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Landscape with Polydamas Slaying the Lion on Mount Olympus or Morning

Tierce Jean-Baptiste

(Rouen 1737 - Livorno? 1794)

The painting was produced by Tierce in pendant with Landscape with Milo of Croton, to complete the decoration of a room with depictions of heroes and warriors. The room had already been named ‘of the Gladiator’ after the famous statue of the same name, which was transferred to Paris in 1808 following the sale of the antiquities collection to Napoleon. Tierce, a descendant of a family of painters originally from Normandy, moved to Florence in 1772 and then to Naples before settling in Rome in 1777. This painting depicts an incident in the life of Polydamas as recounted by Pausanias: while Xerxes’ army was being attacked by lions, the hero killed one of the beasts with his bare hands.

Object details

oil on canvas
300 x 185 cm

c. 1781: commissioned by Marcantonio IV Borghese for the Gladiator Room in Villa Borghese; 1891: removed from the villa since it was excluded from the fideicommissary list of 1833; 1983 Mauro Bolognini Collection; 2003: purchased by the Italian State.

  • 2003-2004 Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 2022-2023 Pistoia, Palazzo Buontalenti


The subject of the painting is inspired by an incident from the life of Polydamas, victor in the Olympiad in 408 BCE, whose exploits are narrated by Pausanias (Book VI, Ch. V). In the mythological tale, Xerxes’ army is attacked by lions while in the mountainous area of Thrace and Polydamas, ‘driven to such boldness by his determination to rival the exploits of Heracles (Hercules)’, confronts one of the beasts without any weapons. The scene occupies the lower part of the painting, while other groups of warriors are scattered through the scrubland and along the rivers Nestos and Achelous mentioned in the story. But one's gaze is drawn to the rocky landscape, the real protagonist of the painting, dominated by the large, twisted tree of Flemish stylistic inspiration. This accentuates the verticality of the canvas, its Flemish influence evident in the exaggeratedly contorted branches and meticulously worked leaves against the backdrop of the faintly pink sky of dawn, alluding to the allegory of ‘morning’.

Together with its pendant, Landscape with Milo of Croton Devoured by a Lion or Dusk  (inv. 605), the canvas is part of the pictorial decoration of the walls of the Aeneas and Anchises Room (Room VI). It had previously been known as the ‘Gladiator Room’, named after the famous 5th-century statue, a Greek original by Agasias, which was transferred to Paris in 1808 following the sale of the antiquities collection to Napoleon. The decoration of the room had initially been assigned to Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821) who, in line with the theme of the archaeological masterpiece, devised an epic subject for the central section of the vault, the Council of the Gods (1782), taken from the Iliad, Book XXIV (for information on the composition, see Laveissière 2012, pp. 174-177). Documents suggest that some time previously the artist had been awarded the commission for the other canvases in the room, also devoted to Homeric themes (González-Palacios 1993, p. 31, Appendix 4). However, he was appointed Director of the Royal Academy of Turin in 1777, so the remainder of the commission was entrusted to Jean-Baptiste Tierce, a descendant of a family of painters originally from Normandy. A restless artist, he moved between Paris, Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, benefiting from various patrons, including Jean-Baptiste Jérôme Bruny, Baron de la Tour d’Aigues. Tierce arrived in Florence in 1772 and was much praised by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo. He later went to Naples, where he honed his skills as a landscape painter and was able to broaden his clientele, becoming acquainted with, among others, the English ambassador Sir William Hamilton and the Marquis de Sade, whom he would accompany on the Campania section of his ‘Grand Tour’. In 1777, he settled definitively in Rome, undertaking work for the French Academy and producing various landscapes, including the Ruins of Paestum  and a Tempest (Toulouse, Musée des Augustins), as protégé of Cardinal de Bernis (Michel 1995, p. III), and the Cascades of Tivoli with Horsemen, Hunters and Washerwomen, (Florence, Uffizi Gallery) for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The painter’s popularity was also confirmed by a commission for the commemorative painting Pius VI Visiting the Pontine Marshes (1780) (Rosenberg 1977, p. 197). It was at this point that the commission from Prince Marcantonio IV Borghese arrived, on which Tierce was already making sketches in January 1782. In August of the same year, Pécheux sent the canvas for the ceiling from Turin. However, Tierce abandoned the epic theme of the Trojan War for the painting, opting instead for a description of the exploits of athletes who triumphed in the Olympiad, Polydamas and Milo, and the mythological hero Theseus; subjects which the painter had never attempted before, but which were fully in keeping with the four statues of athletes planned for the new display (Discophore (athlete carrying discus), Cestus Fighter, Athlete Anointing Himself and Victorious Athlete, Paris, Louvre, inventory nos. Ma 89; Ma 68; Ma 87; Ma 375), which were arranged at the sides of each canvas, as can be seen in one of Charles Percier's drawings (González-Palacios 1993, p. 23, fig. 25).

