Tiepolo's Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why do artists paint scenes from history? In this lesson, we are going to look at an historic painting by the Italian master Tiepolo and consider the motivations behind such a composition.

Tiepolo and Scipio

What does history mean to us? This is actually an important question. The way we remember and interpret our history is often just as important as the history itself. In Europe, paintings were one of the most common ways to commemorate historical events, as well as to draw parallels between the past and present.

A self-portrait of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo he snuck into the background of one of his paintings

One of the masters of historic painting was the Venetian painter and printmaker Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Tiepolo's paintings were dramatic, colorful, and very often historic in nature. One notable example of these is his 1719-1721 masterpiece titled Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva.


Tiepolo's oil-on-canvas painting deals with a historic subject, so to understand the painting we must first understand the history. Scipio Africanus was the preeminent Roman general of the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). That's the one where the Carthaginian general Hannibal brought elephants over the Alps to attack Rome. Scipio ultimately won the war and is remembered as one of the greatest generals in Roman history.

Scipio was also a symbol of virtue and chivalry, particularly in the ways that he treated defeated opponents. That's where the story of Massiva comes in. Massiva was a young boy and prince of a Numidian kingdom (today roughly Algiers and Tunisia in northern Africa). He had been brought to Iberia by his uncle, the king Massinissa, but snuck away and was captured by the Romans after the Battle of Baecula in 209 BCE.

After winning the battle, Scipio freed many of the Iberian soldiers as an act of benevolence and to gain favor with the Iberian people (who were now under Roman control). He found the young Numidian prince among the prisoners and decided to send him back to his uncle. Legend states that Scipio was awed by the beauty of the young soldier, but this was likely a political gambit. Rather than demand a ransom for the boy, which was standard practice, Scipio gave Massiva a formal Roman cavalry escort laden with gold and jewels. Massinissa later abandoned the Carthaginians and became a staunch ally of Rome. The Romans traditionally attributed his change of heart to Scipio's gentlemanly conduct.

The Painting

Now that we understand the story of Scipio and Massiva, let's see how Tiepolo treated the subject. Tiepolo's scene is grand in scale, showing a sweeping open-air court that is packed full of people. The architecture is distinctly Roman, which had less to do with maintaining historical accuracy and more to do with post-Renaissance obsessions with ancient Greece and Rome as progenitors of true Western civilization.

Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva

At the center of the painting is Scipio, the visual focal point of the scene. He is elevated above everyone and is the only figure to enter the upper third of the painting, but the eye is also drawn to him by the highlighted white concentric platform upon which he sits and the bright red robes he's wearing. If you follow his gesture (mirrored by the background architecture), you'll see the young Massiva. Remember that Massiva was an African prince, but here he is depicted as a white European. In European art of the time period, it was common to depict noble Africans as European. You may notice that the only phenotypically African figure here is a seated young man in the shadows on the left. The fact that he is black probably indicates his status as a servant.

What we're seeing here is a Venetian take on the late Baroque period of art. Baroque art was dramatic in both subject and composition. Here, the theme of the virtuous victor is coupled with dramatically flowing robes, exaggerated physical gestures, and monumental architecture. Tiepolo also cast his dramatic stage in extreme contrasts of dark shadows placed against bright colors. While this was common in all Baroque art, it had been an aesthetic particularly associated with Venetian art since the late Renaissance.

Detail of Scipio and Massiva

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