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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Giovan Battista Tiepolo: Painter of the light

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Aurora (the goddess of dawn), 1718, Villa Baglioni, Massanzago, Italy

This year marked the celebrations of the 250th anniversary since the death of Giovan Battista Tiepolo.

For this occasion, the city of Milan hosted for the first time an exhibition titled “Tiepolo, Venice, Milan and Europe” in the Gallerie d’Italia.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo was without any doubts the most important Italian artists of the 18th century, wanted from the most prestigious European courts and exporter of the Venetian style in Germany and Spain.

To explain his works, I would like to analyse some of his paintings displayed in the English Museums.

Tiepolo is not a museum painter and this is for the fact that he is not a painter of canvases but of frescoes and to see his most beautiful works you need to visit the villas in Veneto, Friuli- Venezia Giulia, Lombardia, Germany and Spain. Few of his works are displayed outside Italy in the European Museums and this has limited his fame and importance. Recently one of his works Madonna of the rosary with angels was sold in New York by the auction house Sotheby’s for the record price of 17,3 million US dollars as it is a rarity to find Tiepolo’s work in the private market.

Tiepolo could probably be the hight point of an artistic revolution started in 1630s that divided the painting world between the realism and the ideal beauty.

Everything started with the huge artistic revolution of Caravaggio who brought the world of painting to face the crude reality without any embellishment. After the death of Caravaggio, opponents and critics accused his art to be morally heretical and sinful and for this reason critic as Giovan Pietro Bellori hoped for the return of the ideal beauty personified in Raphael’s art. In Rome in 1630s painters as Guido Reni, Guercino, Lanfranco, Domenichino, Pietro da Cortona and Bernini created a new artistic language refined and solemn with the Virgin, Saints in a light painting without any evil shadows.

The only exception was Mattia Preti who integrated the realism of Caravaggio to the new artistic style and in a way also the Venetian painters as Sebastiano Ricci and Giovan Battista Tiepolo that were not inspired by Raphael but from the painters who made great the Republic of Venice: Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.

In the 18th century Venice had lost all her political and economic power but the city didn’t want to admit the inexorable decline and pretended to still among the greatest European city using her architectural beauty, the beauty of the Venetian courtesans, the gambling and becoming one of the most important places for the European Grand Tour.

Place of elegant and glamorous parties, Venice was admired for its beauty by Tiepolo and Canaletto in different ways. Canaletto decorating palaces of the new society or churches he created a huge stage for the protagonists of myths and religion making them alive and tangible. Canaletto, instead, with his vedutismo that glorified the architectures of Venice, created landscape views, really loved by the English visitors.

Venice was a big stage for the famous Carnival that was celebrated for six consecutive months in the city and for the commedia dell’arte (it is a form of theatre characterized by masked "types") that was known in all Europe in which there was Pulcinella’s character really loved by Tiepolo.

Tiepolo, thanks to all these influences, started since really young to build up his creativity, mythological, historical and literary subjects, and placed them in his works with an incredible ability of orchestration, interpretation and speed execution. These abilities made his success in Europe as an extraordinary storyteller in the service of the glorification of his patrons.

The art historian Antonio Mariuz described the work of Tiepolo as: “Tiepolo painted a world, a world in which took place Mythology, Allegory, Religion that in that time they were attacked by the critical thought of the Enlightenment and by the dominant rationalism, he used that repertoire stale, overused and old to affirm as a provocation the rights of the fantasy world”.

The style of Veronese in the suburban villas in Veneto is a marking point for Tiepolo who was inspired by the colours, the monumentality, the architecture but among all themes as a banquet as the work of the National Gallery, The Banquet of Cleopatra.

@National Gallery London
Giovan Battista Tiepolo, The Banquet of Cleopatra, ca 1743, National Gallery, London

This subject of The Banquet of Cleopatra was used by Tiepolo several times and this small painting may be an early oil sketch for his famous fresco in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, which he completed in around 1746.

The sketch probably was painted after 1743 when came back to Venice Francesco Algarotti, who was working for the Elector of Saxony Augustus III, with the task to buy artworks for the famous Dresden art gallery.

Algarotti contacted the most famous painter at that time in Venice, Tiepolo.

Both agreed on the subject of The Banquet of Cleopatra, a fashionable theme among the Venetian traders for the idea of wealth.

This painting illustrates a story told by the Roman historian Pliny in the Naturalis Historia (Natural History) where the protagonist is a pearl. Cleopatra hosting Mark Antony challenged him on which one could provide the most expensive and luxurious feast. This is the moment in which Cleopatra drops a rare and precious pearl from her earring into a cup of vinegar and drinks it once the pearl has dissolved. The scene is displayed in a classical architectonic landscape probably painted by the “quadraturista” Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna who used to create these stages for the characters of Tiepolo.

