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Tiepolo: Eros, Mystery, Menace

Tiepolo Pink

by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen
Knopf, 288 pp., $40.00

Like Plato’s Athens, eighteenth-century Venice no longer played much of a part on any political stage, but that fact had virtually no effect on the vibrancy of the city’s cultural life. The merchant-aristocrats who had once ruled the Mediterranean might be lords now of only their farms on the neighboring mainland, but their reduced circumstances hardly seemed to matter; the world still came calling. Indeed, the world may well have had more to learn from this older, more humble Venice than from Venice in its arrogant heyday, when the Most Serene Republic held sway over Constantinople, Crete, and the Adriatic Sea.

There is, in fact, no compelling reason to think that temporal power and insight must bear any relationship to one another, nor that loss of power necessarily leads to decadence rather than wisdom, in people or states. Though Thucydides famously had Pericles tell the Athenians “We are the school of Hellas,” it was another Athens altogether that would become a school to the world: an Athens chastened by ruinous military defeat, the Athens of Plato, Aristotle, and then of the philosophical schools, a city of enduring, radiant, and no longer overbearing beauty. Thucydides himself began as an ambitious Athenian general, but he wrote his history in exile after a failed campaign—really a failed colonial adventure—that immeasurably deepened his thinking about strategy, resources, and power. The fact that eighteenth-century Venetians had long since deferred to the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and to Britain in the Ocean Sea meant that they could spend their time in other pursuits, not all of them necessarily frivolous. And certainly, the eighteenth-century city was no less beautiful than its more potent, militant predecessor; it may have been more beautiful still.

That eighteenth-century phenomenon we know as the Enlightenment seems to have come to Venice in a literal burst of light, refracted as the picture-perfect perspectives of Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Francesco Guardi, the soft pastels of Rosalba Carriera, and the brilliant billowing clouds of Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Tiepolo’s ceiling frescoes. Not since Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina in the late fifteenth century had painters reveled so happily in the brilliance of Venetian light on a sunny day, when sky, water, and city glitter off one another; instead, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Giorgione’s Tempest seems to have brought on a spate of stormy artistic weather: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, working especially in oil on canvas, all built their paintings up from a dark brown ground that encouraged the creation of deep contrasts between light and shadow, in clouds, in figures, in architecture. The works of these supreme masters are monumental, majestic, and, in their incessant play of light against darkness, suggestively enigmatic. Altogether, they evoke a Venice of tremendous power and authority—indeed, Tintoretto’s Paradiso for the great hall of the Doges’ Palace (1588–1590) is the largest oil painting in the world, a beatific vision that links the city and its government explicitly to the triumphant design of Heaven. In the right light, we can still see the places where bolts of painted canvas have been stitched together to create the gigantic image of Jesus Christ as the Doge of Doges.

Tiepolo, on the other hand, painted most of his ceilings in fresco, that is, by applying pigment to wet, fresh plaster (potentially a risky technique in the damp, salty sea air). This luminous matte ground means that his figures, like his clouds, bask under a light so blindingly intense that it all but banishes shadow. Tiepolo’s clouds and figures belong, at the very least, to a different Venice from their predecessors, and perhaps they belong to a different universe, one that runs on principles of Newtonian mechanics rather than the caprice of the ancient gods. It is tempting to trace Tiepolo and his lustrous colors back to the pure beam of Enlightenment reason, but this is a temptation that Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink (translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen) urges us to resist:

Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe. And like all true happiness, it was as full of dark sides destined not to fade away, but to get the upper hand.

This dark side is what allows Calasso to defend his man to his own world, given contemporary obsessions with sincerity on one hand and Freudian depths on the other. Not since the Spanish court of Philip II has there been such an obsession with black as there is in our own day and age—not to mention its French cousin, noir (though it is worth pointing out that changes in dyeing technology have perceptibly lightened the most recent blacks in our own visual field). Tiepolo, in contrast, maintains such an air of detachment, of sophisticated urbanity under his unrelenting flutters of satin tissues and billows of cloud, that many recent critics, from Roberto Longhi in the mid-1950s to Jed Perl in the early twenty-first century, experience his work as repellently chilly. Certainly no Tiepolo character ever touches the emotional extremes of a Caravaggio; no crazed hatred or anguished penitence ever troubles the Venetian painter’s bright, populous realm; neither does unbounded love pour forth to oppose such miseries with works of mercy. No matter how elaborately they twine about one another, most of Tiepolo’s people are entirely, disconcertingly on their own.

