“The next best thing to visiting Europe and seeing the painter’s work . . . Calasso is one of the most demanding and intoxicating critics writing today.” —Los Angeles Times
Tiepolo Pinkby Roberto Calasso
The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo spent his life executing commissions in churches, palaces, and villas, often covering vast ceilings like those at the Würzburg Residenz in Germany and the Royal Palace in Madrid with frescoes that are among the glories of Western art. The life of an epoch swirled around him—but though his… See more details below
The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo spent his life executing commissions in churches, palaces, and villas, often covering vast ceilings like those at the Würzburg Residenz in Germany and the Royal Palace in Madrid with frescoes that are among the glories of Western art. The life of an epoch swirled around him—but though his contemporaries appreciated and admired him, they failed to understand him.
Few have even attempted to tackle Tiepolo’s series of thirty-three bizarre and haunting etchings, the Capricci and the Scherzi, but Roberto Calasso rises to the challenge, interpreting them as chapters in a dark narrative that contains the secret of Tiepolo’s art. Blooming ephebes, female Satyrs, Oriental sages, owls, snakes: we will find them all, as well as Punchinello and Death, within the pages of this book, along with Venus, Time, Moses, numerous angels, Cleopatra, and Beatrice of Burgundy—a motley company always on the go.
Calasso makes clear that Tiepolo was more than a dazzling intermezzo in the history of painting. Rather, he represented a particular way of meeting the challenge of form: endowed with a fluid, seemingly effortless style, Tiepolo was the last incarnation of that peculiar Italian virtue of sprezzatura, the art of not seeming artful.
“The next best thing to visiting Europe and seeing the painter’s work . . . Calasso is one of the most demanding and intoxicating critics writing today.” —Los Angeles Times
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What happened with Tiepolo was the same thing that was to happen with certain imposing and mysterious ancient objects like the Shang bronzes: those aspects that resisted interpretation were considered decorative, while those too charged with meaning were labeled ornamental. The twenty-three Scherzi, which are a kind of Art of the Fugue in Tiepolo’s work—variations built on an established repertoire of characters, accessories, talismans, and gestures—were seen with some condescension as bizarre entertainments with a hint of the disquieting about them. Many took pains to repeat something that is obvious, but perhaps true: Tiepolo marks the definitive end of an epoch. But they failed to notice the unprecedented accumulation of venom and sweetness contained in that motus in fine velocior.
Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe. And, like all true happiness, it was full of dark sides destined not to fade away, but to get the upper hand. Recognizable by its effortless, unfettered air, doomed to disappear afterward. Compared with Tiepolo’s happiness, that of Fragonard is based on tacit exclusions. But Tiepolo excludes nothing. Not even Death, who joins the number of his characters without drawing too much attention to himself. The happiness that Tiepolo emanates did not necessarily spring from within. Perhaps there were many occasions when he told it to come back later, because right now he had a job to finish and he was behind schedule.
The ultimate peculiarity of Italian culture, the quality it could be proudest of, also because over the centuries it has proved untranslatable into other languages (whereas by contrast the meaning of the word has become obscure and remote for the majority of Italians), is what is known as sprezzatura. Baldassare Castiglione defined it as follows, in complete contrast with the thing he advised people to “steer clear of as far as possible, as if from the sharpest and most dangerous rocks,” in other words “affectation.” According to Castiglione, the remedy for the “bane of affectation” consisted in “using in all things a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that may conceal art and demonstrate that what one does and says is done without effort and almost without thinking.” A gloss followed: “From this, I believe, does much grace derive.” And a decisive consequence: “It can be said that true art is that which does not seem to be art; nor should a man study anything more than the concealment of it.”
For those looking for an example of sprezzatura, no one is likely to be more convincing than Tiepolo, who for a lifetime did his utmost to conceal, behind his blinding speed of execution, the subtly aberrant nature of his subjects to the point that he succeeded in having his most daring and enigmatic works, the Scherzi, passed off as facile amusements. If no one ever took Tiepolo completely seriously, we might almost say that this was what he wanted. He never had symbols and meanings assume pose, with the result that those symbols and meanings were generally overlooked. In the Scherzi too, although no fewer than eleven of the twenty-three plates are steeped in an almost unbearable tension bound up with the act of looking at something unknown, others are imbued with a sort of torpor, as in the two portrayals of family groups at rest, one group of satyrs and another of humans. The Scherzi have no obligatory meaning (as was the case later with Goya’s The Disasters of War), but a physiological rhythm, an alternation of psychic atmospheres in which no single element prevails over the others. Even when meanings gather densely in his images with brazen insolence, Tiepolo never abandons the air of one who does things “without effort and almost without thinking.” He does this so well that some are led to believe he didn’t think at all. And in this way he protected his thinking from intruders.
