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The Idolatry of Light

Tiepolo Pink
By Roberto Calasso
Translated by Alastair McEwen
(Knopf, 288 pp., $40)

Giambattista Tiepolo was not the last of the old masters—that dubious distinction is usually conferred on Goya—but it is surely safe to say that he was the last great painter of the Italian Renaissance. In Roberto Calasso’s elegant formulation, Tiepolo was “the right person to impersonate painting’s epilogue, just as in a theater performance there is an actor whose function is solely to appear at the end and make an imperfectible bow to the audience.” Although Tiepolo was born on the cusp of the seventeenth century, his work strongly echoes that of earlier painters, especially Veronese, who died more than a century before Tiepolo’s birth but whose themes, subjects, and even turns of style Tiepolo freely borrowed from. Calasso quotes a contemporary’s estimation of Tiepolo as “a happy painter by nature,” and Calasso himself goes so far as to describe him as “the last breath of happiness in Europe.” It is all more complicated than that, of course; and it is the complexities here, as so often elsewhere, that Calasso finds most stimulating.

Very little is known of Tiepolo the man. His family bore an anciently aristocratic name, but this was either a happy coincidence or a deliberate borrowing. As Michael Levey says in his fine and detailed monograph on the painter, which first appeared in 1986, Tiepolo does not seem to have claimed kinship with the noble Venetian family, “but it is likely that somehow a member of it had adopted an ancestor of the painter’s and permitted, or encouraged, use of the name.” We do know that he was born on April 16, 1696, to Domenico and Orsetta Tiepolo, the youngest of their six children. On the baptismal entry the painter’s father is listed merely as “merchant,” but in the Venice of the day that could have meant anything from a lowly dealer in olive oil to a mighty magnate with a flotilla of ships at his command. Certainly Domenico had contacts among the leading Venetian families, for instance the Dolfin, who were to commission some of the painter’s early works.

Was Tiepolo secretive, an artistic cabbalist who hid his doings from the world, or was he just careless of history’s hunger for biographical facts? Certainly, as Calasso writes, “his life was as transparent as glass: no one noticed it.” His few personal appearances in his work are tinged with sly humor, as in the surely intentional comedy of Apelles Painting Campaspe, where everyone, not least the painter, seems amazed at what is going on, or in Rachel Hiding the Idols from Her Father Laban, from which a decidedly unflattering self-portrait looks out at us with an ironical cast, as if, Levey writes, “inviting a smile at the extravagant spectacle of which he is the deviser.” (And at the painter’s feet, delightfully, sits a little girl who is a dead ringer for Maggie Simpson.)

He was recognized from early on as supremely gifted, “with an imagination daring and ardent,” as Levey nicely has it, and around 1710 he entered the Venetian studio of Gregorio Lazzarini to be trained as a painter. Apart from the all-pervading influence of Veronese, Tiepolo also absorbed the lessons of past masters such as Rembrandt and Salvator Rosa, and the example of his older contemporary Giambattista Piazzetta. Tiepolo and Piazzetta differed in many respects— Levey describes them as the Picasso and Matisse of their time—but the effect of the older painter’s work on that of the younger is plain. Levey writes:

What Tiepolo was responding to was the forceful yet not coarse or exaggerated realism that Piazzetta conveyed, as much in his accomplished, admired drawings ... as in his paintings. Physical actuality, summed up in the body, was grasped with an originality that embraced idiosyncratic types of physiognomy, consciously ordinary, even plebeian, but exuding a challenging, pungent air of being “true.”

Roberto Calasso acknowledges the “physical actuality” of Tiepolo’s work, but what he chooses to emphasize is precisely the painter’s lack of emphasis. For Calasso, what marks Tiepolo off from the other great Italian painters, even Veronese, is the way in which he gives himself up to that phenomenon which, Calasso suggests, is the “ultimate peculiarity of Italian culture, the quality it could be proudest of,” that is, sprezzatura. This slippery word—hardly translatable, so deeply is it woven into the language and life of Italy—is defined by Castiglione, so Calasso tells us, as the avoidance of affectation by “using in all things a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that may conceal art and demonstrate that what one does and says is done without effort and almost without thinking.” The perils of characterizing an artist’s work in this way are obvious—nonchalance can seem mere whimsy, and betray a fatal dandyism—and much of Calasso’s book is devoted to demonstrating that it is precisely in the lightness of his touch that Tiepolo achieves his weightiest effects.

A hundred years ago, the painter John Butler Yeats, writing from self-imposed exile in New York, gave a wise piece of advice to his son William: an artist, the old man cautioned, must have a great facility—and never use it. Tiepolo’s facility, particularly as a fresco artist, was legendary: has there ever been a painter who solved with such elegance and such seeming ease the problem of situating figures in space? This extraordinary talent has led a number of commentators, who should have known better, to dismiss him as a mere provider of overblown triumphs and trumperies to the wealthy aristocrats who hired him to adorn their grand dwellings and puff up their already high regard for themselves.