As Calasso notes, the artist focuses over and over again on the pairing of a weathered old man and a young woman with a flawless body, flawless posture, and a superior expression; these are the two members of his painted company of players who can be trusted to look knowingly down upon the events around them, observing attentively, yes, but too involved in one another to care actively about what happens outside their charmed, hermetic circle. With Caravaggio, strikingly, it is the very young men and the old ladies who truly understand what is happening before them; they, and sad, stoic Jesus. Caravaggio’s characters respond to what they see, passionately, by smirking, laughing, weeping, or bowing their heads in reverence. Whereas Calasso readily admits that the Nazarene was “the only character who never came off for Tiepolo.” Instead, it is this eminently pagan bonded pair of youth and age, male and female, that bears the burden of his reality; whether they represent—for the moment—Truth and Time, Venus and Vulcan, Hades and Persephone, Venus and Time, deep down, they are all one and the same, the eternal wedding of opposites.

People may argue about the relative temperature of Giambattista’s muse, but there is no doubt that he aims for, and achieves, a triumph of eros. His old men are still powerfully muscular, and his milk-white women have the strength of body and will to match their venerable consorts. Tiepolo returned repeatedly to painting the contrast between a besotted Marc Antony and a majestic, disdainful Cleopatra, acting out the eternal strife of War and Love, Mars and Venus. Venetian velvets, silks, and filigree are the perfect complement to the famous banquet in which Cleopatra dissolved a precious pearl in a goblet of vinegar and drank it down (just as an Italian woman confessed to the Corriere della Sera many years ago that when her astronaut lover gave her a moon rock as a gift the only thing she could think to do was swallow it on the spot).

In his career as a publisher and writer, Calasso has always shown himself to be a voracious reader, but he reveals himself in this book as a no less ravenous observer who brings a voluptuary delight to all his descriptions—especially to his descriptions of paint and painted flesh (crucially, and fortunately, the book itself is a beautiful object, lavishly furnished with illustrations). “Tiepolo pink” is a phrase he has purloined from Proust, but we might see the shade as the eighteenth-century’s alternative to deep, sleek Titian red. We see Tiepolo pink at its most intense in the satin drape that flutters across the ceiling of Palazzo Clerici in Milan and lines the collar of the page who accompanies Pharaoh’s daughter in The Finding of Moses from the National Gallery of Scotland (an epicene page so sumptuously dressed, as Calasso says, that he could be the damsel’s brother).

The Italian word for pink is rosa; thus both Italians and Anglo-Saxons associate the hue almost by definition with the evanescence of flowers, whereas Titian red is the color of heavy auburn hair and deep-pile velvet. And indeed, Tiepolo’s pink is a tone of astonishing delicacy, nothing like the forceful, glossy pastels of his French contemporary François Boucher (1703–1770), as hard as a china doll. Tiepolo layers paint so lightly that we can often see the exquisite underdrawing beneath, and are meant to. For all his skill with color, he is as much a graphic artist as a painter, and it is the graphic artist who may fascinate Calasso most of all.

The second of Tiepolo Pink ‘s three chapters (and hence the heart of the book) addresses a series of thirty-three etchings that the artist produced over his career, and that he called Capricci, “caprices,” and Scherzi di fantasia, “plays of imagination.” The book’s first chapter has already presented Tiepolo as the master of a troupe of traveling players who assemble and reassemble to tell myths, legends, histories: tales of Troy or the Chanson de Roland, allegories to warn against the tricks of Time, and fabrications to exalt the ancestry of any family willing to pay for the privilege, whether it be a Venetian magnate, a Franconian prince-bishopric from Würzburg, or His Most Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain (Tiepolo, like the Tuscan-born composer Luigi Boccherini, died as a courtier in Madrid).

