Venetian Painting – Tiepolo

WE have already noted that to establish the significance of any period in art, it is necessary that the tendencies should unite and combine in some culminating spirits who rise triumphant over their contemporaries and soar above the age in which they live. Such a genius stands out above the eighteenth century crowd, and is not only of his century, but of every time. For two hundred years Tiepolo has been stigmatised as extravagant, mannered, as just equal to painting cupids, nymphs, and parroquets. In the last century he experienced the effect of the profound discredit into which the whole of eighteenth-century art had fallen. In France, David had obliterated Watteau ; and the reputation of Pompeo Battoni, a sort of Italian David, effaced Tiepolo and his contemporaries. When the delegates of the French Republic inspected Italian churches and palaces, and decided what works of art should be sent to the Louvre, they singled out the Bolognese, the Guercinos and Guidos, the Carracci, even Pompeo Battoni and other such forgotten masters, a Gatti, a Nevelone, a Badalocchio ; but to the lasting regret of their descendants, they disdained to annex a single one of the great paintings of the Venetian, Gianbattista Tiepolo.

Eastlake only vouchsafes him one line as ” an artist of fantastic imagination.” Most of the nineteenth-century critics do not even mention him. Burckhardt dismisses him with a grudging line of praise, Blanc is equally disparaging, and for Taine he is a mere mannerist, yet his influence has been felt far beyond his lifetime ; only now is he coming into his own, and it is recognised that the plein-air artist, the luminarist, the impressionist, owe no small share of their knowledge to his inspiration.

The name of Tiepolo brings before us a whole string of illustrious personages—doges and senators, magnificent procurators and great captains—but we have nothing to prove that the artist belonged to a decayed branch of the famous patrician house. Born in Castello, the people’s quarter of Venice, he studied in early youth with that good draughtsman, Lazzarini. At twenty-three he married the sister of Francesco Guardi ; Guardi, who comes between Longhi and Canale and who is a better painter than either. Tiepolo appeared at a fortunate moment. The demand for a facile, joyous genius was at its height. The life of the aristocracy on the lagoons was every year growing more gay, more abandoned to capricious inclination, to light loves and absurd amusements. And the art which reflected this life was called upon to give gaiety rather than thought, costume rather than character. Yet if the Venetian art had lost all connection with the grave magnificence of the past, it had kept aloof from the academic coldness which was in fashion beyond the lagoons, so that though theatrical, it was with a certain natural absurdity. The age had become romantic ; the Arcadian convention was in full force, Nature herself was pressed into the service of idle, sentimental men and women. The country was pictured as a place of delight, where the sun always shone and the peasants passed their time singing madrigals and indulging in rural pleasures. The public, however, had begun to look for beauty ; the traditions which had formed round the decorative schools were giving way to the appreciation of original work. Tiepolo, sincere and spontaneous even when he is sacrificing truth to caprice, struck the taste of the Venetians, and without emancipating himself from the tendencies of the time, contrives to introduce a fresh accent. All round him was a weak and self-indulgent world, but within himself he possessed a fund of buoyant and inexhaustible energy. He evokes a throng of personages on the ceilings of the churches and palaces confided to his fancy. His creations range from mythology to religion, from the sublime to the grotesque. All Olympia appears upon his ample and luminous spaces. It is not to the cold, austere Lazzarini, or to the clashing chiaroscuro of Piazetta, or the imaginative spirit of Battista Ricci, though he was touched by each of them, that we must turn for Tiepolo’s derivation. Long before his time, the kind of decoration of ceilings which we are apt to call Tiepolesque ; the foreshortened architecture, the columns and cornices, the figures peopling the edifices, or reclining upon clouds, had been used by an increasing throng of painters. The style arose, indeed, in the quattrocento ; Mantegna, the Umbrians, and even Michelangelo had used it, though in a far more sober way than later generations. Correggio and the Venetians had perfected the idea, which the artists of the seventeenth century seized upon and carried to the most intemperate excess. But Tiepolo rose above them all ; he abandoned the heavy, exaggerated, contorted designs, which by this time defied all laws of equilibrium, and we must go back further than his immediate predecessors for his origins. His claim to stand with Tintoretto or Veronese may be contested, but he is nearest to these, and no doubt Veronese is the artist he studied with the greatest fervour. Without copying, he seems to have a natural affinity of spirit with Veronese and assimilates the ample arrangement of his groups, the grace of his architecture, and his decorative feeling for colour. Zanetti, who was one of Tiepolo’s dearest friends, writes : ” No painter of our time could so well recall the bright and happy creations of Veronese.” The difference between them is more one of period than of temperament. Paolo Veronese represented the opulence of a rich, strong society, full of noble life, while Tiepolo’s lot was cast among effeminate men and frivolous women, and full of the modern spirit himself, he adapts his genius to his time and devotes himself to satisfy the theatrical, sentimental vein of the Venice of the decadence. Full of enthusiasm for his work, he was ready to respond to any call. He went to and fro between Venice and the villas along the mainland and to the neighbouring towns. Then coveting wider fields, he travelled to Milan and Genoa, where his frescoes still gleam in the palaces of the Dugnani, the Archinto, and the Clerici. At Würzburg in Bavaria he achieved a magnificent series of decorations for the palace of the Prince-Archbishop. Then coming back to Italy, he painted altarpieces, portraits, pictures for his friends, and a fresh multitude of allegorical and mythological frescoes in palaces and villas. His charming villa at Zianigo is frescoed from top to bottom by himself and his sons, and has amusing examples of contemporary dress and manners.

