Giambattista Tiepolo

Venetian Painter

Born: March 5, 1696
Died: March 27, 1770
Madrid, Spain

Summary of Giambattista Tiepolo

The great 18th century Venetian painter Tiepolo ranks as the supreme exponent of the ornamental and asymmetrical Italian Rococo style. Tiepolo is thus associated with decorative, airy frescoes that displayed a partiality for pastel shades and sumptuous costumes. His art celebrated caprice (capriccio) and fantasy (fantasia) but within a thematic preference for ancient history and myth, and the holy scriptures. He is considered one of the great Venetian masters, and in his own time nobility and clergy hailed him "the most famous of the virtuosi". Indeed, the history of Western art tends to present Tiepolo as the last of the truly great Italian masters. In addition to his work in Italy, he produced spectacular masterpieces across Europe and especially in royal palaces in Bavaria and Spain. Bright in color and graceful of touch, his art is associated with the pleasure of looking though his work is also recognized for a spacious quality that allows the spectator to bring their own ideas to his wonderfully painted fantasies.


Progression of Art


The Assumption of the Virgin

There is some debate as to when this fresco was painted, but in all likelihood, it was undertaken between 1716-19. It adorns the ceiling of the Parish Church of Biadene, near Treviso, Italy and shows the Virgin bound for Heaven borne on a cloud, flanked by a number of angels and putti.

This is the painting with which Tiepolo made his debut in fresco. Its relatively dark tonality stands in marked contrast to his high-key late manner and shows the extent to which he was still under the sway of the high-contrast tenebrists, particularly that of Giambattista Piazzetta. It is not a masterpiece by any means, but it is an important painting, for it shows that Tiepolo did not, as it were, spring fully armed from the thigh of Zeus like Athena. Rather, The Assumption of the Virgin shows that his style evolved (albeit very quickly). A year or so later we find him painting two spectacular frescoes - The Triumph of Aurora and the Myth of Phaethon - for the Venetian publisher Giambattista Baglioni. Adriano Mariuz takes the view that it is only later that "Tiepolo fully realized his own talent and vocation as a peerless frescoist." Having said that, the way in which he arranges the figure in a vortex of curves, the pale azure of the heavens, the slightly Mannerist pose the Virgin strikes, and the broad brush work, all give us glimpses of what would become Tiepolo's trademark.

Fresco - La Chiesa Vecchia, Biadene, Italy


The Institution of the Rosary

What first strikes one about this fresco, which Tiepolo painted on the ceiling of the church of the Gesuati (or Sta. Maria del Rosario) in his native Venice, is its sheer size. Indeed at 40 feet by 15 feet, it is the largest version of this subject in European art.

Tiepolo divides the work into two realms: heaven and earth. In the former, the Christ Child stands at his mother's knee and hands the rosary to several putti. They in turn pass it on to an earth-bound Saint Dominic dressed in the black and white habit of the order to which he gave his name. He in turn passes it to the outstretched arms of the faithful gathered on the steps beneath an imposing Palladian building complete with mighty ionic columns.

Behind Saint Dominic stand two angels and behind them several soldiers in shadow brandish weapons known as halberds. Beneath them on the right, all manner of people wait to receive the Rosary from the saint's hand. Among them is Doge Alvise Pisani, in a golden brocade coat, and the patriarch Correr, in an embroidered pluvial. Beneath the former, sit two women one with serpents in her hand and hair and the other clutches some golden coins. Two soldiers, one of whom has his back to the viewer, perch precariously on the last step. Finally, in a triumph of trompe l'oeil five unfortunate souls - symbolising avarice, lust, heresy, arrogance and the Devil - tumble headlong out of the painting. A grey dog sits with its head bowed on the lower left-hand corner of the painting, an allusion to the Dominican order (in latin domini canes, or God's hounds).

The Institution of the Rosary has a grandeur of conception which seems to recall the pomp of the Venetian High Renaissance, of which Tiepolo is perhaps its last representative. Yet, despite the scale of the piece and its extreme foreshortening, Tiepolo never loses control. He painted swiftly, and his bravura brushwork never falters. The eye rises in zig-zag fashion, first encountering one group of figures and then another, before arriving at the central figure of St. Dominic and so to the Madonna and the Christ Child above him on the cloud. The upshot is high drama tempered by a light-hearted Rococo charm and grace of form for which Tiepolo is famous. There is piety here, to be sure, but there is a certain levity too, in all senses of the word: a lightness of body, a lightness of touch and indeed a lightness of being.

