Thursday, May 13, 2010




The great Roberto Calasso has just had his latest work translated from Italian and made available in English as Tiepolo Pink. Below is a typically quirky & brilliant passage where Calasso compares a Veronese original with a Tiepolo copy.

Tiepolo did not want to be original in any way. The dogs (greyhounds or lapdogs) that dot his paintings derive from Veronese. And so do the slanting tree trunks. Even in imitating, Tiepolo did not want to be original. Sebastiano Ricci had already imitated Veronese when Tiepolo was a young man. At that time Ricci was the dominant painter in Venice. Imitating Veronese implied a certain way of looking at the city's past, which had to be sumptuous, nobly decorated, and devoid of any obvious tensions. Tiepolo happily adapted to a trail already blazed. As a result Tessin described him as a "follower of Paolo Veronese," and Algarotti immediately saw him as one who could carry on painting in the "manner of Veronese." But was not Veronese already a superlative painter? To what extent could this revival of his style and scene setting, two centuries later, have added something to painting? With Sebastiano Ricci, in fact, Veronese's gold was devalued. Refinement plunged toward affectation. What would happen with the next step?

It was around 1740, when the artist had only just turned forty, perfectly mature, that Tiepolo found himself painting a subject that Veronese and his studio had worked on several times (four versions have survived): The Finding of Moses. He decided to copy, as much as he could, the elements used by Veronese in the most imposing version, which at that time could be seen in the Palazzo Grimani. Starting with the format, a long horizontal rectangle (178 x 277 centimeters for Veronese, 200 x 339 for Tiepolo, but you would have to add the figure of the halberdier with the greyhound, excised from the picture by an unknown hand: today that halberdier is part of a collection in Turin). The correspondences are precise: two halberdiers in Veronese, three in Tiepolo; two greyhounds in Veronese, two in Tiepolo; one lap-dog in Veronese, one in Tiepolo; a female dwarf in Veronese, a male dwarf in Tiepolo. It is as if Tiepolo had made a crafty bet with himself: could he compose a variation that repeated the highest possible number of elements in a picture, while distancing it as far as possible from the original? An objective ahead of the times, and one that would be easier to attribute to Stravinsky than to an eighteenth-century painter. But Tiepolo kept faith with his bet and won it in the manner most congenial to him: by making sure that no one noticed.

In the two horizontal versions of The Finding of Moses the Veronese in Dresden and the Tiepolo you can try to enter, and stroll around, as Denis Diderot had done with Joseph Vernet's Sites. In Veronese, the pharaoh's daughter has left the palace to go to bathe in the Nile, with a train of handmaidens and equerries. She is dressed like a Venetian lady of rank at the height of the sixteenth century. Opulent, benevolent. She has not taken off her crown. Slightly plump, but less than the other princess Europa whom Veronese painted as she was being seated on the back of a meek bull who is intent on licking her left foot.

In Veronese, the pharaoh's daughter has tawny blond hair. She has not come out on foot: behind her we can see two ponies and the outline of a black carriage with gilt relief work. And she hasn't gone very far: on the other side of the wood with the slanting tree trunks there is the arch of a bridge, absolutely Italian, which leads to the city. A city with porticoes and columns. In the vertical versions of The Finding of Moses, now in the Prado and the National Gallery in Washington, Veronese did not refrain from showing, with a profusion of details, the bridge and the city in the background. And in all of the pictures we can glimpse on the riverbank a young girl running, draped in a white dress. In fact, in the vertical versions there are two girls. Who are they? In their white dresses, ruffled by the wind, they represent the only element in the picture that cannot be dated. They might be another appearance of the handmaidens, on their way to bathe and play, already scantily dressed. Or Nymphs, always near water, with the breeze ruffling their clothes. Although each of the figures gathered around the pharaoh's daughter is involved in some activity, the picture freezes them in impervious fixity. But Veronese concentrates all the potential disorder on the movement of the little white figure visible in the background, the torso cut in two by the shaft of a halberd in the foreground. Something similar happens in the vertical versions, with the other girl in motion, who is bringing one hand to her ankle, as if to adjust her sandal, and with this he injects a minimal factor of imbalance into that world where all is in balance and where it seems hard to conceive of anything being otherwise.

The overall impression is of a perfect continuity between the artificial place of men, on the far side of the bridge, and nature, with its dense wood. It is almost as if the scene had taken place inside the pharaoh's palace. Only the darkening of the color, in the depths of the wood, indicates that in that place there is something called nature. With one hand resting on the back of the handmaiden who is showing her baby Moses, and the other arm arched at her own side, the princess acknowledges the surprise of the little creature, saved from the waters. The slightly oblique lines of the pharaoh's daughter's sides suffice to decide the quality of the painting, far superior to the vertical versions, where the princess's pose is matronly and commonsensical. With these minimal shifts Veronese succeeded in composing a scene suspended in a calm perpetuity, yet moved by a distant tremor, like a throb.

About two centuries later, frequenting the same places and breathing in the same light, Tiepolo appears. Alpers and Baxandall are right when they write that, for Tiepolo, "Veronese was Painting"; in fact Veronese is painting, for anyone. He is the distant, luxuriant, and gilded source from which images overflow, without the burden of meaning. He is the pure unfolding of figures on the surface, like so many unrolled carpets. For Tiepolo too this was the only admissible implication in his art.

