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The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo spent his life executing commissions in churches, palaces, and villas, often covering vast ceilings like those at the Würzburg Residenz in Germany and the Royal Palace in Madrid with frescoes that are among the glories of Western art. The life of an epoch swirled around him—but though his contemporaries appreciated and admired him, they failed to understand him.
Few have even attempted to tackle Tiepolo’s series of thirty-three bizarre and haunting etchings, the Capricci and the Scherzi, but Roberto Calasso rises to the challenge, interpreting them as chapters in a dark narrative that contains the secret of Tiepolo’s art. Blooming ephebes, female Satyrs, Oriental sages, owls, snakes: we will find them all, as well as Punchinello and Death, within the pages of this book, along with Venus, Time, Moses, numerous angels, Cleopatra, and Beatrice of Burgundy—a motley company always on the go.
Calasso makes clear that Tiepolo was more than a dazzling intermezzo in the history of painting. Rather, he represented a particular way of meeting the challenge of form: endowed with a fluid, seemingly effortless style, Tiepolo was the last incarnation of that peculiar Italian virtue sprezzatura, the art of not seeming artful.
isolate, and confine itself in space, in order to make a lucky escape from the terror of that which contains within itself infinity—potentially, if not even actually. And this is exactly what space is. Except for the sky, an entity whose “enigmatic instability” can only be attested to by clouds—another of Tiepolo’s favorite elements. Every place is fit to be divided, wounded, etched by what—to use a generic collective—we might call poles. Tiepolo is first and foremost the painter of poles. They
sufficient to see in what company those poles appear. Let’s take a look at who comes forward in the first Scherzo after the title page: three men—two bearded and imposing, one young and very handsome—a woman with bared shoulders, a little boy, and an owl. The place is enclosed by stones: a sarcophagus resting on a large cube, provided with a panel, an altar with a head in relief, around which a snake is coiled. At first, the poles are not too noticeable. But there is a thick trunk, smooth and
cannot see, at slightly differing angles. A Bacchante with vine leaves and a rudimentary thyrsus, a Satyr with twisted horns and a hint of a grin, a pensive Satyress with pointed ears. We see no snakes, but a very long, imperious trunk diagonally traverses the entire scene. This is another way of reminding us where we are. In the background, on the plain, we recognize the outline of a city. Inhabited by those who do not know about, or who perhaps are unaware of, the meetings of that company ready
admirers, Tiepolo wished to send out from the sky of Würzburg. If we observe the Würzburg ceiling at length, what might remain a suspicion on other occasions inevitably becomes a certainty: Tiepolo is playing, playing constantly and extremely boldly with his viewers. And the higher his figures fly, the more daring and complex the game gets. Asia appears on the back of an elephant with an immense ear, like a tropical plant. Around her: figures and banners. Then there is a patch of empty sky and
Enterramientos, the register of burials in the parish of San Martín, dated March 27,1770, the very day of the painter’s death: “Don Giambattista Domenico Tiepolo, court painter to our lord the king, deceased husband to donna Cecilia Guardi, and a native of the city of Venice, a parishioner of this church, in Saint Martin’s square, and home of don Antonio Muriel, was granted a declaration of indigency before Manuel de Robles, the royal scribe, on 12 August 1762, and named as his heirs don