Fresco - Sta. Maria del Rosario, Venice


Armida Abandoned by Rinaldo

In this, the third of four paintings for a room in the Venetian residence of the Conaro family, we find Tiepolo at the height of his powers. Inspired by Toquato Tasso's masterpiece, La Gerusalemme Liberata, it shows a reluctant Rinaldo taking his leave of the Saracen sorceress, Armida, with whom he has been dallying in an enchanted garden. He is being cajoled by friends, and fellow Crusaders, Charles and Ubaldi. Charles rests one hand on Rinaldo's shoulder and with the other points east to the Holy Land. Ubaldi presents him with a shield to remind him of his responsibilities to the Crusade. A ship awaits them at the right centre of the frame, leaving one in little doubt as to how the story must end. Armida tries to change his mind, even going so far as to stretch her leg provocatively to him, but her enticements are in vain.

It is well known that Tiepolo tended to paint with animated freedom. Yet here his alacrity is offset through the masterly economy with which he treats his landscape. The rock, the trees, the pine, the stump of the column, the tuft on which Armida sits and the ship in the distance are all represented without embellishments. The subtle treatment of the scenery allows Tiepolo to reserve his visual fireworks for the two lovers. In all likelihood, Tiepolo painted them all prima - or "at once" - that is, painted directly onto the picture surface without later retouching. Languid, fluid, brushstrokes coupled with his trademark Rococo pastel palette, lend further elegance to the figures, blunting the heartache of both Armida and Rinaldo.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute, Chicago


The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra

The subject for this magnificent fresco, originally painted on a wall in the ballroom of the Palazzo Labia, Venice, is drawn from Pliny the Elder's Natural History which tells of a wager between Mark Antony, the Roman Consul in Egypt and Cleopatra: who could put on the more extravagant feast? Cleopatra outwits Anthony and thus wins the wager by dissolving a precious pearl worth 10, 000 sesterces into a cup of vinegar which she then drinks.

A collaboration between Tiepolo and that master of illusionistic architectural painting Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna (with whom Tiepolo worked for some forty years) The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra is a fine example of what happens when Baroque and Rococo merge. The latter is evident in Tiepolo's trademark pastel palette (the paleness of the musicians in the Minstrel's gallery, the powdery blue of the sky and the alabaster pallor of Cleopatra's face) and in the sexual frisson between the ill-fated lovers. We also see playful details in the figure of the dwarf and in the diminutive dog to his right, both of which serve to puncture the pomp of the banquet somewhat. Framed as they are by two trompe l'oeil columns, Anthony and Cleopatra look as if they might be on an opera set: the glass and pearl are props; the figures mere actors. And perhaps that is the point of the painting. The aristocratic patrons for whom Tiepolo painted did not want angst or intellectual rigor. Pleasure was their rasion d'etre. There is, however, a marked lack of passion on the part of Cleopatra. Her aura of world-weariness, coupled with aristocratic hauteur, serve to remind us that the Viennese tradition of Tiepolo's time is in a state of decline.

Oil on panel - The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia


The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Beatrice of Burgundy

Painted in 1751 for the Kaiserhall of the then newly built Würzburg Residenz, The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Beatrice of Burgundy is a fresco depicting the marriage of a 12th century Holy Roman Emperor, bedecked in the costumes of the 16th century. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his spouse, Beatrice, kneel before Gebhard, Bishop of Würzburg. To the right are gathered the royal household and sundry courtiers, while the father of the bride, Count Raynald of Burgundy, kneels on the steps to the left of the altar with two pageboys. In a typically playful touch, Tiepolo places the motely dressed court jester, on his knees in the foreground, with his back turned to the spectator.

While most of the limelight had gone to Tiepolo's virtuosic masterpiece, Apollo and the Continents which graces the Würzburg Residenz stairwell, this fresco is no less impressive. Historians tend to dwell on the theatricality of Tiepolo's art and one can see why when analyzing a painting such as this. Two putti draw back the gilded curtains as if opening a play or an opera with the resulting negative space serving as a proscenium through which to view the nuptials of the Emperor. That Tiepolo has used architecture to such a good effect in the service of art is a hallmark of his genius. Here he and his assistants (chief among them his son, Giovanni) blend the illusory with the real with consummate skill. It is also in the subtlety of expression and gesture as well as in trompe l'oeil virtuosity that Tiepolo shows his hand. We observe, for instance, Beatrice's beautiful, if haughty, face painted with Tiepolo's customary panache: the merest suggestion of pink tempers her iciness. The presence of the Jester is surely not insignificant. Tiepolo's little joke is an example of Rococo levity. Such a touch would have been unthinkable in the hands of a truly Baroque master such as Veronese (to whom Tiepolo is often compared) and is further evidence of his Rococo credentials.

