pictorial invention and art theory in the work of an eighteenth-century painter


[summary of doctoral thesis]



The first penetrating analysis of Tiepolo’s art appeared in 1943, with Theodor Hetzer’s Die Fresken Tiepolos in der Würzburger Residenz. The author was convinced that Tiepolo was the last great European artist whose work revealed the compositional ‘laws’ which had characterized Italian painting since Giotto. What he observed was a thoroughly organized image structure, consisting of an invisible net of composition lines accompanying, as it were, the actions of the represented figures. In the second half of the 20th century, however, ideas were expressed which were in many respects the opposite of Hetzer’s. Rather than a close-knit image organization, disorganization was perceived which was interpreted as non-traditional, and even as a symptom of modernity. In 1957, Michael Levey wrote that Tiepolo’s art had evolved slowly out of the tradition of serious historical painting and that the artist had created a new style for expressing improvisations on classical themes. More than three decades later Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall defined Giambattista’s art as a process of fragmentation; in their opinion, his images were the result of an irrational activity of the brain, like dreaming. Other scholars, by contrast, continued to emphasize the great consistency and the narrative quality of Tiepolo’s art. Thus, in the art-historical literature of the past century the outlines of two opposing views can be observed. Some scholars understood Tiepolo’s narrative compositions as coherently constructed history paintings, whereas others described the artist as a lighthearted decorator or even a pre-modern creator of a purely visual universe.

For the present study, I chose a different approach. I examined a series of interrelated aspects which have received relatively little art-historical attention: the nature of Tiepolo’s colour, the suggestion of space and its relation to the conditions in real space, the way he represented places of action, the composition and the staging of secondary figure groups, and the pictorial representation of diachronic narrative. On the basis of observations, and in the context of the historical art theory, I sought to describe some of the specifically pictorial strategies the artist developed in response to the views and convictions of his contemporaries.

In his early frescoes, Giambattista tended to push illusionism to extremes. At the same time he adopted and modified a characteristic feature of the art of Veronese, by organizing his compositions in broad colour zones with contrasting intensities and values. The resulting effects of pictorial depth often contradict those of other compositional devices, such as linear perspective, size contrast and overlapping. The adoption of a contradictory perspective structure, typical of sixteenth-century ceilings in Venice, enabled the artist to represent many figures in a seemingly endless space, and yet avoid the distortions of strong foreshortening. Accordingly, viewers of Tiepolo’s ceiling frescoes perceive simultaneous suggestions of distance and proximity.

In the Venetian Church of the Gesuati, for example, Tiepolo painted a large ceiling fresco representing the Institution of the Rosary. The perspective of the feigned architecture presumes a viewer standing in the back of the church, close to the entrance. Only if seen from that position will the columns depicted on the ceiling appear as perfectly vertical and parallel to the columns of the real architecture. The fresco will appear as an opening in the ceiling through which the viewer directs his gaze more or less diagonally into a virtual space. Other elements, however, presuppose a viewer looking from a much more elevated viewpoint, as in a quadro riportato. The large composition shows a sequence of events starting with Mary giving the Rosary to mankind and ending with the expulsion of Heresy. Because of the vastness of the painted surface the depicted events can only be seen one after another, in a number of subsequent observations.

A similar spatial ambiguity is characteristic of other ceilings painted by Tiepolo. Their particular structure has much in common with that of sixteenth century Venetian ceiling decorations. These Renaissance ceilings have been characterized in different ways, but most authors have emphasized the use of multiple viewpoints and the rotation of motifs into a position parallel to the picture plane. A similar structure is visible in Carracci’s great fresco in the Galleria Farnese: though depicted slightly from below, the figures of Paris and Pan in Carracci’s fresco are not realistically foreshortened. They appear to be hovering in a space above the viewer’s head, but at the same time there is the suggestion of a fictitious flat painting attached horizontally to the ceiling. Yet in spite of its tilted orientation, the virtual space seems to be an uninterrupted extension of the real space. This spatial incongruence, much admired by Bellori, offered Tiepolo a welcome alternative to the spectacular illusionism in many seventeenth-century ceilings.

One of Tiepolo’s earliest large-scale ceiling frescoes is The Judgment of Solomon in the Archbishop’s palace at Udine. In this composition the contradictory perspective structure assumes a high degree of complexity, conveying an impression of precarious balance. Looking at the fresco while moving through the real space, the viewer perceives every single component of the image continually shifting with respect to all the other components. Only if seen from a point near the centre of the room, precisely between the two doors, does the ‘perspective’ produce a recognizable image which, moreover, is quite surprising: looking at the ceiling from that exact standpoint the visitor finds himself face to face with the figure of the executioner. With the sword in one hand and the baby in the other, his ugly head bending forward, the executioner seems to look down directly at the spectator. Thus, the spatial complexity of the composition provokes a sudden confrontation with the most essential moment of the depicted narrative: that in which truth is revealed.

