Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) is famed for the brilliance of his colors, the speed and spontaneity of his execution, and the airy freedom of his frescoes filled with figures floating on clouds.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was born in Venice on March 5, 1696. His father, who was part owner of a ship, died when Tiepolo was scarcely a year old, but the family was left in comfortable circumstances. As a youth, he was apprenticed to Gregorio Lazzarini, a mediocre but fashionable painter known for his elaborately theatrical, rather grandiose compositions.

Tiepolo soon evolved a more spirited style of his own. By the time he was 20, he had exhibited his work independently, and won plaudits, at an exhibition held at the church of S. Rocco. The next year he became a member of the Fraglia, or painters' guild. In 1719 he married Cecilia Guardi, whose brother Francesco was to become famous as a painter of the Venetian scene. They had nine children, among them Giovanni Domenico and Lorenzo Baldassare, who were also painters.

In the 1720s Tiepolo carried out many large-scale commissions on the northern Italian mainland. Of these the most important is the cycle of Old Testament scenes done for the patriarch of Aquileia, Daniele Dolfin, in the new Archbishop's Palace at Udine. Here Tiepolo abandoned the dark hues that had characterized his early style and turned instead to the bright, sparkling colors that were to make him famous.

Maker of Myths

From the 1730s on Tiepolo devoted himself chiefly to secular themes: mythologies and allegories that glorified Venice and its noble families. The great need these paintings fulfilled is rooted in Venetian history. In Tiepolo's day Venice lived under a shadow. Its 1, 000-year-long history as an independent state was soon to come to an end. For centuries Venice had remained secure and prosperous behind walls of wood and water. Its ships protected it and brought back wealth from beyond the Adriatic Sea. Its churches glittered with Eastern gold. Once Venice had been the great power of the Mediterranean, before which Turks had fled and even distant Byzantium trembled. But by the 18th century, while there was still much gold, there was almost no power. No longer within the main currents of international politics, Venice existed instead as a fashionable backwater, a stopover for visiting Englishmen on the grand tour.

Naturally those who loved Venice sought to escape into the dream of a glorious past. Naturally they tried to extend that dream to also cover the present. Their spokesman was Tiepolo. It was he who drove away the shadows. In their place he created a world flooded with sunlight. In it float the gods and goddesses of mythology, the allegories of abundance and victory, and those figures of fame who trumpet the triumphs of Venice to the four corners of the earth. Like the great epic poets, among whom he should rightfully be numbered, Tiepolo is a maker of myths.

In these myths the gods and goddesses of Olympus watch over the nobility and attend their progress through the skies. From such airy stuff Tiepolo cut many of his finest frescoes: the celebration of the marriage that joined the aristocratic Savorgnan family with the newly but spectacularly wealthy Rezzonicos, in Ca' Rezzonico, Venice (1758); the Apotheosis of Francesco Barbaro, or the welcoming into heaven of the Pisani family, extolled by all the virtues and by the fatherland, in the Villa Pisani, Stra (1761-1762); and, most famous of all, the frescoes he executed in the Imperial Hall and the great stairway of the Residenz, Würzburg (1751-1753), built by Balthasar Neumann.

Tiepolo in Spain

By now Tiepolo's fame was international. In 1762 he accepted the call of King Charles III to paint frescoes for the new Royal Palace in Madrid. In the years 1762-1764 he populated the ceiling of the vast Throne Room with legions of figures paying homage to Spain: the jubilant angels who bore the Spanish crown; the Christian virtues Spain protected and encouraged; and the vices and heresies it cast down to hell. Along the sides is the legacy of Columbus: a rich panoply of lands beyond the seas over which Spain still held dominion. There is even a Spanish galleon floating overhead with its cargo of riches from the New World.

