Prints from the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – elusive visions

Some of the most significant and intriguing series created within the tradition of printmaking as it evolved in Europe, share a tendency to resist clear interpretation. From Jacques Callot’s Capricci (c.1617), Francisco de Goya’s Los Caprichos (1799) and Los Proverbios (c. 1816-24), to Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite (1930-1937), a common characteristic between these disparate bodies of work is that the artists have chosen printmaking, more specifically etching, to explore overarching themes via the invention of irrational and often unsettling imagery. Eschewing an organized linear sequence, the individual prints from the series’ above appear like snatches from a dream, and in doing so effectively appeal to parts of the psyche where logic holds little sway.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s (1696 – 1770) Scherzi di Fantasia resides within this historic lineage of epic and idiosyncratic printed series. This group of 23 plates are thought to have been created between 1750-60, though their exact dating has long vexed print scholars. Tiepolo was born in Venice, and became one of the eighteenth century’s most prolific painters for society’s ruling class. Successful from the outset, his career took him to the palaces and churches of Italy, Spain and Germany, where in the tradition of his great Venetian predecessors such as Veronese and Tintoretto, Tiepolo was commissioned to paint vast fresco cycles and oil paintings of well-established religious, mythological and historical subjects. Such works generally possess a clear iconographic scheme as a retinue of saints, gods and recognizable figures carouse through light filled realms of shifting clouds and opulent detail.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 8:  a kneeling woman holding a large dish, watched by numerous figures, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 230 x 171mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.23 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 8: a kneeling woman holding a large dish, watched by numerous figures, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 230 x 171mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.23 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Yet both Tiepolo’s series of etchings, the Scherzi di Fantasia and the smaller Varie Capricci of 10 plates, express an essentially different vision to that seen in his paintings. While universally praised for their aesthetic qualities, art historians have always been puzzled by the lack of discernable meaning or clear narrative within the strange scenes that Tiepolo etched. In the Scherzi this is made more confounding by the fact that in many scenes the motley assortment mages, youths, ‘orientals,’ animals and satyrs appear gathered together intent upon a task – yet the exact nature of what that might be is largely incomprehensible.

Michael Levy tells us that in his etchings Tiepolo found a freedom of expression that would have provided a welcome break from his main practice of creating commissioned art in the service of others.[1] His interpretation of the Scherzi is decidedly upbeat, comparing them to Goya’s iconic Los Caprichos, when he writes “his sleep of reason produces marvels not monsters. He attacks nothing, possibly because in the end everything diverts and delights him.”[2]

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 3:  a seated woman addressing  a standing man, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.17. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 3: a seated woman addressing a standing man, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.17. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Yet Roberto Calasso, scholar and author of the 2010 monograph Tiepolo Pink addresses the mystifying depths hinted at within the Scherzi, noting how tremulous the boundaries between the divine, mortal, and animal worlds appear. He also proposes that past scholarly attempts to decipher these images have been ultimately unsatisfactory, and that “the common denominator of criticism of the Capricci and the Scherzi, with regard to pure description of what is happening in them, is embarrassment.”[3]

In the same publication that these stern words are quoted, Liliana Cargnelutti details the hotly contested public debate that evolved in mid-eighteenth century Venice, regarding witchcraft and demonology.[4] This aspect of the cultural milieu in which Tiepolo lived and worked might explain the presence of seemingly ritualistic and occult deeds enacted in some the Scherzi plates, such as burning snakes and human heads, sometimes on elevated alters or pedestals as seen in Plates 2 and 7.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 2: a snake being burnt on an alter, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 177cm. Museum Number 1919,1220.16. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 2: a snake being burnt on an alter, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 177cm. Museum Number 1919,1220.16. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Specifically, Cargnelutti discusses the writings of Girolamo Tantarotti (1706-1761), who sought to introduce reforms into the trials of witchcraft by arguing that witches conduct their wicked activities at the behest of a magician who is the true villain that holds a pact with the devil.[5] This seems a relevant point to note when considering that it is invariably a male figure at the centre of the action within each of the more overtly ritualistic scenes of the Scherzi (as seen in Plates 2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 14 and 20).

