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Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Italian (active Venice, Udine, Würzburg, and Madrid) 1696 - 1770

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Born in Venice in 1696, Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo was the last great exponent of the Venetian painting and drawing tradition, conspicuous among his contemporaries for his command of fresco, easel painting, drawing, and etching. As a student in the workshop of Gregorio Lazzarini he gained a firm grounding in the styles of his Venetian predecessors, among them Federico Bencovich and Giambattista Piazzetta, absorbing their dramatic tenebrism and then surpassing it by lightening the full range of his palette. His gravity-defying ceiling frescoes brought a new dimension to the Italian Baroque.

Tiepolo appeared in the registry of the Venetian confraternity of painters in 1717, and religious commissions soon followed. His early works, such as The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew for the church of San Stae, already show his characteristic jagged contours and sharp, flickering shadows alternating with brilliant expanses of pale-tinted surface. Employment began to come his way from outside Venice as well, and in 1725-26 he produced an extensive series of decorative frescoes for the patriarchal palace in Udine in the Veneto.

At this point he began a twenty-year collaboration with Girolamo Mengozzi-Colonna, a brilliant specialist in illusionistic quadratura. Within these delicately painted architectural frames Giambattista laid his compositions, in which figures richly clad in red-brown and gold sport in pastel surroundings, all set off against the clear blue of the sky. His understanding that the most brightly lit areas of any composition possess a formal weight equal to that of the areas of mass and shadow is the basis of his revolutionary new dynamism and is expressed clearly in his drawings, wherein white spaces balance areas of ink wash.

In 1730 Tiepolo was invited to Milan, where he decorated five ceilings in the Palazzo Archinto with mythological and allegorical scenes, and the Palazzo Casati with scenes from the life of Scipio. In 1736 the Swedish diplomat and collector Carl Gustav Tessin purchased a quantity of Tiepolo's drawings, which today grace the collection at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Between 1736 and 1739 Tiepolo painted major altarpieces: The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha for the grand church of San Antonio in Padua and the imposing Pope Saint Clement Adoring the Holy Trinity for the nuns of Our Lady in Nymphenburg in Bavaria. He completed his first great ecclesiastical cycle in 1739, the frescoes in the church of the Gesuati in Venice, depicting episodes from the life of Saint Dominic.

Between 1740 and 1745 he produced major secular decorations for the Palazzo Clerici in Milan, the Villa Cordellina in Montecchio Maggiore, and the Palazzo Labia in Venice, works that allowed Tiepolo free rein to indulge himself in creating lavish costumes while portraying the dramatic encounters so prized by the theater-loving Venetians. An opportunity to indulge his talents fully came in 1750 when, accompanied by his artist sons, he arrived in Würzburg at the invitation of the new prince-bishop, Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, to decorate his Residenz, a splendid palace designed by Balthasar Neumann. A large number of preparatory drawings for this project survive, many of them done in red, black, and white chalks on blue paper, Tiepolo's preferred medium for studies of figure groupings, as he typically used pen and wash to plot his compositions. This has occasioned some original research by George Knox (Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo: A Study and Catalogue Raisonné of the Chalk Drawings. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) on the amount of time artists customarily spent on large projects; Knox has shown that each chalk drawing corresponds to a giornata (a single day's work in fresco) and calculated that each of the frescoes in the great stairwell of the palace took ten to fifteen days of work, with another forty-five to fifty days to complete the central ceiling.

In 1753 Tiepolo and his staff, consisting primarily of his sons, returned to Venice, and in 1757 Giambattista, chiefly assisted by his son Giandomenico, produced one of his most felicitous small-scale projects: a series of frescoes portraying scenes from Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso, and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata in four small rooms in the Villa Valmarana outside Vicenza. His last commission in Venice was the 1760 fresco for the vast central room of the Pisani family villa on the Brenta river, intended to glorify the family's name. In 1762 Tiepolo accepted an imperial Hapsburg summons to Madrid to paint three ceiling frescoes in the Palacio Real, work that occupied him through 1766. The following year, at the behest of the Spanish crown, he began an extensive commission to paint seven altarpieces for the Franciscan church of San Pascual in Aranjuez. The paintings, subsequently removed, were completed and installed just after Tiepolo's death in May 1770.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 31.

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