Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence
The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Palazzo Rezzonico, Venice
The publication of a book on Giovanni Battista Tiepolo by Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, two of the most stimulating contemporary writers on the history of art, was unexpected. Alpers, known mainly for her work on Dutch and Flemish painting, has consistently sought an alternative to the way in which “the study of art and its history has been determined by the art of Italy and its study.” an inquiry into the goals that artists set themselves or that were set for them by their public. Both authors teach at the lively—some would say trendy—department of the history of art at Berkeley. In their new book they tackle problems of wider relevance for an understanding of art, and not simply its history, than their provocatively untrendy subject might sug-gest. Neither has been a member of the clique of scholars specializing in Venetian art of the eighteenth century—and their book is all the better for it.
Tiepolo (1696—1770) was one of the most accomplished artists working anywhere in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, unsurpassed as a painter in oils, unequaled as a painter in fresco, a superbly self-confident draftsman, and a master of etching. Alpers and Baxandall remark that he is “not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.” Yet at least one critic of their book found him easier to dislike, resurrecting well-worn Romantic objections—lack of sincerity and originality, theatricality, willingness to execute paintings “tailored to architectural settings,” which could be said of most other mural painters from Giotto to Ingres. He was compared unfavorably with Paolo Veronese on one side and Goya on the other.
Similarly the recent exhibition The Glory of Venice, which included some of Tiepolo’s finest works on canvas and paper though necessarily none in fresco, as well as numerous paintings by his contemporaries, had a rather cool reception when it opened in London and then at the National Gallery in Washington. The title brought to mind the famous sonnet in which Wordsworth lamented how Venice had seen her glories fade, her titles vanish, and her strength decay. The notion that by the eighteenth century Venetian culture was moribund has colored attitudes to its art. Seeking something to praise, critics seized on an aside by the late Rodolfo Pallucchini, about Giovanni Battista Piazzetta having been “the Courbet of eighteenth-century Venice.”
Tiepolo was certainly the last Venetian painter of international renown, although he died more than a quarter of a century before the fall of the Serene Republic. Even in its last years, however, the arts were not so much dying as evolving yet another …