This theatricality was partly a matter of the artist’s surroundings: by the eighteenth century, many Venetians virtually lived in costume for months on end. Carnival season began the first Sunday in October, gathered momentum after Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, and culminated in the week before Lent. Masks, and the chador-like dominoes with their three-cornered hats, were permissible on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas), Ascension Days, and sometimes into June. A wash drawing called A Stroll in the Rain by his son Giandomenico (whose eye for contemporary life was particularly acute) catches a group of Venetians from behind as they walk along what may be either the edge of a canal or the strand of the Lido: they include two gentlemen, a well-dressed woman, a child, a dog, and the commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella (Punch of Punch and Judy), with his long pointed nose and his long pointed hat. Calasso writes:

Giandomenico’s Stroll is a suspended, light chord, yet it conceals a sharp, wounding point. Seven characters, seen from behind, are walking tranquilly in a rainfall that cannot be seen…. What strikes one is the silence, the solitude of the strollers. They are close, they are going in the same direction—and they ignore one another.

It is hard to know whether these strollers are based on real people, or people imagined, whether this is the theatricality of Venice as we might have seen it, too, or a theatricality that has been further refined in its passage from the artist’s eye to brain to hand. Put another way, did either Tiepolo, father or son, ever create a figure that did not tell a story?

The etchings—at least here we are on firm ground—are openly fanciful. The ground slips from beneath us as soon as we try to pin a date on them, but basically they were done when Giambattista was in his forties and early fifties; they are works of his maturity but not his old age. Both the ten Capricci and the twenty-three Scherzi di fantasia combine and recombine a carefully restricted set of elements: people, elements of scenery, to create mysteriously expansive results, like that impossibly restrictive (and hence revelatory) poetic form the sestina. What the Scherzi really mean is anyone’s guess but Giambattista Tiepolo’s, and Calasso himself can do no more than suggest ideas—but there is a particular elusive beauty to insoluble puzzles, as well as a freedom to interpret them just as we wish, no matter what the artist himself may have had in mind.

The people of the etchings are anything but reassuring. There are elders, dressed variously as ancient Romans, eighteenth-century Venetians, or Ottoman Turks (Calasso gives the latter the more generic term “Orientals,” for they could as easily be ancient Jews, Persians, or Egyptians as modern visitors from the Sublime Porte). There are warriors, a mangy dog, a tombstone or tombstones, a pyramid, ancient urns, a barren branch, a writhing snake wrapped around a rod (an emblem signifying the passage between life and death), owls, satyrs, nymphs, skulls, an axe, young men and women. With their air of mystery and menace, the etchings stand somewhere between Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego, where death intrudes as quietly as a tombstone on a scene of sylvan beauty (a picture so serene, so colorful in soothing blues and greens, that we can almost resign ourselves to our own part in the cycle of the seasons), and Goya’s Caprichos, very much like Tiepolo’s, but where the scene is undeniably a nightmare. Tiepolo’s light, as ever, is piercingly bright, but it shines as relentlessly in these alleged caprices and plays of imagination as an interrogation lamp.

Tiepolo, of course, was not the only Venetian for whom antiquity had taken on an aura of menace; however distinctly his infinitely light touch with the burin may divide his engraving style from that of Piranesi, there is a similar sense in their engraved work that the ancient world hovers over the modern like a gathering storm. Ruins are beautiful spurs to the imagination, but they also tell terrible histories of corruption, violence, calamity, destruction, and they give us the measure of our own lives with pitiless precision. Tiepolo, so far as we know, never stood under the shattered vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius or saw the coins that melted when the Visigoths sacked Rome, but he could see enough in Venice itself to suggest that he and everyone he knew were creatures of a day. The shiver of Gothic terror that thrilled the Romantics was the dark side of the Enlightenment; there is, after all, no more riveting ghost story than Mozart’s Don Giovanni. No less than William Blake’s Tyger, the Age of Reason burned bright precisely because of, not in spite of, the forests of the night.

Piranesi is not Tiepolo’s only kindred soul when it comes to “plays of fantasy.” It is clear that the Capricci and the Scherzi di fantasia grew from the same fertile soil as the rites and symbols of Freemasonry; both the Masons and the artist engage on an abstract level in the age-old struggle of light with darkness, but also enact that struggle on a concrete level by manipulating significant objects. All told, we know remarkably little about Tiepolo’s life, and many of its most significant events occurred as a succession of tiny repetitive actions with a brush and paints, or a pen and ink, or a burin and a copper plate, on a scaffolding or in his studio. Our only real clues to the other things that might have gone on in his capricious fantasia are images, and when the images are as dark and deep as those that trouble his etchings, it would be wrong to see his more conventional mythological works as mere triumphs of surface virtuosity. What was lurking down those canals at night, or on those winter days when the fog hovered over shrouded figures? When epidemics struck? What was it like to take a headful of harlequin players off to the green mountains of Bavaria, or the arid heights of Madrid?