When the Academy was instituted in 1755, Tiepolo was appointed its first director, but the sort of employment it provided was not suited to his impetuous spirit, and in 1762 he threw up the post and went off to Spain with his two sons. There he received a splendid welcome and was loaded with commissions, the only dissentient voice being that of Raphael Mengs, who, obsessed by the taste for the classic and the antique, was fiercely opposed to the Venetian’s art. Tiepolo died suddenly in Madrid in 1770, pencil in hand. Though he was past seventy, the frescoes he has left there show that his hand was as firm and his eye as sure as ever.

His frescoes have, as we have said, that frankly theatrical flavour which corresponds exactly to the taste of the time. Such works as the ” Transportation of the Holy House of Loretto ” in the Church of the Scalzi in Venice, or the “Triumph of Faith ” in that of the Pietà, the ” Triumph of Hercules ” in Palazzo Canossa in Verona, or the decorations in the magnificent villa of the Pisani at Strà, are extravagant and fantastic, yet have the impressive quality of genius. These last, which have for subject the glorification of the Pisani, are full of portraits. The patrician sons and daughters appear, surrounded by Abundance, War, and Wisdom. A woman holding a sceptre symbolises Europe. All round are grouped flags and dragons, ” nations grappling in the airy blue,” bands of Red Indians in their war-paint and happy couples making love. The idea of the history, the wealth, the supreme dignity of the House is paramount, and over all appears Fame, bearing the noble name into immortality. In Palazzo Clerici at Milan a rich and prodigal committee gave the painter a free hand, and on the ceiling of a vast hall the Sun in a chariot, with four horses harnessed abreast, rises to the meridian, flooding the world with light. Venus and Saturn attend him, and his advent is heralded by Mercury. A symbolical figure of the earth joys at his coming, and a concourse of naiads, nymphs, and dolphins wait upon his footsteps. In the school of the Carmine in Venice Tiepolo has left one of his grandest displays. The haughty Queen of Heaven, who is his ideal of the Virgin, bears the Child lightly on her arm, and, standing enthroned upon the rolling clouds, hardly deigns to acknowledge the homage of the prostrate saint, on whom an attendant angel is bestowing her scapulary. The most charming amoretti are disporting in all directions, flinging themselves from on high in delicious abandon, alternating with lovely groups of the cardinal virtues. At Villa Valmarana near Vicenza, after revelling among the gods, he comes to earth and delights in painting lovely ladies with almond eyes and carnation cheeks, attended by their cavaliers, seated in balconies, looking on at a play, or dancing minuets, and carnival scenes with masques and dominoes and fêtes champêtres, which give us a picture of the fashions and manners of the day. He brings in groups of Chinese in oriental dress, and then he condescends to paint country girls and their rustic swains, in the style of Phyllis and Corydon.

Sometimes he becomes graver and more solid. He abandons the airy fancies scattered in cloud-land. The story of Esther in Palazzo Dugnano affords an opportunity for introducing magnificent architecture, warriors in armour, and stately dames in satin and brocades. He touches his highest in the decorations of Palazzo Labia, where Antony and Cleopatra, seated at their banquet, surrounded by pomp and revelry, regard one another silently, with looks of sombre passion. Four exquisite panels have lately been acquired by the Brera Gallery, representing the loves of Rinaldo and Armida, and are a feast of gay, delicate colour, with fascinating backgrounds of Italian gardens. The throne-room of the palace at Madrid has the same order of compositions—AEneas conducted by Venus from Time to Immortality, and other deifications of Spanish royalty.

Now and then Tiepolo is possessed by a tragic mood. In the Church of San Alvise he has left a ” Way to Calvary,” a ” Flagellation,” and a ” Crowning of Thorns,” which are in-tensely dramatic, and which show strong feeling. Particularly striking is the contrast between the refined and sensitive type of his Christ and the realistic and even brutal study of the two despairing malefactors — one a common ruffian, the other an aged offender of a higher class. His altarpiece at Este, representing S. Tecla staying the plague, is painted with a real in-sight into disaster and agony, and S. Tecla is a pathetic and beautiful figure. Sometimes in his easel-pictures he paints a Head of Christ, a S. Anthony, or a Crucifixion, but he always returns before long to the ample spaces and fantastic subjects which his soul loved.