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 4:  the head of a man on a wood fire, with spectators gathered around, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 226 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.18. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 4: the head of a man on a wood fire, with spectators gathered around, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 226 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.18. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tantarotti’s writing sparked a repost by Gianrinaldo Carli (1720-1795) who in the spirit of Enlightenment thinking denied the existence of witchcraft and magic all together, describing superstition as an “aberration of the vulgar and common people, always eager for the marvelous and ready to believe in what they will or cannot understand.”[6]

It is difficult to discern Tiepolo’s position within this discourse, if indeed he had one. Is he critiquing ‘vulgar’ superstitions in the Scherzi, as Goya would famously explore around 50 years later in Los Caprichos? [7] Or does Tiepolo hint at occult deeds for some other inexplicable, perhaps instructive purpose? We will likely never be certain. Yet what is discernable is the touch of fear, along with curiosity, that is bound up in the representation of many Tiepolo’s figures. Frequently depicted en masse, they gather around to stare with paranoid intent at snakes (see Plates 2, 5, 12, 13), animal skulls, burning heads (Plates 4 and 7), or the tombstone of Punchinello, the character from the Italian theatre tradition the commedia dell’arte. Tiepolo’s people appear to seek answers from these objects as a clairvoyant might question a crystal ball.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 7:  a human skull and a bone burning on a pedestal, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.21. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 7: a human skull and a bone burning on a pedestal, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.21. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In some images a flock of wide-eyed sheep appear (see Plate 16), much like the huddled masses of people in others (see Plate 5). One wonders if the sheep act as a reflection of the flock mentality of the foolish, or are they just another element in Tiepolo’s cast of unlikely co-habitants. The entire series is populated with a menagerie of creatures both animal and divine. Cows, owls, sheep, monkeys, mules, horses, snakes and satyrs variously appear. All are set amongst ragged vegetation interspersed with architectural fragments, broken bas-reliefs, and a mix of other detritus. Tiepolo groups these elements in loosely pyramidal compositions, arranging various forms and figures centrally for both a unified and ornamental effect.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 5:  a seated magician looking at a pile of skulls, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.19. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 5: a seated magician looking at a pile of skulls, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.19. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Within the Scherzi there is often a sense of usually mute creatures and objects imbued with an otherworldly energy. This is vividly reflected in the appearance of large urns and vessels enlivened with demonic smiling faces that reoccur throughout the series. Some urns as seen in Plate 18, seem particularly alert, and contain faces reminiscent of some of the leading male figures – perhaps another indication of magic afoot.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 18: an old man holding a monkey on a lead, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.34 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 18: an old man holding a monkey on a lead, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.34 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Ostensibly peaceful family idylls also appear within the Scherzi, where women or female satyrs accompanied by their husbands play with children amongst the crumbling vestiges of antique civilisations. Yet once again the relationships between these figures is rarely straightforward. Consider Plate 15, which is described as an oriental man with his wife and child, and Plate 21 a mother seated between two children and a donkey. The overall compositional structure is quite similar between the two plates – most prominently in the seated position of the woman, which is almost identical in each. In Plate 15 she turns her head to address her husband who stands behind her, revealing a beautifully illuminated profile. The figure in Plate 21 echoes this movement, yet in this print the man standing behind her has been replaced by a donkey.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 15: an oriental man with his wife and child, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.31 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 15: an oriental man with his wife and child, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.31 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 21: a mother with two children seated in front of a donkey, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 227 x 176mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.38 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 21: a mother with two children seated in front of a donkey, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 227 x 176mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.38 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

In this enigmatic world permeated with supernatural forces, could the similarities between images suggest some form of transmogrification from man to beast? And if so, could this perhaps be a satirical response to the occupations of those male magicians who actively pursue the occult realm as depicted throughout the Scherzi?

The ambiguity of the Scherzi leaves the series open to interpretation. Yet what does seem clear is that the aesthetic beauty and brilliant light that suffuses these images masks a darker more subversive reality – one far removed from the glorification of patrons and the elaborate pomp demanded for public spaces. These strange, intimate scenes found perfect expression through the medium of etching, and reveal a completely different side of Tiepolo’s elusive creative personality.

