Heaven and Earth

Giambattista Tiepolo’s balancing act.

“Giambattista Tiepolo”; “Domenico Tiepolo: Drawings, Prints, and Paintings”; and “Venetian Prints and Books in the Age of Tiepolo”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Through April 27, 1997

“Tiepolo and His Circle: Drawings in American Collections”

Pierpont Morgan Library

Through April 13, 1997

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), the last of the great Venetian artists–those masters of color and suave worldliness–was the supreme painter of ceilings and skies. A proper appreciation of his work can give you a pain in the neck. In churches and palaces around his native Venice, and then, as his fame spread, as far afield as Dresden and Madrid, Tiepolo was without peer in executing the tricks that make for a believable scene in the heavens: the figures foreshortened as if seen from below, the sturdy cloudbanks, the shades of pink and blue that draw the eye toward the infinite. Perched so often on scaffolding as he painted, Tiepolo rather naturally developed a fascination for things that hover and fly, or flutter and fall.

For the next few months, in celebration of the master’s 300th birthday, New York City will host no fewer than four exhibitions devoted to Tiepolo’s work and to that of his associates. Since ceilings and wall frescoes don’t travel well, the curators have had to rely on portable paintings and works on paper. Fortunately, such was the zeal of American collectors that many of Tiepolo’s finest works are in American museums, including a magnificent horde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of Tiepolo’s larger works were destroyed in World War II, so his vivid oil sketches (or modelli), prized by connoisseurs, are the best record we have of them. The Met’s holdings have been augmented with masterpieces from American and European museums, and the result is a dazzling and dizzying show.

Tiepolo was not one to work, like Michelangelo, in solitary secrecy. Having grown up in a working-class quarter of Venice, Tiepolo was apprenticed at 14 to an academic painter. He seems to have thought of painting as a trade like any other, surrounding himself with a workshop of assistants, including his gifted son Domenico. (The resulting issues of attribution are a nightmare for scholars.) When he worked on commissions all over Europe, he was said to prefer the company of his fellow workmen to that of the wealthy patrons who had hired him.

The interlocked worlds of above and below–in the realms of religion, myth, or society–were Tiepolo’s great subject. He lived in the stable prosperity of the Venetian Republic and died before the revolutionary upheavals of the last quarter of the 18th century that toppled so many hierarchies. Consequently, he has often been dismissed as a well-paid upholder of the status quo. But while Tiepolo’s work has none of the dark premonitions of Francisco de Goya, there is an intriguing precariousness that sets in from time to time in his compositions, especially when high and low come unexpectedly into contact. Paintings that seem at first sight to be sober treatments of an enduring order turn out on closer inspection to have pockets of deep pathos or subtle humor.

T hough 19th-century critics doubted Tiepolo’s spiritual conviction, the curators at the Met make a strong case that Tiepolo was not just a brilliant decorator of sumptuous Catholic churches. His pictures of saints are particularly moving, especially when their attention is wrenched suddenly upward. In Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1767-69), the saint cranes his neck (as we do) to see the weird God hovering above him: a round sun with a human face and four pairs of wings that shoots golden laser beams down into Francis’ palms. Since one source of the Francis narrative mentioned a six-winged seraph in the sky and another a crucified Christ, Tiepolo–a virtuoso in depicting wings–fudged and deployed eight wings in the shape of a cross.

Tiepolo had a mischievous wit–to which the contributors of the lively catalog are particularly attentive–and it is given free play in his secular subjects, such as the very different joining of divine and human realms in The Rape of Europa (c. 1720-22). Europa sits innocently on the back of a tame bull while a handmaiden tends to her mistress’s unruly hair. Europa little suspects that the bull is really Jupiter, about to run off and have his way with her. Meanwhile, from high above, Cupid pisses from a passing cloud onto Jupiter’s thunderbolts–surely a novel (if ineffectual) way to cool a god’s ardor. Tiepolo, by giving Europa the features of his own wife (whom he had furtively wooed and married when she was 17), placed himself in the role of the divine bull–a gesture worthy of Picasso.

Cupid’s golden shower is nothing compared to the literal shower of gold in Danaë and Jupiter (1734-36), one of the gems of the show. According to myth, King Acrisius, hearing the prediction that he’d be killed by his own grandson, locked up his only child, Danaë, in a tower. But gods move in mysterious ways, and Jupiter (at it again!) appeared on the scene and poured down a fructifying flood of gold coins on Danaë. As Tiepolo imagines him, Jupiter is a withered old man, hunched, goatlike, as the coins spew forth from his crotch. An old crone who attends Danaë tries to catch some of the loot on a salver. The histrionic scene, the stage effects of which might have arisen from Tiepolo’s involvement in Venetian theater, suggests sex for pay, with the crone in the role of procuress. The hero Perseus, somehow conceived in that metallic torrent, accidentally felled his grandfather Acrisius with a discus.

An errant discus, as it happens, also killed Apollo’s lover Hyacinth. But Tiepolo, in his Death of Hyacinth (c. 1752-53), took his cue from a contemporary retelling of the myth and updated the murderous missile to a tennis ball. In the foreground of the huge painting, next to Hyacinth’s corpse, are two innocuous-looking balls and a racket, while the net hangs slackly in the background. The appalled Apollo makes an operatic gesture of horror over his muscular lover, while a satyr and a parrot (symbols of forbidden lust) stare sardonically down at the proceedings. Even if the picture had a private meaning for its patron (who had just lost his male lover), it’s obvious that Tiepolo enjoyed toying with the tragicomic possibilities of a fatal tennis match.

Tiepolo’s wit evidently found an echo in the popular commedia dell’arte characters of Venetian street theater, a taste for the topsy-turvy he shared with his son Domenico. They took particular pleasure in the antics of Punchinello, a long-nosed clown with white clothes and a cone hat. In a show largely devoted to the Met’s collection of Domenico’s work, one can see a host of Punchinellos felling a tree (perhaps one of the “Napoleonic” trees that marked the emperor’s progress through Europe) or pompously burying one of their number. They also populate a related show at the Pierpont Morgan Library, “Tiepolo and His Circle: Drawings in American Collections,” which showcases some of Domenico’s great studies of animals (Punchinello with an elephant, Punchinello riding a donkey). And at the Morgan are, yes, even more Punchinellos (these being Giambattista’s), such as the lively Punchinellos Cooking and Testing Gnocchi. These figures possess a magical, carnivalesque aura (despite their unfortunate resemblance, when seen today, to white-robed Klansmen). In the commedia dell’arte, where lowlife performers mingled with aristocratic audiences, one’s social position was no more secure than those tumbling trees.

The sheer range of Giambattista Tiepolo’s work comes across in these multifaceted exhibitions at the Met and the Morgan, and no one could complain of the variety of the objects on view. I would like to have seen a few more of Tiepolo’s portraits (the greatest of which, depicting a Venetian naval hero with a mutilated hand, could not leave Venice), and not quite so many sketches for ceilings. But Tiepolo’s vision, like Rilke contemplating autumn leaves, was of a world where everything is falling: “And yet, there is One who holds this falling with infinite softness in his hands.” The viewer leaves these gravity-defying masterpieces with a lighter step, expecting the sky to fill up momentarily with things that flutter and fly.