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Giambattista Tiepolo

(1696—1770)


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(b Venice, 5 Mar. 1696; d Madrid, 27 Mar. 1770).

Venetian painter, draughtsman, and etcher. He was the greatest Italian (and arguably the greatest European) painter of the 18th century, his work bringing to a glorious conclusion the Italian tradition of fresco decoration begun by Giotto 400 years earlier. His output was prodigious (his career is essentially a story of ceaseless work) and his services were sought from Spain to Sweden. He trained with the history painter Gregorio Lazzarini (1655–1730), but according to Lazzarini's biographer, Vincenzo da Canal (1732), Tiepolo soon departed from his master's ‘diligent manner, and, being all fire and spirit, adopted one that was rapid and free’. Initially he was influenced by the sombre and dramatic style of Piazzetta and worked mainly in oils. However, from the mid-1720s he turned increasingly to fresco and his palette lightened, with Veronese becoming an important influence on his style. He was described by his contemporaries as ‘Veronese reborn’ and he shared with his great predecessor a love of pageantry and sparkling colour (and he often used 16th-century costume in his paintings, even when it was historically inappropriate). However, whereas Veronese's work always has a Renaissance solidity, Tiepolo created exhilarating effects of airy space, particularly in his ceiling frescos, in which the central area often depicts open sky. For all its lightness, however, Tiepolo's work was always underpinned by superb draughtsmanship; it was this that allowed him to depict figures soaring overhead so fluently and convincingly.

In 1726–8 Tiepolo carried out his first major work outside Venice, the fresco decoration of the Archbishop's Palace in Udine, and this led to a string of commissions for various places in north Italy. By 1736 his fame was such that he was invited to Stockholm to decorate the Royal Palace—an invitation he declined because the fee offered was too small. Count Carl Gustav Tessin (1695–1770), the Swedish diplomat and art collector who tried to secure his services, was impressed by his ‘spirited and obliging’ character as well as by his ‘amazing speed. He paints a picture in less time than it takes another to grind his colours.’ Up to this time, Tiepolo's work had been predominantly secular, but from the late 1730s to the late 1740s he also produced a series of major religious paintings for Venetian churches, including a series of three huge canvases depicting scenes from Christ's Passion (c.1740) for S. Alvise (still in situ). These make ‘a tremendous emotional assault on the spectator’ (Michael Levey, Tiepolo, 1986) and are much closer in style to Tintoretto than to Veronese. After this period, secular decorative commissions once again dominated Tiepolo's output, although he continued to produce altarpieces throughout his career; he also occasionally ventured into other areas, as with the ravishing Young Woman with a Parrot (c.1760, Ashmolean Mus., Oxford). His most important secular work of the 1740s and perhaps the greatest of all his works in Venice was the decoration of the Palazzo Labia (c.1745), which includes celebrated frescos of the Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra and the Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra (their story was one to which he returned several times). Here, as in many other commissions, he was assisted by his expert in quadratura, Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna.

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Subjects: art.


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