The irony of Giambattista Tiepolo.


On March 5, 1696, Giambattista Tiepolo was born in Venice: we remember him on our blog with a post dedicated to his ironic verve.

On March 5, 1696, one of the greatest artists of the 18th century, Giambattista Tiepolo, was born in Venice: an anniversary that today is also celebrated by Google, which dedicates its doodle to the Venetian artist, creating a composition inspired by Giambattista Tiepolo’s famous and airy frescoes. On December 6 last year, we, too, dedicated an episode of our podcast to the artist: however, since his output was particularly impressive, we had to necessarily leave out some aspects of his art, some even important ones. For example, we did not talk aboutirony, one of the fundamental characteristics of his art, and we had promised ourselves to deal with this topic in an article on our website: the anniversary of his birth therefore gives us the opportunity to do so.

Il doodle che Google dedica a Giambattista Tiepolo

In the installment we had seen how Giambattista Tiepolo was an artist of the decadence of Venice: the city was experiencing a period of irreversible crisis that, as we have seen several times when talking about Venetian artists on our site, would lead the Serenissima to the end of its millennial independence. Tiepolo’s luminous and open art was a means that the Venetian patricians of the time used to construct for themselves a parallel reality made up of fiction, abstraction and theatricality, almost as if they wanted to forget the decay that was before everyone’s eyes, but which they almost pretended not to see, because life in Venice continued amid parties, luxury and worldliness (and one of the greatest interpreters in painting of this “not wanting to see” decadence, was Canaletto, Tiepolo’s contemporary).

In this context,irony (typical, moreover, of much Venetian art of the time-just think of a painter like Pietro Longhi, a keen observer of the society of 18th-century Venice) becomes for Tiepolo a melancholy tool for highlighting the distortions of his time. Thus, for example, the court of King Solomon that we observe in the fresco with the Judgement of Solomon in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine depicts a court that, mindful of the paintings of Paolo Veronese who was one of Giambattista Tiepolo’s most important “ideal masters,” appears to us colorful and opulent, amid dwarfs, more or less exotic beasts (see the lion immediately below Solomon, which may be precisely an allusion to Venice), pingui characters, rich robes, children dressed as pageboys, all around a Solomon whose robes are reminiscent precisely of those of a Venetian doge.

Giambattista Tiepolo, Giudizio di Salomone (1726-29; Udine, Palazzo Patriarcale) Giambattista Tiepolo, Morte di Giacinto (1752-53; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza) Giambattista Tiepolo, Giove e Danae (1736; Stoccolma, Universitet Konsthistoriska Institutionen)

References to the contemporary world also enter the mythological painting, and in this sense the Death of Hyacinthus is exemplary, which is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where we see, in front of Hyacinthus’ lifeless body endowed with classical beauty, a tennis racket with two balls: Tiepolo actualizes the myth and changes its context, so that Hyacinthus’ death is no longer the consequence of a discus-throwing competition, but of a tennis match. Behind him, an Apollo expresses his mourning with an extremely theatrical pose, almost as if to give a public demonstration of his grief, so much so that behind him a host of characters flock to observe the scene with curiosity. One of them even turns to summon others: almost as if grief becomes a cause for spectacle. And the expressions of these characters are anything but distressed: Tiepolo’s irony depicts the onlookers as if they were theatergoers. The allusions to Venetian worldliness are diverse, beginning with the cloth on which Hyacinthus rests, which looks almost like a bed, and continuing with the parrot in the upper right-hand corner, a symbol of sensuality, just as the faun statue represents carnality.

Tiepolo’s irony is also evident in his desecrating will that makes him depict certain episodes of ancient mythology according to parodic intentions: this is the case with Jupiter and Danae, a painting from 1736 that we find in the Stockholm University Museum where, precisely, the myth is revisited almost as if Tiepolo wanted to paint a parody of it. Here, then, is the myth’s rain of gold transformed into a more prosaic rain of gold coins (and note also the old woman under Danae’s bed who with a plate watches the coins fall, almost as if she wants to collect as many as possible), here is a Danae who seems more listless than excited, so much so that she almost seems not to care about Cupid who is removing her robe, Jupiter who takes on the features of an ugly but moneyed old man, and last but not least the little dog at the foot of Danae’s bed barking at Jupiter’s eagle, who seems to want to establish a fight with his rival. In short, rather than a union between a god and a princess, it almost seems as if we are witnessing a scene of rich meretriciousness-a frequent scene in the Venice of the time.

The discussion of Tiepolo’s irony would not be complete without examining his production of caricatures, an art that became particularly in vogue in the eighteenth century. Tiepolo’s intent, however, was not to create caricatures of specific people (friends, colleagues, famous people of the time or otherwise prominent): the purpose of his caricatures was to reveal aspects of thehuman soul through the exaggeration of certain physical characteristics that were expressed in the creation of character types, so that Tiepolo’s satire does not target the individual, but society as a whole (or parts of society). Tiepolo’s art is thus charged with funny hunched characters, with grotesque faces, but always impeccably disheveled and dressed, or masked or seen from behind, as in this caricature preserved at the Sartorio Museum in Trieste and in this one found instead at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (in which we recognize the typical Venetian attire, with the tricorno, that is, the hat, and the bautta, the most classic of Venetian masks), where the anonymity that conceals the identity of the character but still does not cover his or her physical defects, is a critique of the Venice of the time where the habit of masquerading was common, precisely because the mask guaranteed anonymity and gave the wearer the possibility of performing actions that otherwise, without a mask, he or she would not have been able to perform (indulging in libertine love affairs, frequenting circles other than the usual ones without being recognized, venting heated criticism and controversy, and so on). The point of Giambattista Tiepolo’s critique, however, is that the mask may, yes, guarantee anonymity, but it certainly does not improve people or change their flaws; on the contrary: it accentuates them.

Giambattista Tiepolo ’s irony would later become a fundamental characteristic of the art of his son, Giandomenico, who would be even more scathing and irreverent than his father (not least probably because Giandomenico, unlike Giambattista, was able to see the end of the independence of the Serenissima) and continue his tradition.