To contrast the classical architecture there are the contemporary dresses, except for the roman one of Mark Antony, that are the ones fashionable at Tiepolo’s time and helped to avoid the temporal distance between the subjects and the viewers.

There are some interesting curiosities in the sketch: the face of Cleopatra is the portrait of Maria Cecilia Guardi, wife of Tiepolo and sister of the painters Francesco, Gianantonio and Nicolò Guardi; the red colour used for the Roman characters and the yellow for the servants; the waiting expression of the servants and the tension gesture of a servant who struggles to prevent a fine white horse from prancing into the room, of the dog and the court dwarf climbs the steps to tease a tiny dog.

Tiepolo’s style is much looser and more rapid than in his finished works. But he still achieves a delicacy of colour and a pale, atmospheric light similar to that in his fresco paintings.

The National Gallery displayed a huge 3 metres long oval-shaped painting that depicted An Allegory with Venus and Time, that was commissioned to decorate a ceiling in a palazzo belonging to the Contarini family, probably in 1753.

@National Gallery London
Giovan Battista Tiepolo, An Allegory with Venus and Time, ca 1753, National Gallery, London

On the top we can see two doves embrace in the sky and the Three Graces are scattering flowers.

In the centre the beautiful Venus gestures lovingly towards a child held by a winged figure that is the personification of Time, while below Cupid, Venus’ son, clutches a sheaf of arrows, a symbol of his matchmaking powers. All the composition has to glorify the birth of an heir, the child’s facial features are distinctive so he could be based on a particular infant that here is transformed in a God.

Venus is draped in sumptuous fabrics with jewels and pearls in delicate white, rose and yellow chosen to be similar to her pale skin. The colours of the Three Graces are really similar to the ones of the clouds as they are dissolving in the light. The work was in the Contarini Palace until 1855.

By 1876 it had been installed at Bute House in London, the property of the banker Henry Louis Bischoffsheim, which then became the Egyptian embassy. During the early 1960s the work was removed and restored by the National Gallery before being bought for the collection in 1969.

Tiepolo loved to paint story that were less known as the one based on Bible’s Book of Genesis Joseph receiving Pharaoh’s Ring displayed in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Joseph receiving Pharaoh’s Ring, ca. 1733-35, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and was later imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. In prison he showed his power to interpret dreams and this rumour arrived to the Pharoah who wanted to meet him. Joseph interpreted his dream as seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.

The painting depicted the moment of gratitude of the Pharoah to Joseph, dressed in fine linen, and giving him a gold chain and ceding his golden ring to him.

Tiepolo’s use of colour and costume references the Golden Age of Venetian painting, specifically the works of Veronese, as well as Old Testament scenes by Rembrandt and his circle.

The horizontal format of the work, with its half-length figures, is exceptional within Tiepolo’s oeuvre and is more reminiscent of 17th century Bolognese paintings, such as Guercino. Some scholars have pointed to the far trumpeter as a possible self-portrait of the artist.

In the National Gallery collection is present also the oil sketch A Vision of the Trinity, one of his first works in Germany that had to decorate a chapel at the palace of Nymphenburg, outside Munich, in around 1735.

@National Gallery London
Giovan Battista Tiepolo, A Vision of the Trinity, ca. 1735, National Gallery London

It was probably commissioned by the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Clemens August, which would explain the presence of Saint Clement with his papal dress, it could be also an homage to the Pope of the time Clement XII. The Saint is in an architectonical coffered semi-domed room, looking to the Trinity (the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit the dove), in the upper right push forward from a cloudy sky. All the composition is full of seraphs, cherubs but the angels are the focus of the attention for their luxuries and rich draperies. Tiepolo was celebrated for his use of colour and light. In this sketch he played with the primary colours: the red of the carpet, the yellow gold of Saint Clement’s vestment and the blue of the angels' draperies.

They mark the earthly, holy and celestial parts of the painting.

In the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, it is displayed a curious work by Tiepolo A young Woman with a Macaw.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, A young Woman with a Macaw, late 1760, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

The subject of a woman with a Macaw was quite common in the 18th century, usually it was a symbol of lust, laxity and exotic subject.

This painting probably belongs to a series of half-length capriccio portraits of women for Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of Russia on which Tiepolo was working in late 1760 and the model probably is one of Tiepolo’s daughters.

The eccentric subject of this painting doesn’t change the strong visual energy of Tiepolo, an extraordinary colourist, that created with few intense brushes the Macaw a colourful and witty motif in contrast with the pale woman.

These capriccio portraits were a distraction from more important tasks and were continued by the sons Giandomenico and Lorenzo, both painters.

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