By: John Dorfman
By Roberto Calasso
This book is about Giambattista Tiepolo, the superbly energetic Venetian master of frescoed ceilings and inheritor of the mantle of Paolo Veronese. But it’s also about serpents, symbols, sacrifices, Persian magi, Chaldean oracles and ritual magic. None of which should surprise anyone who is familiar with the delightfully subversive scholarship and essayistic verve of Roberto Calasso, the Italian book publisher (his firm, Adelphi Edizioni, is headquartered in Milan) and writer on a wide variety of cultural subjects. His first book to be translated into English, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1992), breathed new life into the Greco-Roman gods and heroes, and a later volume, Ka (1998), did the same for Hindu mythology. Now Calasso turns his attention to art, which is basically nonverbal, and in particular to one of art’s least verbal figures, Tiepolo, who wrote virtually nothing and left few clues to his thoughts and intentions.
Whether there actually exists a color called “Tiepolo pink” is up for question; the term was coined by Proust, apropos of no specific painting. As Calasso explains, there is much about Tiepolo that is mysterious. To all appearances, he was the most conventional of artists—he worked almost entirely on commission, followed time-honored formulae set up by his predecessors (notably Veronese) and generally did little to rock the boat. His technique, however, was another matter. He was known for the extreme rapidity with which he worked, and rather than implying haste, this speed reflected an almost magical spontaneity, energy and freedom. According to Calasso, Tiepolo’s light-filled pictures and frescoes, with their scores of cloud-borne figures swirling up into the sky, are exemplars of that uniquely Italian virtue ofsprezzatura, apparent effortlessness or nonchalance. (Calasso claims thatsprezzatura died out in Italy in the late 18th century, but his writing style gives the lie to this somewhat grouchy line of argument.)
Beneath the sprightly surface, there are some disturbing elements in Tiepolo’s paintings. Calasso draws our attention to certain figures who lurk on the margins of the canvases and frescoes: turbaned, bearded “Orientals” (meaning Near Eastern wise men like the Three Magi of the New Testament); satyrs both male and female; and beautiful adolescent boys. These personages, he contends, held special meaning for Tiepolo, and in the one body of work he did for himself and not on commission—his two series of etchings, the Capricci and Scherzi—they move to center stage.
While their titles suggest playfulness and joking, there is nothing funny about these strange and baffling pictures. In fact they are frightening. In the 23 plates of theScherzi, we are taken to a barren high ground outside a city, replete with ruined altars, tombstones and dead trees, haunted by owls and by snakes twining themselves around rods and branches. Here the Orientals are seemingly engaged in magic rituals, evoking divine or demonic powers. In this uncanny atmosphere, we may imagine that we have intruded on the artist’s private dream world, but Calasso asserts that Tiepolo was depicting a real tradition of magic, myth and philosophy that came from the East to the West and remained vital from the days of Plato on down, sometimes in the open and sometimes hidden. Whether or not that is so will have to be up to the reader, but the farther Calasso guides us into Tiepolo’s work, the more real the magic feels.