But in a painting there also circulates something unseen that informs every particle of matter: time. Tiepolo wanted to reproduce Veronese, but in a looser fashion, as a tribute to the passage of time. He took from him a great number of elements and left them to drift where their nature took them. In the end, there is nothing as similar as these two pictures, but neither is there anything as divergent.

In Tiepolo first and foremost the background with the bridge and the city has disappeared. This time we are going to witness the encounter between the supreme artifice and an untamed, indifferent nature. Tall, slender, provided with an invisible support beneath her abundant clothing, the pharaoh's daughter is the very glory of artifice. Without a crown, but studded with pearls: in her hair, around her neck, at her wrists, hanging from her bodice. The pearls cling to her as if to flypaper. But the most eccentric feature is a belt of buckles and dark precious stones slung diagonally across her torso, like a bandolier of cartridges. Starting from the tight-fitting, V-shaped bodice, the fabric swells into folds and waves, copious enough to hold safely a lapdog, strongly attracted to the doughnut that the princess's dwarf is showing it, teasingly. This too happened in the moment that was to decide Moses's fate.

With the pharoah's daughter Tiepolo already introduces some decisive changes. The imperturbable placidity of Veronese's princess has been replaced with a restrained, codified nervousness. Although Michael Levey claimed to know that "dress, it seems will always take precedence in her thoughts over any emotion," all that can be said with certainty about Tiepolo's princess is that she is not wearing a stock expression whereas by then painting was tending, fatefully, to be populated by stock expressions. What many critics have defined as inexpressiveness in Tiepolo's faces is the sign of the disengagement from set meanings. The realm of expression is far larger and more elusive than the basically modest range still current in those years for great biblical projects, oscillating between horror, scorn, surprise, tenderness, and measured eloquence. The world was made of other things too and Tiepolo was a tireless explorer of those intermediate areas, nameless and for the most part off the beaten track. The pharaoh's daughter inhabits one of those areas. From her liquid gaze perhaps indifferent, perhaps melancholy and from her features, which still possess a few childish traces, especially in the lips and chin, we may presume nothing with certainty. If not this: the princess is listening to something that is being whispered in her ear by the Elegant Old Lady standing behind her a lady of rank, as is proved by her jewels (she too wears numerous pearls in her hair) and her extremely fine white ruff. She certainly does have an unambiguous, rapacious expression: she wants her message to reach the princess, as she talks she is pointing at the baby with her index finger. She is a variant of the dueña, a woman who was once beautiful, who has lived a great deal, too much, and is now in the young woman's service. Her eye is perceptive, her wrinkles many, her expression tense.

It may be that the pharaoh's daughter painted by Tiepolo is a fatuous young girl, worn out by the long hours devoted to her toilette. But there is no doubt that her figure changes and becomes notably more complex if we consider it together with the two characters at her side: the Elegant Old Lady on her left, the page on her right. The old lady in black, the page in white silk. While the Elegant Old Lady is one of Tiepolo's serial characters, good for the most diverse uses and occasions, the page represents the boldest Tiepolo, the one aiming for uniqueness. Many critics have neglected the page, but not Levey, who wrote of him: "He might be modeled on Meissen or Dresden china, it has come from Tiepolo's imagination as a fresh touch of fantasy, not found in Veronese or Ricci."

But why should this page, a generic element par excellence, be unique? Overshadowed by the slender figure of the princess, who is standing on a piece of raised ground (but the whole picture plays on the disproportion between the figures), dressed right down to his feet in white silk with a broad, flowing pink collar (and maybe this is the original Tiepolo pink), the page is holding a golden cushion with tassels. More than a follower of the princess, he looks like her younger brother, with finer, more singular features. His tawny blond hair is barely less tawny than that of the princess, but it belongs to the same family. Worn drawn backward, it reveals a rounded brow, slightly concave at the temples. The page is not effeminate, but hermaphroditic. His gaze is very serious, penetrating. he is not looking at the foundling baby, or at the princess, or at anyone else. If he is staring at something, it is the medallion on the pharaoh's daughter's bosom, maybe a cameo, one of her numerous jewels. But we notice that his gaze is suspended in emptiness. By virtue of his style, and his pose, the page seems separated from all the other figures by a sort of anthropological caesura. It is as if his lineaments required much more time to produce than those of the other characters, so worldly, their functions so well-defined, from the Elegant Old Lady to the halberdiers, and to the omnipresent Oriental who is looking on. If we were to say which period the page belongs to, it would not come naturally to think of sixteenth-century Venice, to which the cut of his clothes would seem to assign him, but to a word that only in Nietzche has attained its definitive sound: décadence. The page belongs to that which, by its essence, comes after, which combines within itself all saps and all humors, which it transforms and exists in the midst of the rest of the world like a shard of another origin, like the word décadence in Nietzche's German prose. But merely wanting to be a décadent does not make you such. It requires a long labor of time, a slow alchemical ripening. This happened with Tiepolo's page. By now it would be impossible to confuse him with all the rest, as he appears in the midground, behind the dwarf and a greyhound.
This final painting makes an interesting postscript to Calasso, though not included in his book. Until recently it was attributed to Sebastiano Ricci, a routine Finding of Moses in the manner of Veronese, and as such received little attention. Conservators at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia began cleaning the painting in 2008. Now some scholars are inclined to think the newly revealed brushwork indicates Tiepolo imitating Veronese rather than Ricci imitating Veronese. If art historical consensus ultimately assigns the painting to Tiepolo rather than Ricci, its monetary value will increase exponentially and people will begin to scrutinize it with the same patient reverence Calasso deploys above.