Much later, when he painted The Sacrifice of Iphigenia in the Villa Valmarana, Tiepolo used the conditions in real space, and the viewpoints of a spectator moving through the villa, as instruments for a diachronic rendering of the narrative. The hall of the villa is rather narrow; it is almost impossible to see the large fresco on the east wall and the one on the ceiling at the same time. A door leading to a corridor is of crucial importance to a good understanding of the paintings: only if observed from this doorway will both frescoes appear as a single image in an uninterrupted space.

The corridor leads laterally through the villa to an external staircase. Coming from the stairs, the first thing the viewer sees on entering the corridor is a small part of the large wall fresco. The fragment appears as a self-contained scene with the figures of Calchas and Iphigenia and a group of frightened Greeks, depicted with open mouths, crying out at the moment in which the miracle takes place, as narrated in the classical tragedy. While moving through the corridor towards the hall, the observer suddenly perceives a great, illusionistically rendered ‘deus ex machina’. This is the moment of meraviglia, the wonder provoked by the divine intervention and by the sudden reversal in the narrative, the elements of which are organized as a poetic plot. After a while, the gaze of the viewer strays towards the margin of the composition where the desperate Agamemnon is represented. His attitude and gesture also correspond to an exact moment in the tragedy, which is, however, part of the episode preceding the miracle. Thus, the figure of Agamemnon has the function of what Bellori defined as an anachronism.

When the viewer finally enters the hall and turns around, casting his eye in the opposite direction, he will recognize two allegorical figures blowing hard, representing the return of the wind at the end of the story. A glimpse of the Greek army fleet, ready for departure, can now be seen on the walls at both sides of the corridor. The successive movements of the viewer, as determined by the architecture of the villa, produce various changes in perception which are exploited scenographically. In a surprisingly novel manner, the artist preserved the unity of time by not revealing the subsequent episodes of the narrative all at once but consecutively.

An important element in the Iphigenia frescoes is constituted by the crowd of frightened Greek soldiers represented on the east wall. Similar groups of onlookers are a recurring motif in Tiepolo’s art. The history of the motif goes back to the bystanders who occasionally accompany the depicted actions in compositions by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. Tiepolo transformed the secondary groups into large figure chains. Their formal structure had to be adapted to the shallow Veronesian foreground space that characterizes many of his compositions. He resolved the problem by representing the figure groups with a subtle spatial incongruity: emphatically present next to or immediately behind the main characters, they nonetheless seem to leave free the limited proscenium space. This incongruity was essential to their function, which was to catch the attention of the viewer and direct it to the protagonists of the depicted drama.

An interesting example of Tiepolo’s way of representing a place of action, and of his critical way of imitating the art of Veronese, is The Banquet of Cleopatra. In a letter to Count Brühl, Francesco Algarotti compared this painting to the art of both Veronese and Poussin. He extolled Tiepolo as an imitator of Veronese, but he also praised his pittoresca erudizione. In the course of the eighteenth century, the concept of pictorial erudition assumed various significations: what Algarotti praised was not so much the accurate representation of archaeological details as the appropriate definition of the sito, which, in his view, enhanced an attractive or ‘magic’ quality by which the erudite beholder felt invited to immerse himself in what took shape in the imagination.

However, the great importance attributed to a correct representation of the place of action was hardly compatible with Tiepolo’s aspiration to emulate Veronese. In some of his Veronesian compositions, the architectural or landscape settings are indeed very different from those in the sixteenth-century models. In The family of Darius before Alexander, a composition based on Veronese’s famous painting of the same subject, the artist placed Paolo’s majestic architectural screen deeply into the virtual space, leaving the foreground for a huge tent representing the site where the historical event had taken place. The motif of the tent was derived from an engraving after Lebrun’s Reines de Perse aux pieds d’Alexandre, the excellent qualities of which had been described in detail by Félibien.

The nature of such transformations should be understood in the context of the criticism on the art of Veronese as formulated by French theorists in the second half of the seventeenth century. It seems plausible to assume that Tiepolo sought a synthesis between his great sixteenth-century model and ‘modern’ convictions.

The canvas with The Finding of Moses shows a place of action also completely different from those represented in the homonymous compositions by Veronese and his followers. Tiepolo abandoned the convention of representing the scene against an urban background and limited himself almost exclusively to the elements described in the Old-Testament text. The textual accuracy of Tiepolo’s interpretation is not only evident in the representation of the site, but also in the sequence of narrative episodes embodied by the various actions of the depicted figures. Moreover, the large dimensions of the horizontal canvas compel the viewer to observe the figures and episodes not at a single glance but, once again, separately and one after the other. Tiepolo created not so much a spatial unity as a temporal diversity, establishing a connection between the time of viewing and the sequence of the narrative.      

Tiepolo probably became acquainted with French and English art theory through his contacts with erudite contemporaries, who had access to the numerous foreign publications present in the private and semi-public libraries of Venetian nobles. However, the artist’s pictorial erudition revealed itself largely in areas which were beyond the scope of contemporary theory. The new ways in which Tiepolo used colour, perspective and other pictorial means were first of all the result of his outstanding knowledge of traditional models and conventions. In a most ingenious and judicious manner, he assembled and transformed elements of the various narrative and pictorial conventions into a new and complex art that satisfied the expectations of his demanding public.