It is true that Tiepolo worked hard, at extraordinary speed, to satisfy the desires of his patrons, from Dionisio Dolfin, for whom he painted some of his earliest works at the patriarchal palace at Udine, through Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, the ceilings of whose Neue Residenz he decorated with what are considered his greatest frescoes, to Charles III of Spain, who summoned him to paint the throne room of the Royal Palace of Madrid, the city where Tiepolo died in 1770. All this hectic busyness struck suspicion into many a stout heart of the late-Romantic age. “There were years,” Calasso remarks, “in which English-speaking travelers visited Venice and did not see Tiepolo.” Ruskin disdained his work, and Henry James tells us of writing in “one of the faded back rooms” of the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice under a “pompous Tiepolo ceiling.”

On the other hand, and somewhat surprisingly, Mark Twain in 1878 wrote in his diary: “But Tiepolo is my artist,” and James’s friend Edith Wharton, Calasso tellingly observes, “admired Tiepolo without moral reservations, with upper-class confidence.” We might have expected Proust to revel in the work of this great Venetian, but in all of In Search of Lost Time, Calasso assures us—trust him to know a thing like this—there is no mention of any Tiepolo painting, though the name occurs three times, each time in the context of a shade of red. “Perhaps,” Calasso writes, “the most congenial and equable end for an artist is that of being transformed into a color, like Daphne into laurel: this is what happened to Tiepolo in Proust,” who on various occasions dresses the three most significant women in his work—Odette, the Duchesse de Guermantes, and Albertine—in “Tiepolo pink.”

Calasso’s remark about Edith Wharton’s “upper-class confidence” is a sort of limbering-up preparatory to his defensive assault on the great Italian critic Roberto Longhi, who “made Tiepolo the Bad Guy to set in opposition to the Good Guy par excellence, who was unfailingly Caravaggio.” Longhi, unusually for such a patrician and finical discriminator, wrote a rancorous fictional dialogue between Caravaggio and Tiepolo supposed to take place in heaven—“a whimsy without precedent or further development in Longhi’s work”—in which Caravaggio berates his younger colleague for not being sufficiently dedicated to “truth.” Calasso describes Longhi’s “rant” against Tiepolo as “not entirely unlike an altercation between neighbors in a condo, albeit one conducted in a high-flown style,” a description which could be applied equally well to Calasso’s own shouting match with his late fellow critic.

Ruskin, in his dismissal of Tiepolo, spoke of him as “virtually the beginner of Modernism” and went on to compare paintings of his to “what a first-rate Parisian Academy student would do ... after having read unlimited quantities of George Sand and Dumas.” It is profoundly ironic, Calasso observes, that 

the word modernism, which throughout the twentieth century would become the emblem of all avant-garde movements, is here applied to the most hackneyed academic painting, which in its turn could allegedly be traced back to Tiepolo. Yet now that the clamor of the avant-garde has passed, saying that Tiepolo had something to do with modernism makes sense once more.

Calasso in his book has two broad aims. The first is to convince us of Tiepolo’s position as the last great practitioner of European painting, “at least in the particular, singular, irretrievable sense it had acquired over roughly five centuries in Europe, where countless painters had all conformed to a single notion of painting and moved as a unified whole of immaculate grace and lightness, like certain extremely fat actors such as Sydney Greenstreet.” (Calasso has an endearing tendency to lurch into the vernacular.) The second, and related, aim is to defend Tiepolo against the “partisan poetics” of vaguely left-wing critics such as Longhi, whose dedication to “the ideology of realismo all’italiana” as represented by Caravaggio blinded him, Calasso believes, to Tiepolo’s true worth.

Thus Calasso observes that “while it is doubtful that the cause of the proletariat was dear to his heart,” Longhi out of political conviction insisted on the term reality as an arbiter of artistic success, “and always with the idea that modernism must be, by vocation, something grim and ‘workaday’”—rather than, we assume, airy and easeful, and ever informed by the spirit of sprezzatura. Calasso sees himself agreeing with Longhi that Tiepolo was the last of a glorious line, but for Longhi Tiepolo was “the weak link ... the reprobate whose aberrant style heralded the lamentable end of a superb history.” While Longhi claimed Caravaggio as the first painter of the modern age, Calasso on the contrary insists that “in retrospect the only painter who could have had a claim to be the first of the forefathers of ‘modern life’ was none other than Tiepolo.”

