by Roderick Conway Morris

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Celebrating the 300th Anniversary of his Birth


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 27 January 1996

 

The German herald of neoclassicism, Johann JoachimWinckelmann, sought to dismiss Giovanni Battista Tiepolo with the remark that the Venetian could paint more in a day than the critic's protégé Mengs painted in a week -- damning evidence in Winckelmann's eyes of Tiepolo's facile superficiality.

Within seven years Tiepolo was dead, and with the triumph of neoclassicism, and later developments that emphasized realism and "truth to nature" in art, the Venetian's reputation slid into an obscurity, only occasionally ruffled by outright denigration, for the best part of 200 years.

But while now Mengs is virtually forgotten, Tiepolo's fame has blossomed once again and the tricentennial of his birth, in 1696, is to be marked by special exhibitions and events both in his native city and in the other places where he worked.

Except on the rare days when the mountains on the mainland are clearly visible, Venice's landscape is one of water and sky, and in Tiepolo the city produced not only its last great Renaissance artist(however paradoxical this may sound of one who died in 1770), but also the painter who finally made of the Venetian sky a limitless theater, where it was the most natural thing in the world to encounter an airborne Virgin Mary with entourage of saints, martyrs, squadrons of angels and tumbling putti, to see a low-flying chariot, its snorting steeds pawing the ether, passing overhead, or find yourself gazing up at a cloud-based Olympian convention of gods, goddesses, mythical heroes and allegorical nudes.

But it is equally characteristic of Tiepolo's genius, whose mastery of figure painting and composition in vertiginous trompe l'oeil settings is unparalleled, that he knew where to leave space. Despite the realists' accusations of artificiality, he was a profound observer of qualities and variations of light, and it is perhaps the subtly hued, open vistas of empty skythat ultimately lend his most fully realized works their transcendent beauty.

Curiously enough, Winckelmann's hostile accusation actually throws into relief how Tiepolo could carry off the enormous challenges he set himself. He was aprodigywho had established a style inimitably his own by his early 20s. He was an instant success in Venice, never lacked commissions for the next 50 years and died at the height of his powers. He seldom seems to have spent a waking hour without a brush, pen or pencil in his hand.

And as Winckelmann complained, he was indeed fast.He had to be, in rapidly applying paint to wet plaster, to achieve such a level of spontaneity and panache over the acres of ceilings and walls that he tackled.

Tiepolo was also very much a Renaissance artist in the blending of arts and crafts in his working methods. Until his own children could join him, he certainly employed studio helpers, who were largely superseded by his sons, Giandomenico and Lorenzo.

The conventional, and misleading, view thatLa Serenissima was inirreversible decline throughout the 18th century, is belied not only by the factthat Venice was still capable of giving rise to an artist of Tiepolo's originality,but also that many significant monumental buildings continued to rise up during this period, giving Tiepolo many opportunities to decorate new spaces. The esteem in which he was held in aristocratic circles guaranteed commissions to fresco palaces and country villas. The popularity he enjoyed with Venetians of every class is witnessed by equally elaborate works for confraternity meeting halls, such as the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, Massari's Gesuati Churchand the Pietà Foundlings' Hospital.

A useful map and guide, "Tiepolo 1696-1996," produced by Venice's municipality,lists 20 churches, schools, palaces and galleries where the artist and his sons' workscan be seen.

The richest concentration of the artist's works on the Venetian "terraferma" is in and around Vicenza. Not to be missedare the captivating frescoes at Villa Valmarana ai Nani inspired by classical and Renaissance epic and chivalric literature,Giandomenico's charming rustic and oriental vignettes in the villa's "Foresteria," and the historical scenes at Villa Cordellina Lombardi at Montecchio Maggiore.

Tiepolo's first important commissions outside Venice were for frescoes at the Duomo and Archbishop's Palace at Udine in Friuli. These have just been restored, and the city will be holding two shows, one devoted to Tiepolo and the other to Giandomenico, both September through December.

The artist's most fruitful foreign excursion was to Würzburg to decorate the Kaiseraal and staircase of the Prince-Bishop's Residenz.

Considering the size of the principality, Tiepolo's spectacular scenes of the Four Continents of the Earth paying homage to this fairly minor churchman, whom he placed for good measure at the heart of some of the great events of German history, might seem a trifle excessive. But the sheer imaginative exuberance and dazzling execution of these, some of the largest frescoes ever undertaken, and the perfection of their rococo settings designed by Balthasar Neumann, make them the pinnacle of Tiepolo's grand manner.

The Franconian town will be celebrating itspossession of these masterpieces with "Heaven on Earth," ashow of 40 paintings and more than 100 drawings fromFeb. 15 to May 19.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016