Fresco - Imperial Hall of the Residenz, Würzburg, Germany


The Glory of Spain

It is likely that by the time he arrived in Madrid in June 1762 for his last major undertaking, Tiepolo (ably assisted by sons, Domenico and Lorenzo) had become aware that the appetite for panegyric paintings promoting the glorification of kings and nations (not to mention the ennobled more generally) was coming to an end. Tiepolo was nevertheless one of the few European painters still working on such an overpowering scale and Spain was at that time a leading European power. Little wonder, then, that King Charles III would commission him to adorn the throne room in the recently built palace with allegorical depictions of Spain's rule in the Americas and other far flung lands. At 66 years of age, Tiepolo was approaching the end of his life but he proved with his ceiling frescos that, even despite some serious architectural shortcomings, he was still able to produce work of an exceptionally fine quality.

The Glory of Spain is a brilliant fusion of elements drawn from his previous work including decorative features from his time in residence at the Würzburg and his frescoes at the spectacular Villa Pisani in Stra (situated on the canal linking Venice and Padua). Tiepolo had in fact completed the oil sketches for The Glory of Spain before leaving Venice. However, on arrival at the palace, Tiepolo was faced with the problem of decorating a throne room with inadequate natural light sources. His chromatic oil sketches could not therefore be fully realized. There is then a degree of imposed improvisation in the way Tiepolo, to compensate for the relatively subdued chromatic treatment, created his largest ever empty expanse of sky. Tiepolo left enough room in his painting to let the eye of the spectator fill in the blanks; allowing them in effect to bring their own interpretations to the scene. It is this aspect of his method perhaps that would exert such a profound influence on the likes of Fragonard, Delacroix and Goya all of whom sought to use art to invoke the imagination of the spectator through open space.

Fresco - Throne Room, Palacio Real, Madrid

Biography of Giambattista Tiepolo


The fifth and youngest child of Domenico Tiepolo, a merchant and ship's captain, and Orsetta (maiden name unknown), Giambattista Tiepolo was born on April 16th, 1696 in the Sestiere of Castello, Venice. Both of his brothers, Domenico and Lorenzo, were to become eminent artists in their own right, particularly Domenico, but it was Giambattista Tiepolo who was to be the greatest of them all. While the family into which Giambattista was born was thoroughly bourgeois, it bore no aristocratic lineage. Giambattista, and indeed his siblings, all had high-born godparents but why this was so remains a mystery, though, at an educated guess, it might have been a result of Domenico's business connections. Tragedy stuck early in the life of the young Giambattista, however, when, in 1697, his father died. Domenico had left the family a decent inheritance, but the mother decided to entrust her youngest son to the care of Gregorio Lazzarini, an academic painter who taught his pupils basic painting techniques.

Training and Early Work

Beyond what we have just said, very little is known of Tiepolo's childhood and one has to wait until 1719 for documented facts to become available. 1719 was the year of his marriage to Maria Cecilia Guardi, sister to the veduta ("view") painters: brothers Gian Antonio and Francesco Guardi. Maria bore Tiepolo no fewer than ten children (two of whom would take up painting and became apprentices to their father). Following his marriage, his dark, fledgling style - owing much to the chiaroscuro of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - became lighter, his palate more brilliant and his touch noticeably more elegant. Tiepolo had learnt the rudiments of fresco from Lazzarini but it was Piazzetta, Ricci, and above all Veronese, who would exert the greatest influence over him.

Although he had painted The Sacrifice of Abraham in 1716 for the church of the municipality of Ospedaletto, historians are divided as to when Tiepolo might have left Lazzarini's charge. There is some consensus that is was 1717, the year that saw him accepted into the ranks of the Fraglia (the Venetian Guild of painters). It was not until 1725 however that he started to solidify his style working on the Archbishop's residence at Udine. It would take him some three years to complete the work, during which time, his mature manner - vertiginous perspectives, pastel palettes married to flickering brushwork - emerged in its first blossom of glory. Soon thereafter, he travelled across Northern Italy, painting frescoes for churches, grand residences (palazzi) and a number of altarpieces. The enormous Gathering of the Manna and The Sacrifice of Melchidezek (c. 1740-42) were both produced during this tour.

