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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.
accentuates a fiction already present in the fabric of the world—and in Venice this is merely a little more conspicuous than elsewhere, if only because it is the only place where reflections are more numerous than things themselves. “There is no concealing the fact, in following the method of learning to paint as discussed so far, that one may run certain risks, and precisely, if one looks too much at sculpture, the risk is that of adopting a spare, statuary style. Poussin has occasionally been
source of embarrassment, but at the same time it revealed something undeniable: magic was based in re, and could not be dismissed as mere superstition. As Porphyry observed, it was certainly true that divination works better, in other words with greater precision, on the bodies of those who have just been killed, but this was not enough to justify human sacrifice. It was therefore necessary to justify the fact that abolishing bloody sacrifices would have been deleterious to knowledge. Porphyry’s
the Scherzi Tiepolo dipped into the vast reservoir of the pansophic seventeenth century, but without ever needing to emphasize the fact that certain images were symbols. And it would be pointless to search for these, as modern scholars have observed with some irritation. Tiepolo pursued other goals: he showed groups of people whose minds were besieged, tormented by symbols (and what else are magi interested in?). And even his young men had seen something unknown to their peers, who would soon
shallow category of which only one trait can be affirmed with certainty: that, under its sway, the acme of praise was to be defined as modern. The direct consequence of this was an enormous profusion of tautologies when that modernism was already under way and a great accumulation of pathos when it came to identifying its earliest stages. Hence Longhi, having reached the end of his peroration of Caravaggio, and having to award the supreme accolade, wrote pithily (but with the peremptory tone of a
(Patrologia Latina, vol. 15, 1272 D). “aureus coluber”: Arnobius, The Case against the Pagans 6.21. theòs dià kólpou: Orphicorum fragmenta, 31, 24 Kern. “The good Serpent slips nimbly”: Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 118, 6, 15 (Patrologia Latina, vol. 15, 1273 B). “En deus est, deus est!”: Ovid, Metamorphosis 15.677. “baculum qui nexibus ambit”: Ibid., 15.659. 168, 9 “Verum etiam apud Egyptios”: Celio Augusto Curione, Hieroglyphicorum commentariorum liber prior, in Pierio Valeriano, Hieroglyphica