The spectacle of one scholar lambasting another is always fun for the rest of us, but the intricate argument that Calasso engages in here is an important one. It broaches nothing less than the sources and the purposes of art itself. Tiepolo’s realismo is of a separate order—“Tiepolo’s characters form a parallel world, with its own customs and conventions”—and his truth is not the truth of brute facts. Far more than the self-willed Caravaggio, Tiepolo is for Calasso a true leveler, leading his tribe of characters, “the prophetic tribe with blazing eyes” that Baudelaire speaks of in Les Fleurs du Mal, from Venice to Würzburg to Madrid and back again, “an unstoppable motley caravan that dragged along with them all their assorted trappings, the flotsam and jetsam of history.” Calasso sees in this troupe of commedia dell’arte players—surprisingly, there is no mention of Watteau, another artist whose essence is evanescence—an invention “one might dream about to this day: a democracy leveled off toward the top, where aesthetic quality makes it possible to eliminate any divergence in status.”

And then there is the sheer happiness that Tiepolo communicates—that happiness for which “he was not forgiven.” It is a rapturous conjuring of delight out of light: Calasso quotes Giorgio Manganelli speaking of Tiepolo as “an idolater of light disguised as a human being,” and himself defines him as “the saturnine painter of radiant light.” Longhi, too, “when he was not blinded by acrimony,” had a wonderful notion of Tiepolo as “a Veronese after a downpour,” and indeed these depthless skyscapes have the thrilling instability of rain-light. In Tiepolo, it is always a rinsed and glistening April afternoon. And in that luminous, languorous après-midi it is Eros that rules: “Every fiber of his painting is erotic. Not only in the bodies and poses but in the ductus, which washes over his figures like a wave of light.” No wonder the princes and the worldly churchmen loved him.

The central section of Calasso’s book is a detailed study of thirty-three remarkable and mysterious etchings by Tiepolo, ten Capricci and twenty-three Scherzi, the dating of which is disputed, though it seems the Capricci were made in the 1740s and the Scherzi in the 1750s. “There is a sense,” Michael Levey wrote, “in which the Scherzi di Fantasia could be claimed as the most perfect productions of all Tiepolo’s art.” These strange, obsessively repetitive works have puzzled most scholars and made many of them palpably uneasy, not only because of their enigmatic quality but also because of the dark matters in which they dabble: satyr families, mysterious Orientals, severed heads, baleful owls, and ubiquitous serpents, usually twined around staves, as with the caduceus of Hermes. The book’s well-written blurb is a little misleading in promising us that, while few have attempted to tackle the mystery of these etchings, “Roberto Calasso rises to the challenge, interpreting them as chapters in a dark narrative that contains the secrets of Tiepolo’s art.” Tackle them he does, and with great verve; but when it comes to his actual interpretation of these obscure poetic images, there is a great deal of throat-clearing and shuffling of papers, as the scholar takes refuge behind his scholarship.

Certainly Calasso writes wonderfully about the series—for instance, when he describes how they are “marked by the convergence of a superabundance of light and a kind of internal corrosion of the objects,” and how in them “Tiepolo wove the countermelody of the Enlightenment.” But as to the essential riddle of these sphinxlike works, he is more modest than his blurb writer. It is unclear, he writes,

why the airiest of painters, the one most accustomed to moving among skies and clouds, should have cultivated and developed—in the secret chamber of his mind—this chain of images of claustrophobia en plein air, charged with burning intensity. Images that all—even the scholars most faithful to Tiepolo, like Levey—seem to wish to flee from as fast as possible, murmuring a few words of cursory admiration. If the Scherzi are Tiepolo’s secret, then it must also be admitted that it is a well-protected one.

As to scholarship, Calasso ranges from hermeneutic probings of the Book of Genesis through the Eleusinian Mysteries and the works of Hermes Trismegistus to the Rig-Veda and the sermons of Saint Ambrose. This writer is nothing if not well-read—a fact which he is eager to impress upon us and about which he is perhaps a little vain. His interrogation of these works is marvelously stimulating, but he, too, ends in vagueness and vague unease. A “suspicion begins slowly to creep in,” he tells us “that the subject of the Scherzi is seeing—and observing oneself.” The word “scherzo” in one of its meanings signifies a joke, and perhaps the “‘joke’ that the Scherzi conceal in their gravity would be this: they are images that look at themselves.” That may be—but really, what does it signify?

In the end, however, it does not matter. Explorers cannot be blamed if sometimes their sites keep their secrets. And we do not go to a book such as this one in expectation of an Agatha Christie plot neatly unpicked. Calasso has written a brilliant, eccentric, provocative, annoying, and thoroughly splendid celebration of a great painter the essence of whose work, as with the work of all real artists, must remain enigmatic:

Nowhere was he recognised for what he was, nor did anyone grasp the peculiarity of the spell cast by his hand. Just as he had arrived without meeting any resistance, so he departed without arousing any regret, losing himself among the names of those of whom there is a confused, shadowy memory. No one suspected that with him vanished the last point of equilibrium in the visible. Elusive, precarious, and bewitching. Yet such was the case. Thereafter, even the possibility that that point existed was forgotten.

John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Infinities (Knopf).