The point of Tiepolo Pink is to resist classifying Giambattista Tiepolo as an Enlightenment painter; but ironically its author supplies some compelling reasons to conclude that the artist is Enlightenment itself. For one of the most striking qualities about Tiepolo (1696–1770) and contemporaries like Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759) is the extent to which they still inhabited a world pervaded, perhaps driven outright, by myth. Isaac Newton, after all, was an alchemist and an Anglican as well as the writer of the Principia, and he did not seem to have found these worlds inconsistent. Cotton Mather introduced vaccination to the Americas, but believed just as famously in witches and angels. Even today, the world of myth has never died out entirely—as the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy wrote a century ago, “Just because we smashed their statues, just because we drove them from their temples/The gods did not die because of that /Not at all.”

Not at all. Roberto Calasso’s third book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), plunged into myth wholesale, retelling a series of ancient Greek and Roman tales as if they were one long, interconnected yarn. The book was a hit, not least because it reminded its readers (like the Odyssey s of James Joyce, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Derek Walcott, or the Beowulf of Seamus Heaney) that a contemporary writer, no less than Homer, Ovid, or Macrobius, had every right to adjust those tales in the telling. For tale-telling, as these writers have proved in the doing of it, is in itself a perpetual act of creation.

Myths, in the very old days, were as endlessly flexible as gossip, and gossip is how, in essence, they began: gossip about the gods and heroes, beings as universally famous as celebrities, but gifted, unlike most celebrities, with a true, all-prevailing immortality. And unlike the light passions of celebrities, their wrath was implacable (in Greece, divine wrath even had a special word reserved for it, mênis, to distinguish it from the fickle tide of mere human rage). The sixth-century-BC poet Stesichorus famously berated Helen for going off to Troy and was struck blind by that divine lady for his insolence; he retracted his narrative in a second poem that concluded, “You never went to Troy,” and she restored his sight. Did Helen really go to Troy, or was the woman Homer portrays on the ramparts of Ilium sighing “O dog-faced me” simply, as Stesichorus asserted, her ghost? In the end, it is you who must always decide, every single time the tale is told.*

Alastair McEwen’s translation does a masterful job with Calasso’s allusive, idiomatic Italian, which travels among Shang bronzes, Vedic ritual, Kwakiutl genealogies, Proust, Milan Kundera, and Roberto Longhi (incurring two tiny inaccuracies in the first names of Michael Baxandall and Eadweard Muybridge, blips in a vast limpid horizon). There is no way to turn the phrase un’amerihanata literally; this is the Italian word americanata on the tongue of a Tuscan, a word that bespeaks the most refined of Florentines looking aghast (not so much unkindly as philosophically) on the brash, impatient, overeager, overbearing naiveté that says “Made in the USA” to most Italians, but especially to an old, old soul whose idea of civilization (and often personal ancestry) goes right back to the Etruscans. In effect, Calasso, himself born in Florence and a frequent visitor to the US, is having fun with two cultures at once, and McEwen manages to convey both these allusions with a similar economy of wit:

As if some arrogant Florentine, convinced that he was still at the center of the world, had decreed that [Tiepolo’s] Würzburg frescoes were all pure Hollywood….

Pure Hollywood” is not exactly un’amerihanata (nothing is, grazie a Dio—Italy is still beyond cloning), but it is an inspired equivalent, Tiepolo as Cecil B. DeMille. Tiepolo Pink, for its part, is a pure italianata, in which history and erudition lend their piquant spice to the sheer pleasure of being alive, and we can only be delighted to have it.

  1. *

    This fact can provide great comfort when movies have the wrong ending; at the final credits of the 1994 film Il Postino, a classicist friend remarked, “Actually it didn’t end like that at all. Everyone lived happily ever after.” And this was correct. Everyone did live happily ever after.

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