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.

His outlook was, in fact, quite conventional, his world view completely so. Although fascinated by and ready to depict the flora, fauna, artifacts, and strangely beautiful people of distant lands with their exotic costumes, he never for a moment doubted the superiority of all things European. Africa, Asia, and America were there to provide goods to be enjoyed in Europe, usually personified by a well-endowed female in sixteenth-century Venetian costume. Africans figure not infrequently in his work, but usually in some subservient role, for example as pages. His images of women, sometimes proud, often coquettish, but never libidinous, can hardly have troubled the most patriarchal of patricians.

In style as well as content his work was conformist: he sought above all to continue the great tradition of Venetian painting. No culture was more self-consciously national, one is tempted to say isolationist, than that of eighteenth-century Venice. Every effort was made to maintain its integrity, even in such matters as outdoor clothing—the mask and cloak as well as the toga and huge wig for senators were de rigueur until 1797. Venetian dialect was not only preserved but exploited for literary expression in Carlo Goldoni’s comedy of manners, Carlo Gozzi’s theatrical fantasies, and the bawdy satirical rhymes of Giorgio Baffo. And, at a time when artistic education elsewhere was based increasingly on the study of Nature and the Antique, Venetians were encouraged to study exclusively the great masters of their own school.

The life class of the Venetian academy, founded in 1755 with Tiepolo as first president, had no casts of antique statues to show how the nude male model should be drawn. The policy of the academy was formulated at its first prize-giving ceremony in 1774, when the speaker directed students to Titian, “the great colorist and emulator of nature,” to the “majestic” Paolo Veronese, to Tintoretto, “the bold painter of human postures,” and to Jacopo Bassano, “master of expressive brushwork.” Such advice was in marked contrast to that proffered at the Royal Academy in London four years earlier by Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-appointed headmaster of the British school. An Italian translation of Reynolds’s Discourses which included some mild criticism of Venetian art (far too mild for William Blake) was to provoke an angry response on the lagoon.

It was in this way that, outside Venice, the artistic merits Tiepolo shared with his predecessors came to be regarded as defects. His superb accomplishment was dismissed as mere facility, his coloristic effects as self-indulgent sensuality, and his visual wit as frivolity. Nor did his supreme self-assurance and worldly success fit Romantic notions of a great artist as a suffering, misunderstood genius. There was, nevertheless, a continual demand for his work from collectors, initially for drawings and oil sketches, later for large-scale paintings as well. A large canvas painted for a ceiling in Palazzo Barbaro, Venice, was removed and sold to a French collector in about 1870. (It is now in the Metropolitan Museum.) Frescoes were being stripped from the walls of villas at least as early as the 1890s. From time to time his works were praised in print, mainly in Italy and France though even there usually with some reservations.

Not until the last decade of the nineteenth century did he begin to attract widespread recognition. Roger Fry in 1891, at this stage of his career a painter who had not yet turned to art criticism, remarked in a letter from Venice, “Tiepolo is a great revelation to me. I had never heard of him before.” And it was, significantly, another artist, John Singer Sargent, who drew Tiepolo to the attention of Bernard Berenson, who accorded him a page of praise in The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894), though comparing him unfavorably with Veronese.7

A more perceptive essay had been published three years earlier by John Addington Symonds, the historian of the Italian Renaissance. It deserves to be better known. “Venice in the last century produced four eminent painters, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Canaletto, Guardi, Longhi. Of these Tiepolo was by far the greatest, in natural endowment, in splendour of performance, in fecundity of production,” Symonds began. He went on to describe the frescoes in Palazzo Labia, Venice, where

the loves of Antony and Cleopatra fill immense spaces with mundane pomp and insolent animalism. How grandly the great scenes are planned; how large and luminous the sky-regions, where masts bristle and pennants flutter to the breeze of Cydnus; how noble the orders of the architecture, enclosing groups of men and women, horses, dwarfs, dogs, all in stately movement or superb repose! Then the fresco-painting is so solid, the drawing and design so satisfactory, the colouring so rich and varied, the types and characters in face and form so strongly marked.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, this fin de siècle hedonist—the Platonic amorist of blue-breeched gondoliers, as Swinburne called him—focused his attention on an altarpiece, The Last Communion of St. Lucy (included in the Glory of Venice exhibition but without reference to Symonds in the catalog’s bibliography). He was aware of the picture’s religious significance but commended Tiepolo for not forcing “the tragic content…in any painful way upon attention,” and enthused instead over its

marvellous luminosity: its multiplication of low-toned colours in a scheme of yellow and green, delicately heightened by audacious flakes of red (as on the jewel of S. Lucy’s bosom), and turquoise blue, and crimson (in the page’s jacket), and blots of acqua marina—gemmily imposed upon the thick impasto of the dominant ochres, and flooded with light in which the melody of tone throbs and quivers.8

