Scherzo di fantasia (Three Figures and an Owl)

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

Made in Italy, Europe

c. 1735-1740

Pen and brown ink (possibly iron gall) and brown wash over traces of black chalk on laid paper mounted on paper

Sheet: 8 11/16 x 6 9/16 inches (22.1 x 16.6 cm) Mount: 10 11/16 x 8 3/16 inches (27.1 x 20.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Muriel and Philip Berman Gift, acquired from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with funds contributed by Muriel and Philip Berman and the Edgar Viguers Seeler Fund (by exchange), 1984

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Tiepolo produced two series of etchings, probably in the 1730s and 1740s, I Capricci and Scherzi di fantasia, that repeat the same kinds of motifs as seen in this drawing--for example, owls, torches, bearded and turbaned old men, and urns--in mysterious combinations. Many drawings by the artist are, like this one, related to but not exactly preparatory for prints in the Scherzi and Capricci.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    The imaginary event portrayed here includes several of Giambattista Tiepolo’s favorite dramatis personae: a bearded and turbaned old magician with his younger female consort, a young boy, and an owl are all assembled before a heap of architectural ruins. The urn may have funerary significance, for the boy lights the way down into an open grave with his torch. Everyone, as is usual in Tiepolo’s often macabre scenes, appears to be quite cheerful. An iconographically similar drawing, somewhat larger and in the same medium, was on the Paris art market in 1985 (Galerie de Bayser, Exposition de dessins et sculptures de maîtres anciens, no. 44). The composition suggests a generalized reference to mortality, enhanced by magic. Scholars have not been able to establish a chronology for these types of drawings, subsumed under the rubric scherzi (or jokes), and their meaning still constitutes a puzzle. Attempts have been made to relate the drawings iconographically to Tiepolo’s two etching series, I Capricci and Scherzi di fantasia, but this provides little help with their dating. Terisio Pignatti (in Venetian Drawings from American Collections: A Loan Exhibition, p. 38) notes that Antonio Maria Zanetti, a discerning Venetian collector of prints and drawings, assembled and bound a set of the Capricci in 1743, which provides a terminus ante quem for the imagery. The etchings that were to comprise the Scherzi were completed around 1757, although they were not published until after Giambattista’s death in 1770. Diane De Grazia, in a lecture given in 1970 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., noted that Tiepolo’s activity as a printmaker seems to have taken place in a relatively brief period in the 1730s and l740s. George Knox (Tiepolo: A Bicentenary Exhibition, 1770-1970; Drawings, Mainly from American Collections, by Giambattista Tiepolo and the Members of His Circle, under no. 17) judges both sets of etchings to have been done between 1743 and 1749 and suggests that the Scherzi, although the later of the two series, may have antedated the Capricci conceptually, because in the Scherzi one finds “frequent references to the drawings of the thirties” (Knox, George. Review of Le Acqueforti dei Tiepolo, selected and annotated by Terisio Pignatti. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 108, no. 764 {November 1966}, p. 586). Aldo Rizzi (La acqueforti dei Tiepolo, under no. 17), in discussing the etching The Oriental Peasant’s Family (Vesme, Alexandre de. La peintre-graveur italien: Ouvrage faisant suite au "Peintre-graveur" de Bartsch. Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1906., no. 27; Hind, Arthur M. "The Etchings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo." The Print-Collector's Quarterly, vol. 8 {1921}, no. 27, repro. p. 55), notes that Knox suggested an iconographical rapport between it and the Philadelphia drawing, and indeed the drawing bears an old inscription, 15, which is the number of the print. Rizzi reproduced the drawing (La acqueforti dei Tiepolo, fig. xvii) and dated it to about 1735. Pignatti and Knox agree that it dates from the mid- to late 1730s, and Knox further notes that it contains elements that anticipate Scherzi 2, 15, and 18 and that there are two similar drawings in the Hermitage (Dobroklonskii, M. V. Risunki ital'ianskoi shkoly XVII XVIII vekov: Katalog [Catalogue of the Drawings of the Italian Schools of the 17th and 18th Centuries at the Hermitage]. Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha, 1961, nos. 1419, 1420, pls. clviii, clix), “one of which seems to be a starting point for Scherzo 7” (for an illustration, see Pignatti, Terisio. Le acqueforti dei Tiepolo. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1965., pl. xix). The iconography lives on in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s later etching The Flight into Egypt, which includes the same characters and their owl. Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 32.

    Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. Tiepolo: A Bicentenary Exhibition, 1770-1970; Drawings, Mainly from American Collections, by Giambattista Tiepolo and the Members of His Circle. Exhibition catalogue by George Knox. Cambridge, Mass.: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1970., no. 17, repro.;
    Udine, Loggia del Lionello. La acqueforti dei Tiepolo. Exhibition catalogue edited by Aldo Rizzi. Collana monografie, no. 2. Milan: Electa, 1970, under no. 17, fig. XVII;
    Udine, Villa Manin di Passariano. Mostra del liepolo, Udine: Celebrazioni tiepolesche. Exhibition catalogue edited by Aldo Rizzi. 2 vols. Biennali d'arte antica, no. 5. Milan: Electa, 1971., no. 15, repro.;
    Pignatti, Terisio. Tiepolo: disegni. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1974., no. XXVI, pl. XXVI;
    Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Fort Worth, Texas, Kimbell Art Museum; Saint Louis, Missouri, The Saint Louis Art Museum. Venetian Drawings from American Collections: A Loan Exhibition. Exhibition catalogue by Terisio Pignatti. Washington, D.C.: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1974., p. 38, under no. 72;
    Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Museum of Art; Springfield, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts. The Tiepolos: Painters to Princes and Prelates. Exhibition catalogue. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1978., no. 46, repro.;
    Berkeley, California, Berkeley Art Museum (with the Pacific Film Archive). The Mask of Venice: Masking, Theater, and Identity in the Art of Tiepolo and His Time. Exhibition catalogue by George Knox and James Christen Steward. Edited by James Christen Steward. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996., no. 66, repro.