Giambattista Tiepolo, Italy's greatest eighteenth-century painter, was born in Venice in 1696, and died in Madrid in 1770. Though his godfather was a Venetian nobleman, Giambattista was the sixth son of a tradesman, the part-owner of a commercial boat. The father died a year later, and the boy was subsequently apprenticed to Gregorio Lazzarini, though seems to have learned more from his older contemporaries, Sebastiano Ricci and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. Giambattista's first major commission, finished at the age of 19, was the Sacrifice of Isaac. In 1717 he left the Lazzarini studio, and joined the Fraglia guild of painters. Two years later he married Maria Cecilia Guardi, sister of the painters Francesco and Giovanni Antonio Guardi, with whom he had nine children, four daughters and three sons surviving into adulthood. Two sons, Domenico and Lorenzo, became his assistants and noted painters in their turn.
From 1726 to 1728, the young Tiepolo undertook the fresco decoration of the chapel and palace of the Friulan town of Udine, where his pale tonalities and airy handling announced a revolutionary talent of the first order: the theatrical grandeur of the Baroque was retained but transposed to lighter, more decorative chords. Enormous canvases to decorate a large reception room of Ca' Dolfin in Venice followed (1726–29), and then a rapid succession of paintings for churches, villas and palaces: Verolanuova (1735-40), Scuola dei Carmini (1740-47), Scalzi 1743-44), Palazzi Archinto and Casati-Dugnani (1731), Colleoni Chapel (1732-33), Gesuati (S.Maria del Rosario), Palazzo Clerici (1740), Villa Cordellini (1743-44) and the Palazzo Labia (1745-50).
By 1750 Tiepolo was famous throughout Europe. He painted the world's largest ceiling fresco for Prince Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau at Würzburg in 1750, returning three years later to Venice, where he was elected President of the Academy of Padua. More commissions followed: frescoes for patrician villas and church altarpieces. In 1761 he was commissioned by Charles III to decorate the throne room of the royal palace of Madrid, and there, on March 27, 1770, he died. With the decay of absolute monarchies, the Rococo style was gradually replaced by Neoclassicism, and then by the citizen concerns of revolutionary France, but Tiepolo's sons maintained the mixture of rich colour and fluid design, though in a more intimate, socially-observant manner.
Rococo derives from French word 'rocaille', the shell-covered rock work used to decorate artificial grottoes, and refers to the eighteenth-century taste for elegance, lightness of touch and exuberant use of curving, natural forms of ornamentation. The French painters of significance are Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, each greatly gifted in different ways. From France the style spread in the 1730s to the German-speaking Catholic lands, where it combined French elegance with south German fantasy in religious and secular architecture of great brilliance. In Italy the style was largely restricted to Venice, where it gave expression to that city's love of carnival and refined ostentation.
Its greatest exponent was Giambattista Tiepolo, who produced a continuous stream of frescoes, altarpieces, portraits, drawings and pen and ink works that combine astonishing technical facility with intelligence and imaginative expression. The frescoes are flamboyant masterpieces of airy nothing, as unreal as anything emanating from Hollywood, but with extreme refinement and aristocratic hauteur. The male portraits are of real people but those of women tend to adopt a formula (albeit convincing) of suave voluptuousness. The altarpieces vary. Some are dutiful or even vapid, but the best are as poignant as anything Spain produced, with greater flair, taste and and imagination. The martyrdom of St. Lucy has an idealized woman, but still expresses intense religious fervor, in the saint and the attendant figures: all play their parts faultlessly.
The Last Communion of St. Lucy. 1747-48.
Oil on canvas. 222 cm x 101 cm. Santi Apostoli, Venice.
Note the wide range in contrast, the rich colours, the spiky shadow and almost electric whites of the marble columns and the saint's shawl. Also Tiepolo's ability to orchestrate many figures in a large composition, each one carefully integrated with telling detail. The composition is a split analogous one, blue against yellow to pinkish brown in the framing arch. The floor tiles lead the eye left (though broken by the knife), and saint's right arm and and bending figure of the priest lead it back right. Otherwise the composition is a gentle swirl, the saint and figures behind being balanced by the bending priest. The spear behind the standing priest echoes that in the foreground, and the foreground knife (and plate with gouged-out eyes), putti and figures on the balcony lead the eye back into the picture.
Venetian painters had access to a wide range of materials for their palette. For white they used lead white. For red it was vermilion, carmine, sometimes with realgar, an Asian gum resin called 'dragon's blood' and various earth reds. For blue the choice was for ultramarine and the less expensive azurite and 'Egyptian blue'. For purple they used indigo. Green was given by verdigris, green earth and malachite. Yellows came from gamboge resin, lead oxide, lead antimoniate, orpiment and lead-tin compounds. Browns were made from various clays, and black was carbon black.
Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida. 1742/45. Oil on canvas. 187.5 cm x 216.8 cm.
The painting is one of four painted to decorate a Venetian palace Venetian of the Cornaro family. Each illustrates a passage from Torquato Tasso's (1544-95) 'Jerusalem Liberated'.Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida. 1742/45. Oil on canvas. 187.5 cm x 216.8 cm.
The four are the bequest of James Deering, and copyright the Art Institute of Chicago.
