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The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo spent his life executing commissions in churches, palaces, and villas, often covering vast ceilings like those at the Würzburg Residenz in Germany and the Royal Palace in Madrid with frescoes that are among the glories of Western art. The life of an epoch swirled around him—but though his contemporaries appreciated and admired him, they failed to understand him.
Few have even attempted to tackle Tiepolo’s series of thirty-three bizarre and haunting etchings, the Capricci and the Scherzi, but Roberto Calasso rises to the challenge, interpreting them as chapters in a dark narrative that contains the secret of Tiepolo’s art. Blooming ephebes, female Satyrs, Oriental sages, owls, snakes: we will find them all, as well as Punchinello and Death, within the pages of this book, along with Venus, Time, Moses, numerous angels, Cleopatra, and Beatrice of Burgundy—a motley company always on the go.
Calasso makes clear that Tiepolo was more than a dazzling intermezzo in the history of painting. Rather, he represented a particular way of meeting the challenge of form: endowed with a fluid, seemingly effortless style, Tiepolo was the last incarnation of that peculiar Italian virtue of sprezzatura, the art of not seeming artful.
W. Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, in Werke (Zürich-Stuttgart: Artemis, 1949), 9:645. “Tiepolo’s Capricci are heroic collections”: Barrès, Un homme libre, p. 235. “sky, flags, marbles”: Ibid. , p. 234. “Now the light that one sees”: Giamblico, Sui misteri, 1, 9. “theurgical communion”: Ibid. , 1, 8. “A vigorous, athletic torso”: M. Santifaller, “Il Continente ‘Asia’ degli affreschi del Tiepolo a Würzburg e alcuni fogli degli ‘Scherzi di fantasia,’” in Arte veneta 2 5 (1971): 205. “in a relaxed pose”: Ibid.
What is the background to Roberto Longhi’s condemnation of Tiepolo? Longhi had doggedly engaged in a partisan poetics, right from the start. At twenty-four he had the effrontery to write: “I deeply despised northern painting even before 1914. ” Then he was more specific, making things worse: “In a mind that wishes to maintain the habit of even the coarsest consistency Masaccio and Van Eyck, Titian and Holbein, Bouts and Pollaiolo, Altdorfer and Lotto cannot coexist: in all cases you have to take sides as soon as possible for either one or the other.
The game becomes secret and intimate. Here, the Christian elegy, dear to Sainte-Beuve, reaches its supreme intensity, which painting was never to attain again. If all that remained of Tiepolo were those nine pictures, what might we say of him? Something very different with respect to what is suggested by the rest of his oeuvre, yet this something is—by secret ways—concordant, like a resonance that was implicit previously but only now lets itself be heard. No less than the Scherzi and the Capricci, these nine small canvases are a tem-plum, a clearly circumscribed and protected area, set within the vast stretches of Tiepolo’s painting.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries snakes appear everywhere. No wonder the snake was considered “the most spiritual (pneumatikótaton) of animals. ” At times Demeter kept at her feet the mystic cist, from which a snake’s head emerged. The deeper you go into stories about snakes in ancient Greece, the more pointless—and inapplicable—becomes the usual division between benign and malign. The snake obviously transcends this—indeed it is the emblem of that which generally transcends this opposition. The serpent is power, in its undifferentiated and indistinct state.
And, among Tiepolo’s skies, none can compare with that of Würzburg Even his historic enemy, Roberto Longhi, had to admit—through gritted teeth and by proxy (that is, by attributing the words to the artist himself)—that Tiepolo’s “fables” moved “in the purest and most luminous air that ever blew. ” And it is precisely this, in the end, that makes Tiepolo stand out from all his contemporaries: the sweeping range, the invincible sense of lightness, a coefficient of antigravity, with which his figures are imbued.