Marguerite Brown

Notes

[1] Michael Levy, Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986 p. 217

[2] Michael Levy, Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986 p. 217

[3] Roberto Calasso, “Median Theurgy” Giambattista Tiepolo: Tra Scherzo e Capriccio, Exh. Cat., Commune di Udine, 2010, p 94

[4] Liliana Cargnelutti, “The Eighteenth Century Polemica Diabolica”, Giambattista Tiepolo: Tra Scherzo e Capriccio, Exh. Cat., Commune di Udine, 2010, pp. 95-96

[5] Liliana Cargnelutti, “The Eighteenth Century Polemica Diabolica”, Giambattista Tiepolo: Tra Scherzo e Capriccio, Exh. Cat., Commune di Udine, 2010, p 95

[6] Gianrinaldo Carli, quoted in, Liliana Cargnelutti, “The Eighteenth Century Polemica Diabolica”, Giambattista Tiepolo: Tra Scherzo e Capriccio, Exh. Cat., Commune di Udine, 2010, p 95

[7] Goya himself collected prints on his travels to Italy, which included Venice, and he is thought to have been familiar with the etchings of the Tiepolo family which were widely available in Madrid. Decades after the Scherzi were created Goya made Los Caprichos and Los Proverbios in which he famously critiqued human foibles such as cruelty and the small-minded stupidity and superstitions that he so despised. See Mark McDonald Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain, British Museum Press, London, 2012 p. 236

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Titleplate: with owls perching on a stone slab, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 177cm. Museum Number 1919,1220.14. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Titleplate: with owls perching on a stone slab, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 177cm. Museum Number 1919,1220.14. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 6:  a seated magician with four standing figures, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 180mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.20. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 6: a seated magician with four standing figures, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 223 x 180mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.20. Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 9:  Polichinelle speaking to two magicians, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 235 x 185mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.24 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 9: Polichinelle speaking to two magicians, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 235 x 185mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.24 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 10: a seated satyr with his wife and son before an owl perched on a pole, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.25 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 10: a seated satyr with his wife and son before an owl perched on a pole, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.25 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 11: a seated satyr from the back with his family, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 177mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.26 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 11: a seated satyr from the back with his family, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 177mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.26 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 12: Six standing figures looking at a snake, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 229 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.28 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 12: Six standing figures looking at a snake, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 229 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.28 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 13: two standing magicians with a child, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 229 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.29 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 13: two standing magicians with a child, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 229 x 178mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.29 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 14: two magicians with two children, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 177mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.30 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 14: two magicians with two children, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 224 x 177mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.30 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 16: a seated beggar seen from behind watched by orientals, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.32 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 16: a seated beggar seen from behind watched by orientals, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 225 x 175mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.32 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 17: the discovery of the tomb of Polichinelle, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 235 x 184mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.33 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 17: the discovery of the tomb of Polichinelle, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 235 x 184mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.33 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 19: three standing men in front of a horse, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 220 x 179mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.35 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 19: three standing men in front of a horse, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 220 x 179mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.35 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 20: a seated philosopher, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 228 x 172mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.36 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Plate 20: a seated philosopher, Scherzi di Fantasia (1750-1760) etching, 228 x 172mm. Museum Number 1919,1220.36 Click here to view this object on the British Museum Collection Online. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

 

Currently I am studying in the Prints and Drawings Department at the British Museum, having been awarded the Harold Wright & Sarah and William Holmes Scholarship, administered through the University of Melbourne. This fantastic opportunity allows me to research widely within the BM’s incredible collection of graphic art. Through this blog I will be sharing some of the most intriguing and often surprising works I have come across as I move through aspects of the collection.

With sincere thanks to the Prints & Drawings Department at the British Museum. For further information about each print click on the link under the image to visit the British Museum Collection Online.

© Text Marguerite Brown 2014

3 thoughts on “Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – elusive visions

  1. Spectacular post Marguie. I just love Tiepolo and these have given me something more, something I’ve never seen from him. Maybe the different vision in these is reflective of printmaking. Like drawing it sets you free, gives you a different permission. love it. thanks!

    • So glad you enjoyed Soula. I agree the freedom within the images is definitely connected to the medium – they are really quite perplexing and were such a pleasure to write about!

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