by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ca' Rezzonico, Venice
Il Mondo Novo by Giandomenico Tiepolo, 1791

Bellini and Giandomenico Tiepolo: Fresh Insights

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 November 2000


In the late 15th century Giovanni Bellini more or less single-handedly transformed Venetian painting and, as a consequence, the course of Western art. He revolutionized not only religious painting, to which he devoted much of his long career, but also the nude, the portrait and landscape. And his pupils, Giorgione and Titian, brought High Renaissance painting to its peak.

Bellini figures prominently in many major collections in Europe and America, but it is still in his native city, in museums and in situ in churches, that there is the greatest concentration of them. These works have undergone a painstaking cleaning and conservation treatment over the past 15 years, and 20 of them are now displayed at the Accademia in a special exhibition, 'Color Regained: Bellini in Venice.' The show continues until Jan. 28, when the pictures will be returned to their former locations.

Some of the paintings appear noticeably clearer and brighter after treatment, but overzealous restoration appears to have been avoided. The extraordinary light, three-dimensional illusion of space and limpid serenity of Bellini's works may ultimately be impossible fully to analyze, but the scientific studies carried out in association with the conservation project have provided fascinating new insights into how the artist worked.

Bellini's lifetime spanned the period when tempera was giving way to oil paints. But he continued to use both, commonly in the same picture, employing a technique that would now be called 'mixed media' to achieve the maximum effects with the full range of pigments and binding agents then available.

A classic case of this is the manner in which he lent miraculous depth, softness and luminosity to the meadow behind the grieving Virgin in his 'Pieta,' by applying five distinct layers of whites, yellows and greens mixed with tempera and oils. Other examples of such richness and complexity have been examined in detail, insofar as it has been possible to analyze the paintings without risking damaging them.

Radiography and other photographic methods have also unveiled to what extent Bellini used preliminary drawing for his panels and canvases. In Florence, drawing was enshrined as the absolute foundation of composition, but for Bellini and his fellow Venetian artists it was often seen more as a variably employed means to an end. Thus, although highly accomplished as a draftsman, Bellini came to rely less and less on preparatory drawing as his career progressed, and reached a stage where he was making only the most perfunctory outlines before building up the image in paint.

The chronological arrangement of the show serves to underline the extent to which Bellini was constantly experimenting with composition and modes of representing his subjects, and the scientific research of recent years confirms that this was paralleled by the artist's tireless investigation of the properties and potential of his materials. Indeed it was this marrying of exceptional imagination and vision with a down-to-earth control over technique that made him, in the words of Durer (who met him in 1506), even in advanced old age 'still the best in painting.'

If Giovanni Bellini was the first of the great Venetian masters of color, Giandomenico Tiepolo was surely the last. He spent a large part of his life working with his father, Giambattista, on the enormous fresco cycles that won international renown for the Tiepolo name.

Giandomenico was in his mid-forties by the time he returned to Venice in 1770, his father having died on their last extended foreign expedition together, to Madrid. Before departing for Spain, Giambattista had bought a fairly modest country house on the Venetian mainland at Zianigo, the rooms of which the family set about frescoing in their spare time for their own entertainment. On Giandomenico's return he continued this enterprise until shortly before his death in 1804.

Most of these frescoes, painted principally by Giandomenico, were sold and detached from the walls and ceilings by the then-owner of the villa in 1906. They were saved from dispersal abroad by the intervention of the Italian state and Venice's civic authorities.

Since 1936 the paintings have occupied the upper floor of Ca' Rezzonico, Venice's museum of 18th-century art. This part of the building has been closed for several years for restoration, and the opportunity has been taken to undertake urgent conservation work on the frescoes, which were damaged to varying degrees when they were detached, and subsequently by inept modern restoration. (The rescue operation has been funded by the recently established Venice International Foundation and other private sponsors.) The results of this initiative are on show in 'Satyrs, Centaurs and Punchinellos,' at the Correr Museum until Jan. 14, after which the panels (of which there are over 50) will be returned to Ca' Rezzonico.

These wonderful works include many of the now most famous fantastical vignettes produced by Giandomenico in his own right, and the fact that they were created solely for personal satisfaction and family consumption gives them a unique quality. They are also an endlessly teasing and capricious puzzle, doggedly defying attempts at rational explanation.

'Il Mondo Novo' (The New World), to take but one example, which originally filled a whole wall of the entrance hall of the villa at Zianigo, depicts a crowd attracted by a peep show in which every figure's back is turned towards the viewer -- except those of Giambattista and Giandomenico themselves, who are portrayed in profile, silent and inscrutable observers of a scene, the hidden significance of which is likely to remain forever a mystery.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023