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Paintings On The Wall - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
In the latest feature of the ’Paintings on the Wall’ series we discover the work of Venetian Rococo artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Journalist Adam Jacques profiles the painter below, and check out Paul’s thoughts on Tiepolo in his 'PS from PM'.
‘Apollo and the Continents’, Würzburg Residence, fresco, 1753, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
FRESCO MASTERS: If I were to ask you to name a famous fresco - the sort of ceiling plaster paintings that decorate the ancient churches and palaces of Western Europe - what would come to mind? Well for many it might be that monumental ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Italian Renaissance virtuoso Michelangelo: God’s outstretched hand reaching out to Adam’s— recognised around the world.
'Creation of Adam’ , circa 1511, Michelangelo
What’s less likely, especially if you come from an English-speaking part of the world, is choosing something by the criminally underrated Venetian genius, Giovani Battista Tiepolo - or Giambattista to his friends.
WHO ON EARTH IS TIEPOLO? Probably the most famous painter you never heard of, Tiepolo was one of the last of the Old Masters of European painting. His eye-popping, colour-drenched frescos depicting fantastical scenes were painted onto walls and ceilings across Italy during the 1700s, crowning the palaces of grateful princes and kings as far away as Spain and Germany. He even had two shades of colour posthumously named after of him, too — Tiepolo Red and Tiepolo Pink — by none other than early 20th-century French novelist Marcel Proust. Sadly, you can no longer get those colours at your local paint shop. Yet despite his monumental talent for 100 years after his death this high-priest of Rococo art was brutally cut from art history. And even when he was eventually “re-discovered” in the late 19th century, his work remained much scorned and insulted. There were a lot of haters, with one 20th century Italian art critic scathingly commenting: "It’s hard to believe that a more complete travesty was ever planned and put into effect, a fake... Tiepolo is not just a liar but a forger.” Ouch.
Yet, arguably, some of his best frescos rival those of Michelangelo himself: which gives us an intriguing mystery to unravel - why did he get sidelined by history? His personal life details are consequently also a little scarce, but we know the basics: he was born in 1696, in Venice, his father was a part owner of a merchant ship, though tragically died when Tiepolo was only a year old — leaving his mother to bring up the full Tiepolo brood of six. Showing an early passion for drawing, he entered the studio of a supremely average local painter, Gregorio Lazzarini, in 1710, with whom he received his training and learnt all the basic painterly techniques.
Remarkably even the laboured work of his teacher ended up getting its own dedicated biography. Yet why did Tiepolo never receive his own biographical red-carpet treatment? We’ll get to that.
VERONESE REBORN: Away from Lazzarini’s studio, Tiepolo looked back in time for further inspiration, seeking out 16th-century Italian Renaissance painter Paulo Veronese to act as his dead muse. In fact a glance at some of Veronese’s own work, such as ‘The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine’, shows just how much a copycat Tiepolo was: check out Veronese’s dazzlingly coloured, richly ornate costumes and thickly daubed clouds on display – which Tiepolo then borrowed freely from, inheriting his fellow Venetian’s sense of spectacle. His contemporaries even referred to him as "Veronese reborn". While another, in a viciously polite smack down, referred to him as "Veronese after a downpour".
'The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine’, circa 1565-70, Paolo Veronese
It didn't take him long for Tiepolo to set up shop as an independent artist, painting ecclesiastical visions of divine intervention for churches around Venice, with ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ being one of his first public paintings. Though it’s not his best — he’d yet to break out his more playful, full-on technicolour approach — the painting’s voluminous 3D cloudscape far eclipsed the heavenly renderings from other Venetians of the day.
'The Sacrifice of Isaac’, 1716, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
VENICE AT THE TIME: In Tiepolo’s time Venice was still the capital of an ancient, 1,000-year-old empire: the snappily titled Most Serene Republic of Venice (having modern-day, North-East Italy as its core). It had an impressively long history but it was by now an old, weakened regime fraying around the edges militarily, and surviving on past glories. It was to finally collapse 25 years after Tiepolo’s death, with Napoleon running rampant after the French Revolution.