In this first of the series, Armida has floated down to gaze on Rinaldo. Here she is the society beauty, her look imperious and rather worldly-wise, for all that her horse-borne chariot rests on a cloud and her shawl still billows away behind her. Armida is a pagan sorceress sent by her uncle to entice soldiers away from the Crusades. Instead of killing Rinaldo, however, she falls in love, and transports him to her enchanted garden in Syria.
In the second of the series, Rinaldo is forced to choose between staying with the beautiful sorceress and continuing his crusade to the Holy Land. His sword and shield have been thrown aside, and he stays gazing into Armida's eyes while she admires herself in the magic mirror.
In the third painting, Rinaldo has reluctantly decided to leave Armida. Helped by his companions, Carlo and Ubaldo, who point to the ship that will carry them back to the Crusades, Rinaldo looks longingly at Armida, who stretches out a bare leg to him.
Rinaldo and the Magus of Ascalon. 1742/45. Oil on canvas. 182.9 cm. x 188 cm.
In the fourth and final painting, a more mature Rinaldo has arrived on the coast of Palestine, where the magician of Ascalon conjures up pictures of ancestral heroism in the shield.
Tiepolo's achievements are obvious enough, indeed stunning. First is the decorative elegance of the pieces. The settings are unreal, of course, a never-never land in which the figures pose, elongated and idealized. The tone is muted, and the figures seem detached. No doubt they are conscious of each other, but far more so of the spectator: this is Venice where society parades to see and be seen. Thirdly, the details are somewhat preposterous: the cumbrous helmets, heavy draperies, the trees reduced to spiky branches or unlikely canopies of leaves: scenery painting, a backdrop to the everyday splendour of patrician life. Fourthly, the tonal contrasts are very wide, but are used more for decoration than to create the illusion of depth. As we see below, figures making the groups are closely integrated by composition, but the groups themselves are widely separated by space. Tiepolo has an an almost oriental sense of composition: tight details and wide acres where little happens.
Now the colour. It is exceptionally difficult to use primary colours successfully in paintings, yet this is what Tiepolo has done in the last piece, and to some extent in all. How?
By a variety of devices. Firstly the colours are a little muted, the result of adding a little white to the paint, or reducing its oil content. Second is a progression. In the first painting, we pass from the carmine red in the bottom right to the cloak the cupid is lying on, to the orange brown of Armida's costume, to the saffron orange of her drapery, to the lemon yellow of her robe and thence to flesh tones and the off-white of whatever is draped about Rinaldo's thigh. There is a similar sequence in the blue of Rinaldo's costume, to the sky and the viridian of the vegetation. Thirdly, when such a progression is not possible, as in the fourth painting, Tiepolo puts the primaries together in the centre of the painting, and ties them in to the surroundings by repeating their agitated, rather spiky shapes in the shadows, ships and the outlines of the two soldiers.
Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida: Detail
Technically, Tiepolo belongs to the Rococo, not the Baroque, but there is the same dynamism in a composition based on diagonals, clearly apparent in this detail from the first painting. Also noteworthy is the repetition of shapes: the boss of the shield, the stud of the tunic over Rinaldo's left shoulder and the attendant's unclothed breast. Similarly the swirl of drapery, horses' heads and foliage. Also the hook-like shapes that seems to reach out and claw in our interest: the attendant's neck, Rinaldo's hands, and even the right extremity of the cloud.
Above all else we should note the sheer brilliance of the execution. Though Tiepolo planned everything — through pencil sketches, chalk drawings, pen and ink washes where the tones are exactly laid out, to oil sketches that explored colour balance and harmonies — all would have been pointless without the finish: change the facial features by a fraction and the magic disappears. It's that superb confidence in a wizardry of brush that makes Tiepolo inimitable — and so hard to meet in restoration work.
In summary, comparing Tiepolo to Monet, we see what was thrown away by Impressionism and then Modernism. Monet worked his way round to creating some of these effects, but in an improvised and clumsy manner. Tiepolo botched nothing because we had been taught a craft, and had the good fortune to be able to apply and extend it within a valued tradition.
1. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Art in the Picture. 2013. Brief biography.
2. Renaissance Colour Palette: Artist Colours/Pigments/Hues Used by Fresco/Tempera/Oil Painters in Venice, Florence, Rome. Visual Arts Cork.
3. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Extended free article.
4. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Art Cyclopedia. Extensive, grouped by gallery.
5. Scientific Examination and Artistic Innovation: New Materials and New Colors in Renaissance Venetian Paintings by Barbara H. Berrie and Louisa C. Matthew. 2005. Google Books.
6. Rococo style. Encyclopedia Britain. Extended article available to subscribers.
7. Ribald Enchanted by Amid. Art Institute of Chicago. Illustrations, provenance and the Lasso story.
8. Tasso Through Tiepelo: Rinaldo and Armida. UMWBlogs. Detailed University of Mary Washington article on significance of Tasso's work in Venetian art.
9. Rinaldo and Armida by Anthony van Dyck. Wiki Paintings. The women have a heavy, Edwardian beauty, but the fabrics, as always, are sumptuous.
10. Rinaldo and Armida by Francois Boucher. Wiki Paintings. Not Boucher's best, the figures somewhat childish and insipid.
11. The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century. Jane Martineau and Andrew Robinson. (Eds.) Yale Univ. Press. 1994. pp 171-217. Guide to the Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition.
12. Great Paintings. Edwin Mullins (Ed.) BBC. 1981. pp 102-8. Popular introduction to Tiepolo.