The Restoration of Rubens’s “Decius Mus cycle"
Among the greatest works of art in the Collections of the Princes of Liechtenstein is the “Decius Mus cycle” by Peter Paul Rubens. Since its acquisition by Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein (1657–1712) in 1693, this eight-part cycle of paintings on the victory and death of the Roman consul Decius Mus has been a core work of the Princely Collections.
Rubens’s monumental sequence of paintings is held to be the first pictorial rendering of the battle fought by the Roman general Decius Mus against the Latins (340–338 BCE). The story of his exemplary heroic death and virtue is related in Livy’s (59 BCE–17 CE) history “Ab urbe condita”. The series is not only Rubens’s earliest cycle of paintings but also his first recorded foray into the field of tapestry production. It came into being at the same time as Rubens had a new studio erected beside his house in Antwerp (built in 1616) and is one of the first projects of this size that he coordinated with several studio assistants. A contract dated 9 November 1616 between the art dealer Frans Sweerts, the Brussels weaver Jan Raes the Elder and the Genoese merchant Francesco Cattaneo arranged for the manufacture of two tapestry series on the story of Decius Mus, for which Rubens was to design cartoons.
The contract concluded in Brussels in 1616 laid the foundation for the “Decius Mus cycle". The contracting parties arranged for the manufacture of two tapestry series with slightly differing dimensions for which Rubens was to produce the cartoons and inspect the finished products for quality. The three parties to the contract were the art dealer and humanist Frans Sweerts, the tapestry manufactory of Jan Raes and the Genoese merchant Franco Cattaneo. However, who actually commissioned the series and for whom the tapestries were ultimately intended has never been established. Cattaneo died while the series were being made, and it is assumed that the tapestries were subsequently sold on the open market.
The next reference to the series appears in 1661. A document records the purchase of five paintings from the “Decius Mus cycle” by the Antwerp painters Gonzales Coques, Jan Baptist van Eyck and Jan Carl de Witte, to add to one that they already possessed. Following the deaths of the two other co-owners, the six paintings remained in the possession of van Eyck, and when he died, they passed into the ownership of the Antwerp dealers and brothers Forchondt. Through their branch in Vienna, they offered them for sale as works by Anthony van Dyck to Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein, who eventually purchased them in 1693. In January 1694 the prince wrote to the artist Marcantonio Franceschini that the paintings had been acquired for the family collection. In 1705 the cycle of paintings was hung in its own room in the family’s City Palace in Vienna. At the Garden Palace (known as the ‘Gallery Building’) opened to the public from 1810, Rubens’s cycle of paintings was the centrepiece of the gallery until it closed in 1938. In 1942 the paintings were evacuated to several different locations to ensure their safety, before they were brought to Lucerne for an exhibition in 1948 and afterwards stored at Vaduz Castle. Following the renovation of the Garden Palace in 2000–2003, the cycle was able to return to its traditional place in the gallery.
Aims of the restoration
The comprehensive project of research and restoration being carried out on the “Decius Mus cycle” follows the completion of the two-volume publication entitled “Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard: Subjects from History – The Decius Mus Series” by Reinhold Baumstark and Guy Delmarcel. For this publication initial research was carried out into the origins and execution of the cycle, as well as analyses of specific materials and techniques used. These findings support the present programme of restoration that began in May 2022 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026.
The current campaign of conservation and restoration focuses on repairing and/or stabilizing both the canvas supports and overlying paintfilms in conjunction with measures to improve the legibility and chromatic qualities of the painted images. A detailed study of the condition of each painting will help determine the measures taken for their restoration.
Given the clear differences in the materials, techniques and approaches used within the series of paintings, the need to consider the cycle as an interdependent visual narrative constitutes an important and challenging aspect of the restoration.
Currently the focus of analysis and restoration
In May 2022 restoration work started on the first two paintings: “Decius Mus Relating his Dream” and “The Dismissal of the Lictors”. Their place in the gallery has meanwhile been taken by two tapestries showing the matching scenes.
Analysis of and conservation work on the two paintings has reached an advanced stage. Structural measures on the supports having been completed, and work continues with the varnish reduction, filling and retouching of the paint surface.