In May 1784, the Giornale delle belle arti described the splendour of the room where, on the wall adjacent to the Hermaphrodite Room, there were also two overdoor paintings – now unfortunately no longer in situ – which completed the allegory of the hours of the day: Polydamas Detaching the Bull’s Hoof or Noon and Theseus Finding his Father's Sword and Sandals by Moving a Boulder or Night.

Marina Minozzi

  • Giornale delle Belle Arti e della incisione antiquaria, musica e poesia, n. 20, 15 maggio 1784, pp. 156-158
  • Memorie per le Belle Arti, n. 1, aprile 1785, in partic. p. LIX
  • L. Lamberti, E.Q. Visconti, Sculture del palazzo della Villa Borghese detta Pinciana, Roma 1796, in partic. pp. 52-53
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, in partic. pp. 106-115;
  • I. Faldi, in Il Settecento a Roma, catalogo della mostra, Roma 1959, pp. 212-213, cat. 597
  • P. Rosenberg, Pittura francese nelle collezioni pubbliche fiorentine, catalogo della mostra, a cura di P. Rosenberg, Firenze 1977
  • S. Petereit Guicciardi, Das Casino Borghese: Dekoration und Inhalt, Wien 1983, p. 160, n. 7;
  • L. Ferrara Grassi, Il Casino di Villa Borghese: i camini; note e documenti per l’arredo degli interni; la collaborazione di Agostino Penna e Vincenzo Pacetti, in Ville e Palazzi, illusione scenica e miti archeologici, a cura di E. Debenedetti (Studi sul Settecento romano, 3) 1987, pp. 241-279, in partic. p. 265
  • A. González-Palacios, La stanza del Gladiatore, in Antologia di belle arti, n.s. 43-47, 1993, pp. 5-33, in particolare pp. 23-24; 32, n. 9;
  • O. Michel, Jean Baptiste Tierce à la recherche de lui-même, in D.A.F. marquis de Sade, Voyage d’Italie, ed. a cura di M. Lever, Dessins de Jean-Baptiste Tierce, Paris, 1995, pp. I-IX
  • P. Mangia, Il ciclo dipinto delle volte. Galleria Borghese, Roma 2001, pp. 47-48.
  • O. Michel, Jean Baptiste Tierce accademico girovago, in La Stanza del Gladiatore ricostituita. Il capolavoro della collezione Borghese del Settecento, a cura di A. Coliva e M. Minozzi, (Roma) Milano 2004, pp. 91-100
  • M. Minozzi, in La Stanza del Gladiatore ricostituita. Il capolavoro della collezione Borghese del Settecento, a cura di A. Coliva e M. Minozzi, (Roma) Milano 2004 2004, pp. 162-167, n. 21
  • Laurent Pécheux. Un peintre français dans l’Italie del Lumières, catalogo della mostra, a cura di Sylvain Laveissière, (Dole, Chambéry) Cinisello Balsamo 2012
  • M. Minozzi, in Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, Acquisizioni e donazioni 2001-2011. Arte dal Medioevo al XXI secolo, Roma 2014, pp. 304-306
  • Mauro Bolognini. Un nouveau regard. Il cinema e le arti, catalogo della mostra, a cura di A. Baldinotti, V. Farinella, M. Preti, L. Scarlini, (Pistoia) Roma 2022, p. 54; 210.