The first monograph on Tiepolo and his sons was published in France in 1898 and others soon followed. By this time, too, museums had begun to acquire his paintings and drawings. (One of his sketches, described by Henry James as “tardy fruit of the Venetian efflorescence,” was in a group of pictures bought in 1871 by the nascent Metropolitan Museum.) In the early years of this century literature on Tiepolo increased, substantially so between the world wars, a fine study by Theodor Hetzer of the frescoes at Würzburg being published even in the dark days of 1943. In 1951 a large exhibition was devoted to him in Venice—a high point for the cult of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Fenice theater and a notorious costume ball in Palazzo Labia—Lady Diana Cooper dressed like Tiepolo’s Cleopatra, one young man as Charles Edward Stuart, and, according to Nancy Mitford, his male protector as “Bonny Prince Charley’s Aunt.”

It was at this time that Tiepolo became a camp hero, with no benefit to his reputation in the darker groves of Academe. Scholarly studies of his work proliferated nonetheless, devoted mainly to disentangling paintings by Giovanni Battista from those of his sons and collaborators or other artists of the time. Antonio Morassi’s Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G.B. Tiepolo, which came out in 1962, has been followed but not superseded by other catalogs, most recently that by Massimo Gemin and Filippo Pedrocco (1993). Meantime periodical articles and entire books have been published on his religious paintings, his drawings, and his etchings. Michael Levey, who gave him pre-eminence in Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice (1959, revised edition 1980), still the best general account of the subject in any language, published in 1986 Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art, in which biography is coordinated with lively and often extremely perceptive critical assessments.

Tiepolo has, in fact, been better served by modern scholarship than Paolo Veronese, with whom he has been regularly compared to his disadvantage. The publication of yet another well-illustrated book on him by authors who make no claim to having found new documents or lost paintings or to providing a synthesis of dispersed published material or other valuable additions to our knowledge, might seem at first sight to be no more than an exercise in what Italians nowadays call trasformazione della carta. The book by Alpers and Baxandall is, however, quite different from anything that has preceded it: a highly original study of Tiepolo’s peculiar pictorial genius which propounds a fresh and most illuminating approach both to his work and to that of other figurative artists, including those of our postmodern times.

Alpers and Baxandall begin by calling their book a “case study,” which may entice or repel readers with its premonitions of psychobiography. Such hopes are dupes and such fears liars. The authors are, of course, all too well aware of “new art history,” with its emphasis on social influences and feminist themes, and sometimes even lapse into its jargon, though clinging to the politically incorrect word “masterpiece.” But they are far more interested in representation than in what is now called re-presentation. They deal lightly with iconography, going so far as to remark, apropos the bewildering number of meanings that have been found in a single section of the staircase ceiling at Würzburg, that “in a sense, all (or nearly all) are right: Tiepolo accommodates projection of meaning by the viewer.” For them the dogs in so many of Tiepolo’s works have less importance as symbols than simply as pictorial devices—if not quite in an abstract formalist sense.

This book is in fact a most refreshing and perceptive exercise in close looking, focused on a careful selection of paintings, drawings, and etchings. That Tiepolo’s work lies outside what is regarded as the mainstream of European art is an advantage. The authors remark that it has

remained exceptionally free of the interference of later art as well as of the tradition of critical writing. It is hard, perhaps impossible even, not to see canonical works in the tradition through the eyes of the artists that came after: we see Cézanne, for example, through cubist eyes. Tradition keeps earlier art alive, but in doing so, transforms it. This does not obtain with Tiepolo. His painting retains its original freshness. And rarely has the pictorial enterprise been so single-mindedly pursued.

They begin with an examination of his Finding of Moses (see illustration on page 17). It is in many ways similar to pictures of the same subject by Veronese, with whom Tiepolo’s relationship is aptly defined as being that of a “performer,” and whose work Tiepolo observed with no sense of nostalgia or revivalism of any kind: “Veronese’s richly clothed figures are transformed into an explosion of colored shapes. Fancy costume becomes a matter of painting, a pictorial before a social accomplishment,” they write. What is least like Veronese is the spaced-out composition, with the closely knit group on the left, including the Queen of Egypt, her attendants, and the baby Moses, separated from a life-size halberdier on guard at the right edge by a stretch of the great Venetian plain with the Dolomites glistening in the distance, as if seen from a Venetian rooftop. This unconventional composition troubled an early nineteenth-century owner who had it cut in two (the main group being now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the halberdier in a private collection in Turin; it is to be hoped that the two parts will be reunited at the exhibition in Venice next year).

The use of space might suggest that the picture was, in modern terminology, site-specific, commissioned for the wall of a narrow portego (the room running from front to back of a Venetian palace), where it would be seen by a visitor entering from a door to the right of the halberdier and then walking through the room, and not from a central standpoint. This possibility is not discussed by Alpers and Baxandall, who remark elsewhere, however, that Tiepolo “worked particularly well in places of passage” and that his frescoes have no fixed viewpoint but are “part of the environment, in which the depicted objects and figures appear to move and change, sculpture-like, as we pass by.”