Middle Period

Tiepolo's middle period found its culmination in the Anthony and Cleopatra series, which he completed for the Palazzo Labia, Venice in 1750. The year also marks the start of his magnum opus, the fresco cycle for the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg, Karl Phillip Von Greiffenklau. Tiepolo and his sons journeyed across the Alps during the summer months and remained in Bavaria until 1753. Following his return to Venice, Tiepolo's reputation was such that he was elected the first president of the Venetian Academy in 1755.

Late Period

1761 brought an invitation from the court of Charles III, King of Spain, to paint the Palacio Real in Madrid. During his sojourn in Spain (again accompanied by sons), he came into contact with the thoroughly obnoxious Anton Rafael Mengs, whom the King had also commissioned to paint the palace's ceilings. Mengs took an instant dislike to Tiepolo and became intensely jealous, fearing a loss of the King's favor. He lost no time in plotting against the Venetian at court. What is more, as the champion of Neoclassicism par excellence, he thought Tiepolo's style somewhat passé and said that Tiepolo was "able but lacks warmth".

As objectionable as he was (or might have been), Mengs might have had a point. When, in 1761, Charles III commissioned Tiepolo, the Venetian's signature of sunny Apollonian air-borne allegory, Rococo excess, bravura brushwork and virtuoso feats of perspective, were, by current thinking at least, beginning to look somewhat gauche. Neoclassicism, with its emphasis on balance, order and proportion, was the new order. What is more, public opinion in pre-revolution France would have cast aspersions on such aristocratic fripperies. When Tiepolo died suddenly in 1770, Mengs prevailed on the powers-that-be at San Pascual and Aranjuez not to use Tiepolo's seven altarpieces but to install his and those of his Spanish apprentices instead. Charles did not object, finding Mengs's brand of cold classicism more befitting the image of a strong Catholic King. The proverbial writing was on the wall. Nevertheless, Tiepolo's spectacular fresco cycles in Wurzburg and Madrid had done much to popularise the Rococo style in those countries in the immediate years after the artist's death in Madrid.

The Legacy of Giambattista Tiepolo

In a series of Discourse in Art lectures spanning the decade immediately after Tiepolo's death, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the British Royal Academy, called Tiepolo the first master of what he called the Grand Manner. Reynolds's argument was that, in a return to the styles of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Grand Manner art should devote itself not so much to accuracy and fine natural detail but rather to "the grand style of invention, to composition, to expression, and even coloring drapery." Indeed, a golden thread runs from Byzantine art via Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese to Tiepolo; and from Tiepolo to Fragonard.

Of all his contemporaries, perhaps Fragonard owed Tiepolo the greatest debt, for it was Fragonard who adopted both his loose, flickering brushwork, and his creamy, often unblended, pastel palette. Fragonard would, in turn, influence the likes of Delacroix, Goya, and Renoir. Tiepolo's oil sketches and drawings meanwhile - which could be by turns troubling and dream-like, featuring as they do a cast of Punchinellos, sorcerers and centaurs - may well have influenced Goya directly.

Though his standing suffered following the rise of Neoclassicism, Tiepolo's reputation underwent a process of reassessment in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Historian Adriano Mariuz observes that "The Belle Époque rediscovered Tiepolo and made him its own, seeing him above all as a brilliant decorator and the creator of a kind of beauty suffused with sensuality." Indeed, the novelist Marcel Proust admired Tiepolo principally for his use of pink; the air of fin de siècle optimism that clung to Tiepolo spoke to Proust and others at the dawning of a new century.

Today, Tiepolo's reputation as a serious artist is firm. Rather than a mere decorator for the titled classes (as rather few continue to suggest) Keith Christiansen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art argues that Tiepolo "should be seen above all as one of the loftiest examples of [...] pictorial intelligence." Indeed, there is, according to Christiansen, "something of Matisse in his serious pursuit of the pleasurable," and something of de Chirico in the way Tiepolo "generates a feeling of malaise and enigma with his arbitrary combinations of costume and juxtapositions of seemingly disconnected elements in a composition." One may agree or disagree with Christiansen's assessment, yet on one point there can be no dispute: Tiepolo is a fixture in the pantheon of Western art.

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