“Tiepolo was a happy painter by nature,” wrote his contemporary Anton Maria Zanetti, son of Alessandro—and he was not forgiven for that happiness. Zanetti added: “But this didn’t stop him from assiduously cultivating his fertile spirit.” This pleased some even less: the idea that Tiepolo possessed more erudition than he admitted to. In 1868 Charles Blanc outlined a judgment of Tiepolo that was to be picked up on and elaborated by many critics for decades: “His fire is mere artifice, a firework display; his abundance has more to do with temperament than with spirit.” It was therefore necessary to deny Tiepolo access to the area reserved for the spirit. But for what original sin, if not the “happiness” that seemed to deprive his work of a certain praiseworthy decorum? Tiepolo always had “stern critics” against him. This was so already during his lifetime, as Zanetti himself tells us when he mentions that Tiepolo had reawakened “the dormant, happy, most graceful ideas of Paolo Caliari.” The idea that Tiepolo was a sort of born-again Veronese was deeply disturbing. Hence the observation that “the forms of the heads are no less graceful and beautiful; but the stern critics will let no one say that they have life and soul like those of the old Master.”
After having a go in various directions (toward Piazzetta, toward Bencovich), with the frescoes in the Palazzo Patriarcale in Udine the young Tiepolo shows his hand: to bathe the world in an all-embracing light that would never be drab. And, as Giuseppe Fiocco wrote, “he breaks out like a fanfare.” The supremely frivolous angel that tells Sarah of the imminent birth of Isaac is also the herald of an entire tribe—Tiepolo’s tribe—that for the next few decades was to spread out on the ceilings of churches and palaces, as well as on canvas and copper plates. Apparently Tiepolo was not remotely interested in subduing the totality of appearance. Right from the start he wanted to take appearance and, using invisible shears, cut out from it a segment of related and secret correspondences: between ferns and the faces of young boys, lopsided tree trunks and halberds, drapes and the busts of Nymphs and courtesans, greyhounds and ominous Orientals. Tiepolo’s patrons committed themselves, together with him, to welcoming his entire tribe, which moved from one neighborhood to another, from villa to villa, as far as Würzburg and Madrid. It was “the prophetic tribe with blazing eyes” that Baudelaire was later to call up, an unstoppable motley caravan that dragged along with them all their assorted trappings, the flotsam and jetsam of history. They could always serve, from time to time, as scenic accessories. Without declaring or stressing this (since he never declared or stressed anything), Tiepolo allowed something to happen that would soon become an insuppressible component of all experience: the transformation of history—and of all the past—into phantasmagoria, material suited equally to providing the scenery for a fairground sideshow or to becoming a haunting image, pure power of the mind.
Why an angel was needed—that angel in Udine in particular—to herald the unfolding of Tiepolo’s painting was illustrated with eloquent ease by Giorgio Manganelli: “Tiepolo is not only a painter of angels, but one has the impression that he had a superstitious fancy, ready to run riot at the first beam of light to catch his eye. It could be Jupiter, or a harbinger of fertility to the pensive Sarah: it was always a mantled light, a cloud with precious sandals, a miraculously stable and elegant glow.” A description that introduced a definitive judgment: “He is an idolater of light disguised as a human being.” These few words provide the indispensable elements that allow us to get closer to Tiepolo: light, theater (the mask, disguise). And above all idolatry, a natural reverence for the image.
Baudelaire made his debut with a Salon review and, a few years later, on finding himself obliged to write another, he spoke of “that kind of tedious article known as the Salon.” Working one’s way through the vast bituminous expanses that opened up every spring in the rooms of the Louvre or, later, in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, must have been fairly depressing. “No explosions; no undiscovered geniuses,” but above all a succession of characters in vacuous or mawkish poses, often portrayed in period costume. All the names of history were mobilized, without ever granting the past its salutary foreignness, but reducing all things to a modest range of perfunctory expressions. What was missing, what air was lacking in that oppressive art to make Baudelaire feel the need to escape it? He felt at home only among Boudin’s clouds, “those clouds with fantastic, luminous forms, those chaotic shadows, those green and pink immensities, suspended and superimposed one over the other, those gaping furnaces, those firmaments of black or violet satin, creased, rolled-up, or torn, those horizons in mourning, glittering with molten metal.” Here, in a kind of theurgical process, Baudelaire ventured far beyond the admittedly delightful Boudin, who acted solely as a fortuitous device for evocation (this is how magic works). What Baudelaire was calling up was that all-embracing air no longer present in painting after the French Revolution. And that air had a name: Tiepolo. The entire eighteenth century was branded, like a herd of cattle, by that absence. One day, without realizing it, it had forever lost the sovereign sense of sprezzatura, of facility and fluidity of movement. That grand air, on a measure with the skies, which for the last time had been perceived with Tiepolo and his family. Of whom Baudelaire knew nothing, because he had not come across their works (no other country had been as reluctant to welcome them as France, a jealous guardian of its affectations and feeling of sovereignty). But with visionary precision he called up that negative silhouette, based on what was lacking, of an air no longer breathed in the overloaded Paris of the Second Empire.
