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In Love with Light

Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770 1996, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, January 24-April 27, 1997

Exhibition at the Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice, September 5-December 9,

Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770

Catalog of the exhibition, edited by Keith Christiansen
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 398 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Der Himmel auf Erden—Tiepolo in Würzburg February 15-May 19, 1996

Exhibition at the Prince-Bishop’s Residenz, Würzburg, Germany.

Heaven on Earth: Tiepolo—Masterpieces of the Würzburg Years

by Peter O. Krückmann
Prestel, 144 pp., $39.95 (paper)

Tiepolo and His Circle: Drawings in American Collections the Pierpont Morgan Library

Catalog of the exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museums and, by Bernard Aikema, translated by Andrew McCormick
Harvard University Art Museums/Pierpont Morgan Library, 345 pp., $39.95 (paper)


When in 1770 the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo died, very suddenly, in Madrid (to which he had been summoned to fresco the royal palace), he was already aged seventy-four, and he must certainly have realized that he had been, for at least a generation or so, the most admired Italian painter of his time. But he could not possibly have foreseen the two factors that were to weigh most heavily with posterity in appraising the nature of his genius: in the first place, within less than thirty years it would be evident that the Europe that had acclaimed him with such enthusiasm had vanished forever; and secondly, as the decades succeeded each other thereafter, it would become ever more apparent that he was to be the very last Italian painter to make a major impact on the art and taste of the world.

So obvious, so startling, and so enduring has been the impact of these two circumstances that, right up to our own day, it has proved to be almost impossible for any commentator to avoid taking account of them (though not always consciously) when trying to estimate his achievement. This is so despite the fact that neither could have been of any relevance to that achievement. On balance, it seems likely that his posthumous reputation has benefited from this state of affairs, because in most spheres of creative life it is an advantage to be considered exceptional rather than typical, even in matters of decadence and corruption, and also because some kind of glamour invariably attaches itself to the last of anything.

In fact, Tiepolo’s reputation has always stood somewhat higher than might have been expected, although admittedly it remained within fairly narrow confines for about a hundred years following his death. He hardly ever attracted the venomous scorn that, even in his lifetime and for long afterward, was to be poured on his slightly younger French contemporary Boucher, who was accused of representing a serious threat to the national tradition, and he was consistently admired by a long series of discriminating artists and critics. One of the keenest of these was the very man who was to be acclaimed as having broken with the recent past so as to inaugurate a completely new era in Italian art—the “neo-classical” sculptor, Antonio Canova, who ardently collected drawings and sketches by Tiepolo. Many of the Romantics—including Delacroix—thought highly of him, and during the period of the Second Empire, his very weaknesses pleaded in his favor: “charmant peintre, grand maître de la décadence,” rhapsodized Gauthier in 1851, and nearly two decades later another French critic wrote that

Tiepolo, the last Venetian, is not a master: he has neither the deep soul nor the strict self-discipline [science sévère] of the great painters who preceded him. But what an admirable decadent! What verve and what fire! What grace and richness in his compositions!

A few years later still Jean-Louis Forain’s comparison of Tiepolo to the fashionable designer of posters Jules Chéret was certainly intended as a compliment to the Venetian. “It’s his way of showing his admiration,” commented Degas dryly, “and it’s perhaps no worse than any other.”1

Such jaunty, though well-meaning, assessments could hardly satisfy the authors of the fine scholarly monographs—mainly in German and Italian—which began to appear in the early years of the present century, but, on the whole, attitudes to Tiepolo did not change very significantly, at least as far as the average art lover (and a limited number of collectors) were concerned. He was seen as somewhat superficial, but a great colorist, full of energy and charm—if the Venetian school had to come to an end, at least it was doing so in style. As far as I know, only Berenson, writing in 1894, tried to penetrate more deeply, but his ideas were not to be developed until fifty years later. For him the quality of Tiepolo’s art places him “almost on a level with the great Venetians of the sixteenth century,” but, unlike Veronese (to whom he owed so much), he lacked simplicity and candor. His people are haughty. “They evidently feel themselves so superior that they are not pleasant to live with…. It was Tiepolo’s vision of the world that was at fault, and his vision of the world was at fault only because the world itself was at fault.”

So many of Tiepolo’s greatest works were frescoes and altarpieces painted for palaces and churches in Venice, Northern Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere that it has never been remotely difficult for anyone at all interested to become familiar with him. But it is probably true to claim that the full extent of his genius only dawned on—or, at least, was confirmed for—a wide public through that most potent (and often misleading) medium of communication, the Old Master Exhibition. In 1951 about a hundred of his paintings and another hundred drawings, as well as his two sets of etchings, were shown (along with others by his extremely talented son Giandomenico) in the pavilions built for the Biennale in the Giardini in Venice. In fact the catalog, which consists of some two hundred pages of sparse but useful information, illustrated with small black-and-white photographs, and which could fit comfortably into an overcoat pocket, gives no indication of this (somewhat surprising) location.

The occasion was, however, of much greater significance than is suggested by such brief, and almost prehistoric, material vestiges. In 1935 the city of Venice had taken the then unusual step of embarking on a series of biennial monographic exhibitions devoted to its greatest painters. Titian had, naturally enough, been chosen to inaugurate the series, and he was followed by Tintoretto and Veronese. After the interruption of the war it was the turn of Giovanni Bellini in 1949. Thus the Tiepolo exhibition of two years later marked the official acceptance into the Pantheon of supreme Venetian masters of this eighteenth-century “decadent”—ahead, incidentally, of Lotto in 1953 and Giorgione in 1955.