Tiepolo stayed on in Spain even after 1766, when he finished the other frescoes for the Royal Palace. But the atmosphere around him was changing. Following the discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii, the cry was now for neoclassicism. Its chief exponent in Spain, the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, won increasing favor with the court, and the King's adviser, Padre Joaquim de Electa, especially admired Mengs's paintings and found Tiepolo's work frivolous and absurdly out of date. In 1767, not without difficulty, Tiepolo secured one more major commission: to paint seven large altarpieces for the newly finished church of S. Pascal at Aranjuez. Shortly after they were finished, Electa had them taken down and replaced with canvases by Mengs and others. When on March 27, 1770, at the age of 74, Tiepolo died, he had already outlived the era he had done so much to create.

Development of His Style

The earliest surviving painting that we can attribute to Tiepolo with certainty, the Sacrifice of Abraham (1715/1716), shows him looking back to earlier, rather conservative styles, above all to Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and through him to Caravaggio. Powerfully modeled figures loom out of the shadows as if picked up by a spotlight. Abraham's face is filled with horror, Isaac's with resignation; up front, thrust forward in Abraham's fist, is the shining blade of the sacrificial knife.

Tiepolo soon abandoned these dark dramas. In their place he created the sparkling, sunlit fairyland that we saw for the first time in his frescoes for the Archbishop's Palace at Udine. This new style, which grew out of the baroque but was gentler, lighter, and more graceful, can be called barocchetto, or little baroque. Its masterpiece is the fresco cycle in the Imperial Hall of the Residenz in Würzburg (1751-1752). These paintings celebrate the life of Frederick Barbarossa, who invested the first bishop of Würzburg in 1168. But Tiepolo places the scenes in 16th-century Venice, which for him provided settings for all the world's history.

In the Marriage of Barbarossa the Emperor and his bride are dressed in great Renaissance ruff collars and set against an elaborately embellished Palladian arch. The colors are luminous and breathtaking. The bride's blue cloak, for example, is penetrated with off tones of rose and shot through with frosted blue highlights that make the whole surface shimmer. The costumes of the courtiers in the background play a quiet melody of muted pastels.

On the ceiling is Apollo Bringing Barbarossa His Bride. We see the event sharply from below, as if the ceiling had opened up to the heavens. Far up in the blue sky Apollo's white horses paw the empty air. Greek god and bride emerge radiant from a rainbow. Around the young emperor bright banners flutter, soldiers' armor sparkles, and celestial beings spill gaily over the edges of the rococo frame.

Tiepolo painted many of these cloud-borne fantasies, the last, the Triumph of Spain (1764), for the Royal Palace in Madrid. But by then he was an old man, and he was tired. Increasingly his son Giovanni Domenico played a role in the execution of work Tiepolo himself had begun. Inevitably the brilliance diminished. But the real Tiepolo remains in the oil sketches he executed as models for the larger works. One of these, the St. Francis, a study done about 1767 for one of his rejected altarpieces at Aranjuez, serves to represent his last phase. Here, as in other works done at the end of his life, Tiepolo makes a simple but profoundly moving statement of mystical belief. The saint receives the stigmata almost as a physical force, slumping weakly against a rock and sprawling barefoot on barren ground. An angel stands beside St. Francis, but there are no angels above, no vision of glory. The rhetoric is gone, and in place of the magic of fairyland is the quieter, sterner, more lonely magic of religious faith.

Further Reading on Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The standard books on Tiepolo are by Antonio Morassi: G. B. Tiepolo: His Life and Work (1955) contains a brief, well-written essay on the development of Tiepolo's style and illustrations of most of the major works; and A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G. B. Tiepolo (1962) adds several hundred additional illustrations of the artist's lesser-known works. Despite Morassi's confident assertions, there is still much argument as to whether many of these less well-known works are by Tiepolo. The best book on the drawings is George Knox, Catalogue of the Tiepolo Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1960). A brilliant but highly subjective essay on Tiepolo is in Michael Levey, Painting in XVIII Century Venice (1959). The powerful influence of the traditions of the Venetian state and the beliefs of the Venetian nobility on Tiepolo's paintings is well demonstrated by Francis Haskell in Patrons and Painters (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Levey, Michael. Giambattista Tiepolo: his life and art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

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