by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Tiepolos: Irony and Comedy

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 October 2004
Ca' Rezzonico, Venice
Pulcinella's Swing
by Giandomenico Tiepolo, 1791-93



These strange figures with their hook noses, hunchbacks, paunches, baggy white clothes, ruffs and tall, whirling-dervish hats that the Tiepolos, Giambattista and Giandomenico, father and son, sketched and drew in numerous notebooks, on hundreds of sheets of paper, painted on canvas and frescoed on walls and ceilings - where did they come from, what exactly did they signify to the Tiepolos, and what meaning can they have for us?

Such questions have exercised Tiepolo admirers, and their detractors, ever since these bizarre, hedonistic, accident-prone humanoids were conjured into existence. A definite answer will surely never be found, but 'Tiepolo: Irony and Comedy' - which focuses on the satirical and comic output of the Tiepolos, especially that of Giandomenico, with more than 140 works from around the world - offers some stimulating suggestions and interpretations.

The show was masterminded by the Tiepolo expert Adriano Mariuz (who, sadly, did not live to see its final realization), was curated by Giuseppe Pavanello and continues at the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore until Dec. 5.

It coincides with the 200th anniversary of Giandomenico's death, and is accompanied by 'The Tiepolos: Drawings From the Correr Museum,' at Ca' Rezzonico. That show concentrates principally on Giandomenico's first major independent commission, when he was just 20 years old, to paint 24 sizable canvases illustrating the stations of the cross, additional images of saints, angels and the Resurrection for the oratory of the nearby San Polo Church. Most of these paintings are still in situ, and many preparatory drawings still exist, revealing a great deal about the working methods of the Tiepolo studio.

The special show at Ca' Rezzonico continues until Dec. 12, and also serves to draw renewed attention to Giandomenico's fantastical cycle of frescoes from the family's mainland villa at Zianigo, in which those characteristic Tiepolo 'pulcinelli' (punches), play a leading role. The detached frescoes have been at Ca' Rezzonico since the mid-1930s, but were finally given a setting worthy of them in a splendid new suite of rooms specially designed for them when the palazzo was recently restored.

Although the Tiepolos' more discriminating contemporaries were aware that Giandomenico created a considerable body of his own art beyond the monumental works of his father, to which he tirelessly contributed, as time went by the distinction between his own and Giambattista's œuvre tended to become blurred.

It was not until 1920 that Giandomenico's graphic masterpiece, the album of the 104 sheets of his long-lost 'Divertimento per li regazzi' (Entertainment for Children), relating the origins, lives and adventures of an entire tribe of Tiepolesque punches, came to light again, only to be auctioned off piecemeal and dispersed to many different collections (several of which have loaned their pages to reunite 23 of them at the Cini exhibition).

And it was not until 1941 that Giandomenico was recognized again as almost wholly responsible for the playful frescoes in the guest house of the Villa Valmarana dei Nani at Vicenza (executed when his father was principally occupied with the mythological and literary cycle in the main house). At the same time the Louvre's two celebrated carnivaleque oils, 'The Minuet' and 'The Charlatan,' were definitively attributed to the son rather than the father.

It was inevitable that there be some confusion as to who precisely had done what in the Tiepolo studio. Giambattista used his wife and daughters as models and his sons as assistants, then collaborators, and in due course Giandomenico employed his mother and sisters as models. The father seems to have invented his version of the punch figure, already distinctively different from the punch of the puppet show, when Giandomenico was about 10 years old. It is quite likely that Giambattista began to sketch these characters and relate their activities to amuse his young family, and possibly to encourage them to draw.

Almost certainly one of the sources of the Tiepolo punches were the participants in the procession at the Verona carnival for 'Gnocchi Friday,' who were dressed in distinctive costumes, sang comic verses and consumed large quantities of 'gnocchi' and wine. Overindulgence in 'gnocchi' and the liberal swilling of the products of the fermented grape remained an abiding characteristic of the punches depicted by both Tiepolos.

But it was Giandomenico who brought the punch clan to full maturity, by showing their lives from the cradle to the grave, engaging in a multiplicity of pursuits. All Giandomenico's children died in infancy, and whether he did these drawings to amuse other children in the neighborhood of the villa to which he had retired, or purely for his own pleasure, is unknown. Giandomenico's punches became taller, thinner, more obviously human sized, and infinitely more expressive - indeed to the point of real pathos when, for example, a punch is shown condemned to death by hanging and another executed by a firing squad composed of his own kind.

The first punch of Giandomenico's 'Divertimento' is shown emerging, half-human, half ready-made carnival-masked hybrid, from a giant turkey egg. But thereafter the punches are depicted being raised by, courting, marrying and having children by ordinary human women, whose company they lustily relish.

The Tiepolos lived in a supremely visual world - we know very little from sources other than their art what they thought or felt, what their opinions were about the times in which they lived. In some respects, they were archetypical celebrants of the ancien régime, but even their grandest, most rhetorical secular works are shot through with a subtle, subversive humor. Even at a distance of 200 and more years, ambiguity reigns. And this ambiguity reaches its highest point in Giandomenico's Zianigo frescoes and his 'Divertimento.' Neither have any clear narrative progression, titles or commentary in words. Each picture challenges us to provide our own story, our own explanation.

This goes, too, for Giandomenico's oils, including 'The Minuet,' which has become perhaps the most famous single evocation (for it is not a literal image of its subject) of the Venice Carnival, painted when he returned with his father and brother Lorenzo from Würzburg, after they had completed the most stupendous, historically and geographically multifarious ceiling fresco the family ever undertook.

In 'Minuet,' 16th-century costumes are intermingled with contemporary dress and all kinds of masks, in a classically Tiepolesque setting. A group of five, Giandomenico-style punches, with their tall white hats, make their way through the jostling crowd, one of the first full-blown appearances of this extraordinary new tribe of semi-humans, who will later come to dominate and enliven an entire parallel universe of their own.

Giandomenico probably never gave this piece a specific title. But when an engraving of the picture was made some years later, someone thought to add a caption in simple verse catching the gentle, underlying melancholy of this festive scene: 'Vario è il vestir il desiderio è solo/ Cercan tutti fuggir tristezza e duolo' - The clothes are different, but one the aim/ In fleeing pain and sadness, all are the same.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023