Yet paradoxically it was only a few years earlier that the art of Tiepolo had been subjected to the most damaging attack that it had yet had to face—the memory of which still haunts nearly every Italian who writes about him, despite repeated attempts to dismiss it as an outdated historical curiosity.

In 1945, just after the end of the war and at a time when most of the museums in Italy were still closed, an exhibition was mounted in Venice called “Five Centuries of Venetian Art.” About two hundred pictures retrieved from storage and various hidden depots were displayed at the Procuratie Nuove, and since many of them were celebrated masterpieces which had not been seen for five miserable years, the effect must have been overwhelming. Yet today the exhibition is chiefly remembered for the sparkling and provocative commentary that it inspired from the fifty-five-year-old Roberto Longhi, the most brilliant Italian art historian of our century and a stylist of intoxicating powers. Longhi encouraged in his followers the sort of fanatical (or craven?) loyalty that is more often associated with the demagogic politicians of the period than with university professors.2 In his “Journey through Five Centuries of Venetian Art” Longhi did not confine his judgments only to what was on view at the exhibition, but produced a very personal, wide-ranging, and highly concentrated survey, ranging from the Gothic masters of the fourteenth century to Antonio Canova, “the sculptor born dead, whose heart is in [the church of] the Frari, whose hand is at the Academy, and the rest I don’t know where. From now on there was nothing further that could be done. Italian art was finished for more than a century.”

However, despite this famous boutade, it was Tiepolo whom Longhi held chiefly responsible for the death of Italian art, precisely because he had not been “born dead,” as Canova had been, but had cynically misused his prodigious gifts. If only he had limited himself to the brilliant preliminary oil sketches that he made for his paintings, he would have ranked with the greatest artists of the eighteenth century.3 By completing them he turned them into the equivalent of Technicolor costume films. Far more serious for Longhi was the fact that Tiepolo revered, without believing in, the pompous world of allegory, mythology, history, and religion that he created in his huge frescoes and altarpieces. He was a man who lacked principles and who worshiped power and wealth for their own sakes; had he lived forty years longer he would have been just as ready to glorify the Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration, as he had earlier glorified the ancien régime. His arrogant skepticism had cost Italian painting too dear, “for an artist is always responsible for his posthumous votaries and followers,” and in the case of Tiepolo these had been the official painters and critics of Italy during the first part of the twentieth century, many of whom had been closely linked to the government.

Longhi’s denunciation of Tiepolo as an advocate of pomposity, cynicism, and costume drama, when read in the context both of his views on other artists he discusses in the same essay and of an imaginary dialogue, published a few years later, between Caravaggio and Tiepolo, can be seen as having been inspired by extreme distaste for the triumphalism of Mussolini’s regime. The onslaught is, however, equally relevant (though it is unlikely that Longhi would have appreciated this) to the position of those many prominent intellectuals who, like himself, had switched their sympathies, without any obvious signs of discomfort, from Fascism to communism.

Although Longhi’s criticism was intended to belittle Tiepolo’s reputation—and has always been interpreted in this way—it could be argued that its actual implications are very different. To attach significance to Tiepolo’s beliefs and principles (even if only to denounce his lack of them) and to his exaltation of wealth and power (even if only to ridicule the pretensions of the “Catholic aristocracy of eighteenth-century courts,” who seemed to embody these attributes for him) was to assign to the artist a far more serious role than that of a charming, if decadent, purveyor of scintillating colors.

In any case most people’s problem with Tiepolo today is likely to be very different. Although every age has its anxieties and fears, the placid self-assurance that seems so characteristic of Europe in the middle years of the eighteenth century makes that historical period in some ways more difficult for us to comprehend than the witch-persecuting horrors of the late Middle Ages or the religious butchery of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moreover, unlike Tiepolo, who openly proclaimed that “painters should aim to succeed in great works that give pleasure to the nobility and men of wealth,” we are most reluctant to admit that the finest art can flourish in harmony with the ruling classes and without the tensions that beset us now, so that, where necessary, we try to detect such tensions in the art of the past (“pre-revolutionary tremors,” for instance). And when we are unable to do so we tend to dismiss the art as superficial or hypocritical or no more than technically accomplished.

  1. 1

    Canova’s collecting of Tiepolo was discussed by Giuseppe Pavanello at a Tiepolo conference held in Venice in November 1996, the Acts of which are due to be publishedin 1997. For the nineteenth-century comments on the artist quoted here, see Francis Haskell, “Tiepolo e gli artisti del secolo xix,” in Vittore Branca, editor, Sensibilità e Razionalità nel Sette-cento (Florence: Sansoni, 1967), pp. 481-497.

  2. 2

    Apart from his monograph on Piero della Francesca, few of Longhi’s very idiosyncratic works have been translated into English; but, thanks to the enterprise of Stanley Moss’s Sheep Meadow Press, this situation is at last being remedied, and one must welcome the appearance of Three Studies (on Masolino and Masaccio, Caravaggio and his forerunners, and Carlo Braccesco) which have been translated with an Introduction by David Tabbat. Other volumes are to follow. (The address of the Sheep Meadow Press is P.O. Box 1345; Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY 10471.)

  3. 3

    The exhibition devoted to “Giambattista Tiepolo: Master of the Oil Sketch,” held at the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 1993, provided a good opportunity for verifying this claim; see the catalog edited by Beverly Louise Brown (Electa/Abbeville/Kimbell Art Museum, 1993).

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