later turned her into a white heifer to hide his infidelity from his wife, Juno. Not deceived, Juno requested the heifer as a present and charged Argus, who had one hundred watchful eyes, to guard her. Unable to bear Io's suffering, Jupiter ordered his son, Mercury, to slay Argus, who did so after disguising himself as a herdsman and charming Argus to sleep with music from his pipe. Amiconi's fourth canvas completes the narrative, showing Juno receiving Argus's severed head, the eyes from which she took and placed in the tails of her peacocks. Mercury about to Slay Argus is the third canvas. The sketch is similar to the finished version in almost every respect, but omits its arched top as well as the figure of Jupiter, with his symbolic eagle, surveying the scene from a cloud.

The Venetian artist Amiconi (also known as Jacopo Amigoni) arrived in England from Munich in 1729 and remained there for ten years, establishing himself as a mythological decorative painter and also as a portraitist. In 1730-2 he was commissioned to redecorate Moor Park by Benjamin Styles, a wealthy city financier, who made a great fortune in the South Sea Company. Styles had purchased the house in 1720 and had commissioned the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni (1686-1746) and Sir James Thornhill (1675 or 6-1734) to remodel it architecturally. Thornhill was also responsible for the splendid interiors, in particular the Hall, but Styles disputed his £1,300 bill which led to two lawsuits, in 1728 and 1730, which Styles lost. The almost immediate employment of Italian decorators to transform Thornhill's work presumably was a deliberate act of retaliation.

Amiconi worked at Moor Park in collaboration with the Venetian artist, Francesco Sleter (1685-1775), and Gaetano Brunetti (d.1758), an Italian quadraturista, or painter of illusionist architecture. He had worked with Brunetti before in 1730-1, on the staircase at Tankerville House, St James's Square, London, his first project in England where Brunetti had taken the lead role. At Moor Park, Sleter is thought to have acted as master painter. He signed the painted staircase in 1732 and was responsible for the Saloon (although Amiconi probably contributed), where his Four Seasons are surrounded by Brunetti's elaborate, feigned ornament. Amiconi's fine Jupiter and Io series in the Hall is entirely his own work, the canvases replacing ones by Thornhill which had been of the same size and shape but which had treated a more ponderous, Augustan theme - scenes of Heroic Virtue 'taken from several stories of the Antients, Greeks & Latins & Britons' (Vertue Notebooks III, Walpole Society, vol.22, 1933-4, p.35). Amiconi's works are lighter, both in subject matter and manner as well as palette, and are characteristic of the work produced by the group of Venetian decorative artists currently fashionable in England. The rich relief ornament that still surrounds them survives from Thornhill's earlier scheme.

A sketch for the second canvas of the series, Argus Lulled to Sleep, survives (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden) as does a small-scale mythological picture treating the same subject (Seattle Art Museum). The latter was probably not connected to Moor Park but was painted in England, for Amiconi's great friend, the celebrated castrato singer Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli (1705-82).

Further reading
Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, II, 1970, pp.277-9.
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Catalogues of the Permanent Collections, II, 1988, pp.13-15.
Annalisa Scarpa Sonino, Jacopo Amigoni, Soncino, 1994, pp.30-1 and no.13, p.86.

Tabitha Barber
April 2001