The Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) was arguably the greatest painter of eighteenth-century Europe and the outstanding first master of the Grand Manner. His art celebrates the imagination by transposing the world of ancient history and myth, the scriptures, and sacred legends into a grandiose, even theatrical language. His art, with its genial departures from convention and its brilliant use of costumed splendor, celebrates the notion of artistic caprice (capriccio) and fantasy (fantasia). In his hands, the informal oil sketch (1977.1.3) was raised to a primary art form, worthy to be collected alongside his finished paintings. For his incomparable fresco decorations—such as those in Palazzo Labia, Venice—he collaborated with a specialist in perspective, Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna (1688–ca. 1766), who also occasionally designed sets for opera.
Colonna’s perspective framework for Tiepolo’s frescoes is crucial to understanding the eighteenth-century notion of painting as a staged fiction—something intended to involve the viewer on a purely imaginative level. This was in line with theater practice of the day—especially opera. There is a close analogy between the goals of Tiepolo’s painting and that of the leading poet and librettist Pietro Matastasio (1698–1782), who, although born in Rome, was at the court of Dresden: “Dreams and fables I fashion; and even while I sketch and elaborate fables and dreams upon paper … I so enter into them that I weep and am offended at ills I invented. But am I wiser when art does not deceive me?”
Tiepolo’s first masterpiece was a cycle of enormous canvases painted to decorate a large reception room in the Ca’ Dolfin, Venice (ca. 1726–29). They depict ancient battles and triumphs and allowed Tiepolo the opportunity to introduce exotic costumes, ancient sculpture and artifacts, and violent action that seems at times to spill out of the frames and into the room (65.183.1). Originally set into recesses in the wall, the canvases were surrounded with frescoed frames and complemented by a frescoed ceiling (not by Tiepolo).
Tiepolo’s greatest works are unquestionably the frescoed ceilings he carried out for churches in Venice and villas and palaces in Italy, Germany (Residenz, Würzburg), and Spain (Royal Palace, Madrid). The high point is marked by the ceilings painted between 1750 and 1753 for the Prince-Bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau in Würzburg. Over the grandiose staircase designed by the German architect Balthasar Neuman, Tiepolo painted a vast ceiling showing Apollo and the continents. In this fresco, the ceiling opens onto a light-filled sky inhabited by the Olympian gods, while around the periphery are shown picturesque vignettes symbolizing the four continents, with figures shown as though standing on the cornice. Tiepolo employed multiple viewpoints determined by the ceremonial progress of visitors climbing the stairs for an audience with the prince-bishop, thus showing his acute awareness of site and function. The oval reception room was, again, decorated by Tiepolo, this time with semi-mythic events from local history, and here dazzling stuccowork frames the frescoes, sometimes feigning curtains drawn back to reveal the scenes and at other times seamlessly transforming painted figures into 3-D by realizing a hand, foot, arm, or prop in sculpted relief.
Tiepolo was equally prized as a draftsman: his powers of invention were boundless and his facility without equal. His imaginative prints enjoyed wide fame and their dreamlike and sometimes troubling imagery of sorcerers, punchinellos, and classical monuments may have influenced Goya.
Christiansen, Keith. “Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tiep/hd_tiep.htm (October 2003)