But back in 1730 as Tiepolo was reaching his stride it was still business as usual, with officials there decreeing a dizzying array of regulations, from street lighting and sanitation, to the banning of overly luxurious hand fans. And a slew of civic improvement works saw a number of palaces erected or refurbished, with Tiepolo getting in on the act, by bathing these grand new buildings in fantastical and religious imagery that basked in the Republic’s former glories.
HIS STYLE AND ROCOCO ART: His style was "Rococo", a showy, flamboyant 17th-century art movement that blended history and myth onto often vast ceilings. But with storm clouds around Europe brewing, revolution would eventually encroach on social, political and artistic fronts: he was effectively Rococo’s final emperor, bringing the style to its extravagant, opulent climax. Sinewy men, curvaceous women, all magnificently dressed (or magnificently bare fleshed), posing in theatrical, often fantastical settings, often lofted high up in the sky. No one did clouds like Tiepolo: whether magnificent pearlescent white or stormy grey, you could write a (admittedly short) thesis about them alone. Whether in fabulous frescos such as ‘An Allegory with Venus and Time’ (painted for the noble Contarini family, to celebrate a birth), or his daring easel paintings on Greek mythology (such as ‘Danaë and Jupiter’), his clouds have a visceral solidity to them that seems to defy the laws of nature: implausibly perching his beings — gods, men, nymphs and saints — atop thickly dense cumulus stacks. In the Jupiter painting below you can even feel the swoop of the clouds as the amorous thunder god sweeps in to a room on top of one, to impregnate Danaë.
‘Danaë and Jupiter’, 1736, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
'An Allegory with Venus and Time’ , 1758, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
A further look at these two paintings above shows how no one did fabrics like Tiepolo either - well, except perhaps Veronese. Billowing folds of costumes exquisitely creased and ruffled to look hyper real, and at times subtly erotic: in ‘An Allegory with Venus and Time’ a symphony of pink silk and satin drape around Roman goddess of love Venus, while back with his Danaë painting, a rich orange cloak suggestively hides most of Danaë’s modesty. When it came to costumery Dior and Coco Channel could have learned a thing or two. Perhaps that’s also where the criticism began: was his work simply decorative spectacle peddling mild eroticism: airy and intoxicating but all style and no substance? Was it serious or hefty enough?
TIEPOLO’S ACTORS: Explore his body of work for long enough and a few more things become clear. Like Shakespeare he had a whole troupe of recurring players,created in his studio over the years and cast in various roles within his myriad fresco paintings. One album that survived, entitled ‘Single Clothed Figures’, featured 86 individual characters, who can be seen popping up all over his frescoes and canvases, often, in different costumes.
'Bearded man wearing conical hat’ , black chalk pen and brown ink, undated, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
'Bearded man’, watercolor on paper, undated, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
'Seated river god, Nymph with an Oar, and Putto’ , 1696-1770, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Appearing in frescoes in palaces from Labia and Pisina to Udine and Würzburg (site of one of his greatest frescoes) and even the throne room in Madrid, his players performed his recurring themes of saints, heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses, projecting heaven onto the ceiling of a church or weaving heroic Greek and Roman mythology into the family motifs, to glorify the lives of rich counts and overly aspirational princes.
HOW TO GLORIFY A PATRON:
'The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ , Udine Palazzo Patriarcale, fresco, 1726, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Despite the reservations of his contemporaries, he had no trouble in attracting the attentions of wealthy patrons, thanks to his beguiling mix of energy and affability. Take a closer look at his work for Udine Cathedral – particularly the ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ fresco above – and it’s not hard to see why he was in such demand. Not content with painting a simple 2D-style fresco, we get something far more playful: the sight of rebel angels bursting out of the ceiling thanks to some clever use of stucco plaster models on top, adding three-dimensional body parts that literally spill out of the ceiling frame. It was a striking effect he was to develop further.
