by Roderick Conway Morris

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Tiepolo's Heaven on Earth


By Roderick Conway Morris
WURZBURG, Germany 13 April 1996

 

It could never be said that Giambattista Tiepolo was an artist without honor in his own country -- the Venetians loved his work and he spent little time out of the land of his birth. But twists of fate, involving several generations of highly ambitious clerics and an architect-engineer of peculiar daring and genius, saw to it that it was in this Franconian town that he executed his greatest single masterpiece, the 600-square-meter "Four Continents" fresco that fills the vault of the Treppenhaus, the monumental stairwell of the prince-bishop's Residenz.

As its contribution to the 300th anniversary of the artist's birth, the Residenz is hosting a special show, "Heaven on Earth" (which runs till May 19), of more than 150 paintings and drawings by Tiepolo and his sons Giandomenico and Lorenzo, who collaborated with him at Würzburg. These include many revealing preparatory drawings and oil sketches for the Treppenhaus and Kaisersaal (Imperial Room) frescoes, gathered from numerous far-flung collections.

The fact that the Residenz frescoes still exist at all is something of a miracle. Ninety percent of Würzburg was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in March 1945, and though the city has done an admirable job of reconstructing its monumental churches and other buildings, the frescoes could never have been replaced. Their immediate savior was John D. Skilton, a U.S. arts officer, who managed to obtain enough beams and slate to replace temporarily the vital section of the Residenz roof, which had burned to ashes, and so prevent rain water from pouring through the exposed brick vault beneath.

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BUT in the end we have to thank Bal-thasar Neumann, the rococo architectural visionary whose design of the Residenz included the revolutionary unsupported vault of the Treppenhaus -- which rises only 5.5 meters over a span of 120 meters -- providing Tiepolo an uninterrupted arena of an expanse and form he never enjoyed before or after and of a strength that proved capable of resisting the shock of explosives and fire.

The statelet of Würzburg then had a population of only about a quarter of a million, yet its successive prince-bishops, who combined the roles of temporal and spiritual rulers, had long indulged a passion for building on a grand scale. And in Neumann (1687-1753) they found the ideal exponent of their craving for magnificence (which, happily, was generally combined with refined taste). Neumann was born in Bohemia but spent much of his career in Würzburg. In 1719 he began work on the new Residenz, an edifice that would have done credit to any major European monarch and that took 30 years to finish.

In 1750 Tiepolo, who was then 54, arrived from Venice to fresco the Kaisersaal, an airy octagonal room overlooking the palace gardens primarily intended to be a banqueting hall. The artist had to integrate his own pictures with Neumann's elaborate internal architecture and the exceedingly intricate work of his fellow Italian stucco master Antonio Bossi -- and this he did with his usual panache, gently subverting the potentially overwhelming formal grandeur of the setting with series of trumpeters, drummers, soldiers and boys casually going about their business around the cornice below the dome, apparently unaware that we are watching them.

The two large narrative themes facing each other at the northern and southern ends of the hall were of the first prince-bishop being granted the Duchy of Franconia by Frederick I Barbarossa in 1168 and "The Marriage of the Emperor Barbarossa and Beatrix of Burgundy by the Bishop of Würzburg in 1156" -- almost all the participants, however, being dressed in the sumptuous clothes of 16th-century Venice, as depicted by Paolo Veronese, Tiepolo's lifelong inspiration. The oval ceiling, meanwhile, became the theater of a dramatic allegorical enactment of the arrival of Beatrix at her nuptials in Apollo's sky-racing chariot.

Tiepolo's patron was clearly delighted by the outcome, and even before the Kaisersaal was finished in 1752, discussions were taking place about the decoration of Neumann's enormous Treppenhaus vault. Tiepolo signed a contract in July 1752, and within less than a year and half, the most Herculean task of his career was completed.

Nothing can prepare even the visitor who has admired these frescoes in books for the astonishing power they have in the flesh. Entering the main door of the Residenz we find ourselves in a surprisingly somber vestibule. But the moment we approach and start mounting the central flight of monumental stairs, we are climbing into a breathtaking realm of light and color.

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ALMOST at once the whole middle section of the ceiling -- a glorious, luminous skyscape presided over by a dazzling Apollo, figures of the four seasons, winged putti and symbolic nudes -- bursts into view and, below, a thunderous cloud bank billowing over the first of the "Four Continents," "America," that fills the lower part of the vault's northern side

By the time we reach the broad half-landing where the stairs double back and divide in two, we can see -- although the fresco is so large the eye cannot take in the whole panorama at once -- on one side "Asia," on the other "Africa," and, opposite "America," at the far southern end of the vault, "Europe."

The theme of the "Four Continents" (fortunately for the symmetry of such schemes, Captain Cook did not land at Botany Bay till 1770) was not by any means new as a monumental decorative subject, indeed Tiepolo himself had already tackled it at the Palazzo Clerici in Milan. But what he realized here has a suggestiveness, pictorial complexity (there are more than a hundred figures), dynamism and sheer beauty that make it unique.

The enterprise is both utterly serious and shot through with wit. The personification of "America," to take but one example, is a bare-breasted Amazon with a feathered headdress nonchalantly riding a crocodile while being served hot chocolate by a page straight out of a Venetian palazzo.To their right is a pile of human heads and a crouching European -- an artist hiding behind his portfolio -- watching aghast, as we too watch, the grisly ritual of a cannibal feast.

From the left-hand corner of "Europe," Tiepolo, too, in self-portrait with furrowed brow, in his everyday painter's clothes and cap, looks on this teeming pageant of gods and mortals, exotic birds and beasts, a weary Prospero, beholding the gorgeous universe conjured up by the magic of his matchless art.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016