Just so, their chapter on the great ceiling painting at Würzburg, the main subject of the book, recreates in words and illustrations the experience of climbing up the marble staircase and gazing up at the painted heavens above while allowing, step by step, the four continents to come into view, first America and then, from the landing where the flight divides, Africa and Asia, Europe being reached only after the final ascent to the gallery at the top.

Here and elsewhere Tiepolo responded with unique sensitivity to the play of natural light on the fresco surface, a phenomenon which Alpers and Baxandall demonstrate most effectively by comparing his oil sketches (like those in the Metropolitan Museum) with the finished work in a very different medium. The close analysis of the ways in which Tiepolo took advantage of and exploited the varying intensity of mobile light from windows, beneath the ceiling of the church of Santa Maria dei Gesuati in Venice as well as over the staircase at Würzburg, is among the most notable of their revelations. But they are perhaps too hard on the famous wall paintings of Antony and Cleopatra in Palazzo Labia, where the illumination is unusually inert, as well as the throne room in Madrid, where it is strangely dull—the only work by Tiepolo that comes as a disappointment to anyone familiar with it in photographs, especially detailed photographs. But as the subtitle of the book indicates, the authors’ main concern is with Tiepolo’s “pictorial intelligence,” the ways in which he created visual images. They pay close attention to his drawings, which have previously been studied mainly by connoisseurs to establish authenticity. This is essential, of course, to any further investigation, but it has all too often been taken to be an end in itself. Alpers and Baxandall describe how Tiepolo, with chalk or graphite underdrawing

formulates for himself a pictorial task, which is a task of visualization, and the formulation is almost willfully unresolved. With the pen he moves into an assertive, active mood that is in two respects arbitrary. First, the lines he draws discuss not visual experience but knowledge, not the visual array he will have to counterfeit, not the edges of visual stimulations but the edges of imagined objects. Second, the lines have a grammar or gait derived not so much from the edges of things as from an athletic hand enjoying exercises on a sheet, say, 8 by 10 inches—with a view to an eventual picture perhaps five perhaps twenty times the scale: the energy generated is enormous but quite extraneous to representation, almost spurious.

Then, changing mood again, becoming reactive to this, he puts down the pen, takes up the brush, and after a few dark marks signalling problems or cruxes, works out with wash how it might look phenomenally in the eye’s medium of light and shade. After this the inventive cycle would continue to further drawings, each beginning with a chalk or graphite statement of the problem left by the last.

His method of painting in fresco and retouching the dried surface (a secco) is similarly analyzed—with a convincing suggestion en passant that some drawings associated with the Würzburg ceiling were neither preliminary sketches nor subsequent records of parts of the finished work but intermediary between the true fresco painting and the retouching which animated the whole surface.

Baxandall and Alpers point out and scrutinize many aspects of Tiepolo’s paintings, aspects which become apparent only when the paintings are very closely examined simply as figurative works of art. For instance, his distinctive way of composing and depicting a group. In one painting they note how

body parts and draperies are displaced and reassembled to compose complex new figures: a headless, bent back, leaning forward on a stick, with a large book appended, is a mustard-draped sage fitted up with the head of a bearded man, whose body is in turn assembled out of the legs and an arm of a youth.

They go on to remark that “the chase to make all this out is fun. But a figure assembled from the discrete parts of many is also disturbingly divided or deconstructed against itself.” Indeed, beneath the eye-catching glitter and virtuosity of Tiepolo’s brushwork there are often elusively disquieting complexities. Alpers and Baxandall write of his figures often having an air “rather of sly, absent-minded lovers, limbs engaging but eyes and thought elsewhere, perhaps on some internal sensation of the activity itself.” As they point out very perceptively,

the physical presence is of people poised in the process of activity not always clearly purposeful but controlled and suggestive of a sensuous fluidity of the body’s movement, an almost auto-erotic rotational mobility of the limbs. The mental presence is registered in the eyes, the visual stance, not the glance—that is too momentary—and certainly not the gaze, but a provisional and usually uncommitted regard. Only slaves do not regard. Man is a visually regarding animal. There is a sort of un-urgent alertness or a potential for wariness.

It is now generally assumed that a work of art cannot be fully understood without reference to the culture in which it was created. But the emphasis on politics, philosophy, religion, and social conditions to which this often leads tends to distract the attention from the purely pictorial problems which were at the forefront of the artist’s mind when at work. Alpers and Baxandall demonstrate the rewards of an approach that is ahistorical without being anachronistic, the rewards, above all, of looking closely at the painted surface. They alert one to the danger that too much “context” can be bad for the eyesight.

This Issue

October 19, 1995