He was happy to glorify his hosts and the ideals of a dying regime, if it gave him the scope to unleash his incredible visual energy on to vast canvases: it’s as if all this vainglory fed his own creative drives. His work at Labia palace was created to help the Labia family achieve a lofty sense of splendour — and nothing creates a bigger splash than christening your new mansion with a Tiepolo. His central fresco in their ballroom, ‘The Triumph of Bellerophon on Pegasus’ also used his arresting plaster technique to feature costumes and limbs spilling out beyond a fresco’s boarders. His later ‘Apotheosis of the Pisani Family’, for another key member of the Venetian oligarchy, did the same.
‘The Triumph of Bellerophon on Pegasus’ , Venice Palazzo Labia, fresco, 1743-1750, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
‘Apotheosis of the Pisani Family’ , Stra Villa Pisani, fresco, 1761-1762, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
But nowhere did the pomposity and egomania of his patrons get larger than that of Prince-Bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau, in the then German backwater of Würzburg. And nowhere did Tiepolo’s artistic ambitions have a larger canvas to run rampant.
‘Apollo and the Continents’ , Würzburg residence, 1752-1753, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
‘Apollo Conducting Beatrice of Burgundy to the Genius Imperii’ , Würzburg residence, 1751, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Commissioned in 1750 to furnish both the ceilings of his entrance hall (top), and the imperial hall dining-room (bottom) of his new residence, Tiepolo’s mythology packed, 7,000 square foot painting of the ‘dining-room’ became one of the largest frescoes in the world. While climbing the grandiose staircase of the entrance hall showing the other fresco, ‘Apollo and the Continents’ (painted to pay homage to the prince’s political power, which was in reality illusory as the principality was dominated by Frederick the Great’s Prussia), was also heady experience.
‘The Rivermain’ (detail) , Residenz, Würzburg, 1751, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Nowhere does his work come more alive than when taking in the paintings details there, such as ‘The Rivermain’ segment above: a series of vine tendrils, electric blue bedsheets, a tangle of fleshy, pink legs and even fluffy clouds spill out of the painting boarders and onto the surrounding ceiling areas to create the dazzling effect of his works virtually coming to life and invading the room below. Even when empty this room must have felt teaming with life.
NOT AN ARTIST'S ARTIST: But the traits that pleased many of his patrons clearly irked his contemporaries and critics: some artists suffered for their art, pouring over every painterly splurge and spending an eternity on each work, all the while battling with dark inner demons. Tiepolo was not one for those tortured souls. He appeared to be a cheerful, amiable fellow, "A happy painter by nature," said one contemporary. And he was not forgiven for that contentment. What’s more, his work rate was swift to the point of making it look all too easy: "He paints a picture in less time than it takes another to grind his colours", noted a Swedish count and collector. He worked solely for hard cash (refusing to award artistic favours) and, like Andy Warhol, was willing (later in life) to allow his assistants to complete the finishing touches of his works. Historical allegory was his stock-in-trade: the perfect mix of characteristics guaranteed to raise the heckles of modern critics. They couldn’t help but ponder, was he simply an over-glorified decorative tradesman? The 19th century English art critic John Ruskin certainly thought so, condescendingly comparing one of his paintings to "what a first-rate Parisian Academy student would do". And having no interest either in rising in the ranks of polite literary society, or reveling in his status as an artist, Tiepolo instead focused on his compulsion to continually work which he did for 50 years, right up until he came down with a sudden illness and died, at 74 years old. His only other priority was to live a contented family existence. On this legends are not made.
DEATH OF TIEPOLO: It was only towards the end that his artistic confidence began to falter. Summoned to Madrid in 1762, to complete works for Spanish monarch King Charles III, he spent the last eight years of his life working there, first on the painting of a series of frescos in the throne room of the new royal palace. By this point enlisting a crew of assistants including his own able sons (by now artists in their own right) to complete this mammoth project.
