by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal
''Alexander and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles,'' from 1725-27.

Tiepolo and the Art of Perfection

By Roderick Conway Morris
UDINE 19 February 2013


On the eve of his departure from Venice for the royal court in Spain in 1762, at the age of 66, Giambattista Tiepolo told a reporter from a local newspaper, the Nuova Veneta Gazzetta: 'Painters should strive to succeed in creating great works, that is those that can please noble lords and the rich - because these make the fortunes of masters - and not other people, who cannot buy pictures of great value. So the painter's mind must always aim at the sublime, the heroic and for perfection.'

This was a rare spoken record of Tiepolo's artistic credo, but it was one that had guided his whole life and made it possible for him to realize masterpieces on a stupendous scale.

Much earlier in his long and amazingly industrious career, he had given visual expression to his grand ambitions - and not without a disarming dash of wit and self-deprecation - in a memorable painting: In 'Alexander and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles' of 1725-27, Tiepolo cast himself as the most famous artist in antiquity in the act of painting the portrait of Alexander's mistress, the beautiful Campaspe.

According to the story, so pleased was the world-conquering hero with the painted nude that he rewarded the artist with the gift of the model, with whom Apelles had fallen in love. In his playful illustration of the legend, Tiepolo's young wife, Cecilia Guardi, posed as Campaspe (Apelles-Tiepolo gazing on her with mesmerized, pop-eyed concentration), while placed behind Apelles's easel for good measure, advertising his wares, are two of Tiepolo's own canvases, one on a classical and another on a religious theme. Thus did the artist declare his abiding intention to emulate the most famous painters of the past and to find patrons among the great.

'Alexander and Campaspe,' on loan from Montreal, is the first painting in a remarkable gathering at Villa Manin in Passariano of 125 paintings, drawings and prints from more than 40 collections - the works span the artist's production from his first commissions to his last canvases in Spain - for 'Giambattista Tiepolo,' curated by Giuseppe Bergamini, Alberto Craievich and Filippo Pedrocco.

Villa Manin is near Udine, where Tiepolo found the noble patron for his first great cycle of frescoes in the Patriarch's (now Archbishop's) Palazzo and today home of the Diocesan Museum. Udine is also the venue for a second, smaller but revealing study exhibition, 'Giambattista Tiepolo and Paolo Veronese,' at the city's Castello.

Tiepolo was born in Venice in 1696 and studied under Gregorio Lazzarini, the most respected teacher of the day. He was accepted into the confraternity of artists in 1717 and rapidly made a name for himself. His early works manifest the influence of the dark 'tenebrist' chiaroscuros of the older local artists Piazzetta, Bencovich, Pittoni and Giulia Lama, and of a common inspiration to them all, Tintoretto.

But by the time Tiepolo went to Udine in 1725, he had fallen under the spell of another 16th-century Venetian artist, Paolo Veronese. The noble, colorful, luminous world of Veronese, with its dramatic illusionistic effects, was the ideal model for Tiepolo's frescoes, commissioned by the Venetian patriarch Dionisio Dolfin for his official residence. The reputation of Veronese was probably higher among Venetian connoisseurs than that even of Titian, and Tiepolo's references to this earlier master would have been appreciated by Dolfin. The evocation of Veronese's paintings also pleasingly conjured up images of the era when Venice was at the height of its power and glory.

The principal figures of these frescoes are the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the divinely appointed forerunners of Dolfin, whose appointment as patriarch was under attack, so their depiction, affirming his credentials as it were, carried a strong political message of topical relevance. But in the long term, the most striking aspect of the cycle was that it contained all the fertile imagination, mastery of light and color, theatrical panache and bravura skill in composition and execution that was to characterize Tiepolo's subsequent oeuvre.

Tiepolo was not the only artist at this time to return to Veronese as a source of inspiration, but while others imitated, Tiepolo absorbed his lessons, integrating them into his own artistic vision.

Despite the importance of the earlier master in Tiepolo's development, 'Giambattista Tiepolo and Paolo Veronese,' curated by Linda Borean and William L. Barcham at Udine's Castello, is the first exhibition to investigate this fascinating and complex relationship, brought alive by an absorbing line-up of 40 paintings, drawings and engravings by the two artists. The centerpiece of the show is Tiepolo's 'Finding of Moses,' from Edinburgh, temporarily reunited with a sizable section of the picture sliced off nearly two centuries ago and now in Turin, shown here together with Veronese's version of the subject, from Dijon.

In the Villa Manin exhibition, after the first room on an upper floor displaying 'Alexander and Campaspe,' six rooms are devoted to a number of oil sketches and a wide and varied selection - from figures, drapery and portraits to vases, trees and farm buildings - of the some 2,000 surviving drawings by Tiepolo's virtuoso hand.

The spacious, high-ceilinged rooms on Villa Manin's ground floor provide an ideal setting for the canvases, some of large proportions, and many of them treasured masterpieces, loaned from both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1715-16, the artist received his first significant commission to paint a series of apostles and prophets on canvases to be placed over the high arches within the Ospedaletto Church in Venice. All but one were saved from a fire in 2010 with only superficial damage and were then removed for cleaning. In their usual position at a height of around eight meters, or more than 25 feet, above the ground, they are hard to see in detail, so this temporary showing offers a welcome opportunity to study at close quarters these images justly praised at the time for being 'all spirit and fire.'

The artist's glorious airborne allegories are represented by such compositions as 'Time Discovers Truth' from Vicenza and 'Zephyr and Flora' from Venice. But here are also some of his most serious and powerful religious works, such as 'The Communion of St. Lucy' and 'Agar and Ishmael,' with its pathetic depiction of the seemingly dead child Ishmael.

One of most entertaining pieces is 'Danae,' taken to Stockholm by Carl Gustaf Tessin in 1736 after he had failed to persuade Tiepolo to travel to Sweden to work for his royal master. In this irreverent version, Danae is depicted as a sleepy, overweight courtesan, being pimped by Cupid, who lifts her dress to display 'the goods,' as her minuscule lap dog rushes yapping at Zeus's eagle.

In the Villa's ballroom is the gigantic canvas of 'St. Tecla Liberates Este from the Plague' (along with the original oil sketch for it from New York), temporarily removed for conservation work while building repairs are carried out on Este's duomo. This astonishing late work, completed in 1759, depicts a moving scene of devastation on the ground with an exhilarating vision of God descending with angels from the heavens to banish the pestilence at the entreaty of the kneeling saint.

No less affecting is the last picture in the show, a poignant, meditative oil sketch of a 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt,' one of an elegiac series on this theme painted by Tiepolo in Spain, where, before being able to return home, he was to die in 1770.

Giambattista Tiepolo. Villa Manin, Passariano, near Udine. Through April 7.

Giambattista Tiepolo and Paola Veronese. Castello, Udine. Through April 1.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023