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The Triumphs of Tiepolo

Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence

by Svetlana Alpers, by Michael Baxandall
Yale University Press, 186 pp., $50.00

The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Palazzo Rezzonico, Venice

edited by Jane Martineau, edited by Andrew Robison. Catalog of the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London;
Yale University Press, 528 pp., $39.95 (paper)

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.”1 The results have been illuminating, most recently in her Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market.2 Baxandall began no less probingly with two brief but now classic studies on Florentine painting of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then went on to publish a brilliant account of the Limewood sculptors of Renaissance Germany, followed by Patterns of Intention,3 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.4 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.5 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 self-transformation, with Venetian patrons continuing to commission large scale works until the mid-1790s, albeit most notably sculpture from Antonio Canova. In Venice the end came suddenly, and when the Doge and Great Council capitulated to Napoleon in 1797, most Venetians were no less astonished than enraged. Those whose republican sympathies had led them to support the French assumed that Venice would remain independent, with no more than a change to a truly republican form of government. They never suspected that, in fact, Venice had been sold down the river to Austria, which now took control of the city. With no possibility of a Restoration, the culture of eighteenth-century Venice was isolated and sealed off more thoroughly than that of any other ancien régime.

Though he did not, of course, live to experience this humiliating dénouement, Tiepolo stands at the end of an epoch in a wider European artistic context. He was the last master of the technique of fresco on a grand scale, the last painter able to transform vast ceilings into skies peopled with classical deities, Christian saints, and living rulers, the last who succeeded in animating traditional allegorical personifications, and the last to indulge in witty illusionism. To historians bent on tracing progress and concentrating attention on “firsts”—rather as French greengrocers specialize in les primeurs—he is an embarrassment. For private collectors and museum curators he retains, nevertheless, a perennial allure. Only recently the Metropolitan Museum in New York has given him pride of place with a sumptuous new installation through which all visitors to the galleries of European painting will now pass. And next year the three hundredth anniversary of his birth is to be marked by a major exhibition in Venice.

No artist was more instinctively Venetian than Tiepolo. The son of a minor merchant of Venice, a part-owner of a ship, he was born in a working-class quarter of the city, though he bore the name of one of the city’s great patrician families. He never made the usual student’s pilgrimage to Bologna, Florence, and Rome, nor did he travel outside Venetian territory at all until 1730, when he went to Milan for the first time. He was trained under Gregorio Lazzarini, who had begun to revive Venetian Renaissance traditions, preserved until then in a kind of refrigerated half-life by pasticheurs and copyists, not to say fakers, of Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano. For most of the seventeenth century painting in the city had been dominated by foreigners from other parts of Italy and north of the Alps, such as Luca Giordano and Johann Liss. It was not an auspicious beginning for a talented and ambitious young artist. Yet by about the age of twenty Tiepolo had launched himself on an independent career, painting richly colored, mouvementé compositions with rhetorically gesturing figures, recalling his great baroque predecessors but already heralding the triumphs of delicacy that were to come. (The three large canvases now on show at the Metropolitan Museum are notable examples.)

Before the end of the 1720s he had evolved a highly personal style which owed as much to Mannerist sophistication as to Venetian painterliness. In the gallery of the Archbishop’s palace at Udine his mural paintings of scenes from the Book of Genesis have a refreshing airiness, a suggestion of unlimited space beyond the figures, an effect of sunlit brilliance obtained by the economical use of white, with strong blues, greens, and orange, offset by predominant grays and browns. And here, too, several of the characters who were to populate his later work made their début—a beautiful blonde, probably his wife, Cecilia (elder sister of the painters Gian-antonio and Francesco Guardi); children “hidden excitedly, containing laughter,” though one stares boldly out from the wall; an almost toothless crone (see illustration on page 22); a sage grey-beard stooping slightly; indolent youths; and androgynous angels whose silk robes are parted to reveal plump things and well-turned arms, not to mention a docile dog and a couple of supercilious camels.