‘The Glory of Spain’ (detail) , Madrid Royal Palace Ceiling of the throne room, allegory of the provinces of Spain, fresco, 1764, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
It was actually his series of religious themed altarpieces for the nearby church of S. Pascual, in Aranjuez on behalf of the Spanish king, which gives us our first glimpse of self-doubt. In a letter to Charles III, Tiepolo expressed his worries over the altarpieces not being up to scratch. Charles III wrote back offering a spot of kingly reassurance — that they were in fact fine. It didn't help that in the king’s court there lay his nemesis, an ambitious rising star painter, a German by the name of Anton Raphael Mengs. Working to a very different style, with a monstrous ego, he saw the aged Tiepolo both as a threat and as a purveyor of an obsolete style. He had an intense desire to see his more austere, realistic neo-classical works take precedent over Tiepolo’s lighter and airier efforts.
END OF AN ART MOVEMENT AND AN ERA:
‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ , circa 1819–1823, Francisco Goya
CELEBRATING OBSCURITY: Even today, following several reappraisals, acknowledgement of Tiepolo’s airy fabulousness is grudging and his work under appreciated. So to follow him now still attains a certain cachet over his relative obscurity, similar to when he was first "rediscovered" towards the end of the 19th century. In a diary entry dated 1878 the American novelist Mark Twain declared, "but Tiepolo is my artist". Tiepolo still has just the right level of obscurity to claim as your own – like discovering an obscure, once great band, and reveling in its glorious, now unknown treasures. Michelangelo may have the Sistine Chapel, but for converts to Tiepolo’s work there’s the promise of something bigger: the pleasure of embarking on a path less travelled.
A PS from PM:
I was on holiday, staying in a house in Barbados that had belonged to Oliver Messel, a famous stage designer. The house was also related somehow to Lord Snowdon. Oliver had unfortunately died a year or so previously, and they were now renting out his house. So I hired it with my family. And one of the strange things was that some of Oliver’s stuff was still in the house, some of his books and things. In actual fact, in one of the drawers I was very embarrassed to find a wig of his! One of the things that really caught my attention was a coffee table book by the artist Tiepolo, who I didn’t really know much about. But I was drawn to his work and was studying one of his paintings that he did for ceilings. He was one of the sort of foremost painters of ceilings during his time. He worked in conjunction with an architect. And the architect would design frames so that he could have a leg hanging out of his painting and the bit of frame would come down to accommodate him.
PMc: So he would paint onto the frame?
Paul: He would. A bit of frame would come off the edge to accommodate the leg. So this one particular picture fascinated me and there’s an odd bit on the frame where it just extends to accommodate a girl’s leg. Anyway, I was just looking at it and enjoying this picture and seeing everyone romping around in the clouds and suddenly I was stunned by the fact that one of these people in the painting – a woman – was looking right at me. And it was like, ‘Oh!’ It was quite shocking. I was looking at the old man and the horse and everybody else in this composition. Suddenly, it was just like she caught me, looking at it: ‘Oh!’ And it was just such an amazing trick.
He travelled around; I think he was from Venice. He travelled around with these commissions. Anyway, so that was really what attracted me, seeing this woman – ‘Oh my God, this is just a great trick!’ And so I got into his stuff and particularly grew to love his drawings. The exciting thing about them is that it’s just the very first, the one and only mark he makes with his pen in Venice, looking at, studying people in the Piazza, doing sketches of them. And to me, somehow, it really brought Venice from that period in history, right through to this bit of paper, you know.
The book I saw in Barbados was the first thing that really attracted me to him. So I’ve been a big fan of his ever since. And he’s great, and I love his drawings and his paintings. And his history is very interesting.
Had you heard of Tiepolo before? Let us know what you think of his works in the comments below...