Tiepolo is a singular contradiction. His art suggests a strong being, held captive by butter-flies. Sometimes he is joyous and limpid, some-times turbulent and strong, but he has always sincerity, force, and life. A great space serves to exhilarate him, and he asks nothing better than to cover it with angels and goddesses, white limbs among the clouds, sea-horses ridden by Tritons, patrician warriors in Roman armour, balustrades and columns and amoretti. He does not even need to pounce his design, but puts in all sorts of improvised modifications with a sure hand. The vastness of his frescoes, the daring poses of his countless figures, and the freedom of his line speak eloquently of the mastery to which his hand had attained. He revels, above all, in effects of light—” all the light of the sky, and all the light of the sea ; all the light of Venice . . . in which he swims as in a bath.

He paints not ideas, scarcely even forms, but light. His ceilings are radiant, like the sky of birds ; his poems seem to be written in the clouds. Light is fairer than all things, and Tiepolo knows all the tricks and triumphs of light.”

Nearly all his compositions have a serene and limpid horizon, with the figures approaching it painted in clear, silvery hues, airy and diaphanous, while the forms below are more muscular, the flesh tints are deeper, and the whole of the foreground is often enveloped in shadow. Veronese had lit up the shadows, which, under his contemporaries, were growing gloomy. Tiepolo carries his art further on the same lines. He makes his figures more graceful, his draperies more vaporous, and illumines his clouds with radiance. His faded blue and rose, his golden-greys, and pearly whites and pastel tints are not so much solid colours as caprices of light. We have remarked already that with Veronese the accessories of gleaming satins and rich brocades serve to obscure the persons. In many of Tiepolo’s scenes the figures are lost in a flutter of drapery, subject and action melt away, and we are only conscious of soft harmonies of delicious colour, as ethereal as the hues of spring flowers in woodland ways and joyous meadows. With these delicious, audacious fancies, put on with a nervous hand, we forget the age of profound and ardent passion, we escape from that of pompous solemnity and studied grace, and we breathe an atmosphere of irresponsible and capricious pleasure. In this last word of her great masters Venice keeps what her temperament loved—sensuous colour and emotional chiaroscuro, used to accentuate an art adapted to a city of pleasure.

The excellence of the old masters’ drawings is a perpetual revelation. Even second – class men are almost invariably fine draughtsmen, proving that drawing was looked upon as some-thing over which it was necessary for even the meanest to have entire mastery. Tiepolo’s drawings, preserved in Venice and in various museums, are as beautiful as can be wished ; perfect in execution and vivid in feeling. In Venice are twenty or thirty sheets in red carbon, of flights of angels, and of draperies studied in every variety of fold.

Poor work of his school is often ascribed to his sons, but the superb ” Stations of the Cross,” in the Frari, which were etched by Domenico, and published as his own in his lifetime, are almost equal to the father’s work. Tiepolo had many immediate followers and imitators. The colossal roof- painting of Fabio Canal in the Church of SS. Apostoli, Venice, may be pointed out as an example of one of these. But he is full of the tendencies of modern art. Mr. Berenson, writing of him, says he sometimes seems more the first than the last of a line, and notices how he influenced many French artists of recent times, though none seem quite to have caught the secret of his light intensity and his exquisite caprice.


Aranjuez. Royal Palace : Frescoes ; Altarpiece.

Orangery : Frescoes.

Bergamo. Cappella Colleoni : Scenes from the Life of the Baptist.

Berlin. Martyrdom of S. Agatha ; S. Dominia and the Rosary. London. Sketches ; Deposition.

Madrid. Escurial ; Ceilings.

Milan. Palazzi Clerici, Archinto, and Dugnano : Frescoes. Brera : Loves of Rinaldo and Armida.

Paris. Christ at Emmaus.

Strà. Villa Pisani : Ceiling.

Venice. Academy : S. Joseph, the Child, and Saints ; S. Helena finding the Cross.

Palazzo Ducale : Sala di Quattro Porte ; Neptune and Venice.

Palazzo Labia : Frescoes ; Antony and Cleopatra. Palazzo Rezzonico : Two Ceilings.

S. Alvise : Flagellation ; Way to Golgotha.

SS. Apostoli : Communion of S. Lucy.

S. Fava : The Virgin and her Parents.

Gesuati : Ceiling ; Altarpiece.

S. Maria della Pietà : Triumph of Faith.

S. Paolo : Stations of the Cross.

Scalzi : Transportation of the Holy House of Loretto. Scuola del Carmine : Ceiling.

Verona. Palazzo Canossa : Triumph of Hercules.

Vicenza. Museo Entrance Hall : Immaculate Conception.

Villa Valmarana : Frescoes ; Subjects from Homer,

Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso ; Masks and Oriental Scenes.

Würzburg. Palace of the Archbishop : Ceilings ; Fêtes Galantes ;

Assumption ; Fall of Rebel Angels.