These paintings at Udine are in fresco—the technique of painting on fresh (fresco) moist lime plaster with pigments that are absorbed into the ground—which had rarely been used by Venetian artists since the sixteenth century. For the decoration of ceilings as well as walls their patrons preferred paintings in oil on canvas. They were more expensive—and obviously so. The revival of fresco in the eighteenth century may have been prompted partly by a need to economize—just as the medium had been developed four hundred years earlier as an inexpensive alternative to costly mosaic or tapestry. But the new vogue for fresco decorations with figurative scenes set in elaborate surrounds of trompe l’oeil architecture, intended to give an impression of affluence, also depended on the availability of artists with the gifts required to execute them. Throughout his career Tiepolo painted in both fresco and oils, using the former in the summer when the plaster base for the pigments dries firmly, the latter in the damp winters. Acutely aware of the diverse potentialities and limitations of the two media, he sought to achieve in oils effects of rich color and texture that could not be rendered in the more limited palette of frescos, which have a matte surface but permit greater fluidity of handling. And while working in one medium he seems often to have found solutions to pictorial problems that he could go on to develop in the other.

His paintings in oils range from imposing altarpieces with saints in richly textured silks and satins looking down with heavy-lidded eyes, to small and emotionally intense pictures of the Flight into Egypt, with the Holy Family depicted as indigent refugees lost in a hostile landscape. It was, however, as a painter in fresco that his fame spread beyond the Veneto. He was endowed by nature and he improved by practice that “dextrous, resolute and rapid, nimble and free” hand which Giorgio Vasari had deemed essential for the medium. It was not until 1750, however, that he received the most rewarding of all his foreign commissions, that from the Prince Bishop of Würzburg, where with the assistance of his sons he spent three years painting the ceilings of the Kaisersaal (the ceremonial reception room) and the vast staircase hall in the Residenz.

Back in Venice, he resumed, summer after summer, his fresco painting in the city and on the mainland, enlivening the ceilings and walls of churches, palaces, and villas. But in 1762, under pressure from the Venetian government, he yielded to a summons from the King of Spain to paint ceilings in the royal palace in Madrid, where he spent his last years.

When news of his sudden death in 1770 reached Venice, a diarist mourned him as the most famous painter of his day, well known all over Europe. His career had been one of unbroken success, and he seems to have made a small fortune. Soon after his death, however, his last large oil paintings, a series of altarpieces commissioned by the King of Spain, were taken down and virtually thrown away, though perhaps for theological as much as aesthetic reasons.

Shortly before he went to Madrid, Tiepolo was reported as saying that painters must try to succeed in large-scale works capable of pleasing the rich and the nobility because “it is they that make the fortunes of artists, and not other people who cannot afford valuable pictures.”6 For opportunities to exercise his unique gifts in frescoing vast areas with integrated compositions—that over the staircase in the Residenz in Würzburg is about 650 square yards, substantially larger than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—he was necessarily dependent on rich patrons. And since he shared their views and beliefs he had no difficulty in working out acceptable programs for them. His religious paintings were conformist, untouched by the spread of Jansenism even in the modified Italian form which the Venetian authorities had resisted.

  1. 1

    Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. xix.

  2. 2

    University of Chicago Press, 1988.

  3. 3

    Giotto and the Orators (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1971); Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1972); The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (Yale University Press, 1980); Patterns of Intention (Yale University Press, 1985). His most recent book is Shadows and Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 1995).

  4. 4

    Peter Campbell in London Review of Books, January 12, 1995, p. 10.

  5. 5

    The bulky catalog did not assuage critics despite its introduction by Michael Levey. The essays printed on some four hundred pages are rarely enlightening, being devoted mainly to biographies of artists summarized again in the catalog entries at the end. It served for exhibition in London, Washington, and Venice but gives no indication of which works were shown in each locale. Sculptures, including seven by Canova, were on show only in London, some paintings only in London, others only in Washington. The Venetian showing was the most satisfactory since some of the works were displayed beneath Tiepolo’s frescoed ceiling in Palazzo Rezzonico, and the Italian edition of the catalog added a section on his frescoes elsewhere in the city. In general the selection of exhibits was unbalanced, with too much prominence given to Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, for instance, and to the view painters, while even the distinguished painter Rosalba Carriera was inadequately represented.

  6. 6

    Nuova Veneta Gazzetta (1762), quoted by Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters (Knopf, 1963), p. 253.

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