We know very little about Tiepolo’s life and that little is exclusively concerned with his work as a painter. Of his personal life we know almost nothing. Yet right from his youth Tiepolo was famous. But his life was as transparent as glass: no one noticed it. They were all looking at the landscape that opened up in the background. This too was why Tiepolo was the right person to impersonate painting’s epilogue, just as in a theater performance there is an actor whose function is solely to appear at the end and make an imperfectible bow to the audience. And so painting took its leave of us—at least in the particular, singular, irretrievable sense it had acquired over roughly five centuries in Europe, where countless painters had all conformed to a single notion of painting and moved as a unified whole of immaculate grace and lightness, like certain extremely fat actors such as Sydney Greenstreet. During those centuries, painting was primarily a task assigned by the world, through various, fundamentally indifferent procedures. The only essential thing was that a commission arrived from the outside, in the same way as a courier received the order to set off. Perhaps Tiepolo never painted if not on commission—and where one suspects there was no commission (as in the case of the Scherzi or the last small canvases portraying the flight into Egypt), the work gives off an irresistible scent of secrecy and the forbidden.
After, we were left with artists. Of course, there were still patrons, both public and private, but something had gone irremediably wrong. Painting steadily became a monologizing activity, a calm delirium that started and stopped every day, with the hours of daylight, behind the windows of a studio. Artists remained, brimming with moods, whims, caprices, and idiosyncrasies. And in the end even they risked disappearing.
Among the old masters, no one lends himself less than Tiepolo to psychological and dramatic reconstructions. There is no trace of any “struggle with the demon.” Contemporaries have left no key with which to unlock his psyche and moods. But neither can we say that he is elusive because of a dearth of documentary evidence. On the contrary, as soon as the talk got around to contemporary painting, people often wrote about Tiepolo. But without fail they did so to refer to his renown and his virtuosity. No aspect of him as a person attracted any attention whatsoever. Nor has anyone handed down any anecdotes or significant episodes that might have occurred in his life. Everything seemed to run smoothly, in a series of commissions, always accompanied by worries about finishing in time or at least not too late.
Likewise, with regard to his works—except for the constant references to Veronese—the comments were never any more than succinct. Tiepolo’s fame was described in functional terms: the diarist Gradenigo defined him as a matchless specialist, “the most acclaimed, for his historical paintings of ceilings of salons, rooms, and churches in fresco and in oils.” And, even though the greats of the world vied for his works, from the “Court of Muscovy” to that of Madrid, Tiepolo received only sparing, occasionally graceless recognition. He was over sixty when the recently established Accademia di Parma proposed to accept him as an “amatore” (connoisseur). And only thanks to the intervention of Anton Maria Zanetti, who pointed out this faux pas, did the Academy decide to nominate him “Honorary Academician.” It was as if the people around him had trouble admiring him without taking precautionary measures. And his death was followed by a prolonged spell of obscurity.
From his heavenly ceiling, Tiepolo must have sketched a slight, satisfied smile when the two most knowledgeable scholars to deal with him in recent years—Svetlana Alpers and Richard Baxandall—found themselves obliged to state with one voice that “the man’s personality” had “totally eluded” them. But he didn’t elude only them. When historians want to say the last word on Tiepolo, in general we are not granted more than a few remarks on the last blaze of Venetian glory and on the vanity of his patrons, with the occasional addition of an evident non sequitur: since his patrons were vain, then Tiepolo must have been vain too. A thinly veiled assumption even in the greatest and most unjust of his critics: Roberto Longhi, who did not go so far as to treat him with the extreme iniquity he reserved for Canova (“the sculptor born dead, whose heart lies in the Frari, whose hand is in the Accademia and the rest I don’t know where”). In any event he made Tiepolo the Bad Guy to set in opposition to the Good Guy par excellence, who was unfailingly Caravaggio, to the point that Longhi felt the need to have them meet and converse in heaven, as if there too Tiepolo had to be persecuted by someone ready to lecture him, despite all the well-founded doubts we might have regarding Caravaggio’s suitability for the role of a moralizing tutor. Yet this otherworldly dialogue composed by Longhi shortly after his Viatico per cinque secoli di pittura veneziana, in which he penned his irrevocable condemnation of Tiepolo, sounds like a surreptitious palinode. Even though Caravaggio lashes out at Tiepolo from start to finish, accusing him first and foremost of not sharing his “craving for truth,” even though he has him understand that, instead of his tawny-haired and rosy-skinned Armidas, he would have done better to paint a “brawl among swarthy gondoliers on the tremulous water,” it is Tiepolo who makes the “lethal thrust”—a far more effective blow than the summary drubbing he has been subjected to until that moment. The opportunity presents itself when Caravaggio reminds Tiepolo, in indignant tones, how widespread the custom of wearing masks was in Venice. But Tiepolo counters this by remarking that in Venice even beggars wear masks. Few words, but enough to dismantle and foil his adversary’s heated arguments as well as those of all future authors of proclamations in favor of a reality that is then unfailingly revealed to be so parochial as to be unable to accept even the mask. Hence a world of beggars in masks becomes an unpardonable provocation—and there’s no wonder that Tiepolo continues to appear elusive.
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Roberto Calasso’s K., Ka, Literature and the Gods, and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony are available in Vintage paperback.
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