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  • In the Art of the Tiepolo a Single Gesture Is Often Equivalent to a Long Sentence
  • Johanna Fassl
Roberto Calasso , Il rosa Tiepolo (Milan: Adelphi edizioni, 2006). Pp. 320. €32.00.
Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox , Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006). Pp. xvii, 863. $75.00.
Jon Seydl , Giambattista Tiepolo: Fifteen Oil Sketches (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005). Pp. 95. $19.95.

In his treatise on the origin of human knowledge, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac states that "a single gesture is often equivalent to a long sentence" (II,I,§51). This expression of semantic holism became an important notion in the eighteenth century and applies to the art of his contemporaries Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo. Their powerful rhetoric constructs richly layered images often using a single symbol to import a variety of meanings—albeit frequently left to the viewer to interpret. Three recent studies, in very different ways, attest to the layering of meaning in the art of the Tiepolo. Roberto Calasso approaches Giambattista's symbols through a nineteenth-century literary lens; Jon Seydl offers a new opportunity to view his oil sketches within their own context; and the publication by Adelheid Gealt and George Knox reveals the deeply spiritual dimension in the religious art of Domenico.

Il rosa Tiepolo is the last member of what Roberto Calasso calls "a family saga of an anomalous family." The family is his œuvre of five philosophical meditations that discuss the construction and dissolution of myth in various cultural milieus: The Ruin of Kasch is built around an African legend; The Marriage of [End Page 651] Cadmus and Harmony around Greek mythology; Ka engages with Indian tradition; and K proposes Kafka as the desecrator of all mythology and religion. The pentalogy now comes to a conclusion with Il rosa Tiepolo, in which the author proposes that Giambattista Tiepolo knows how to celebrate and, at the same time, deconsecrate myth.

The first two of the three chapters are the most provocative. Here Calasso takes up Tiepolo's etchings, the Capricci and Scherzi di fantasia, and puts them into context of his paintings. Rather than accepting the easy-way-out explanation of uncomfortable motifs as pure decoration, he confirms that dissonance is exactly what makes Tiepolo great and the ideal artist to conclude his series. He does not segregate Tiepolo's images into different categories but looks at the variegated "stuff" that makes them up as a whole. Classical figures, including Venus, Time, and Moses, but also subversive elements, such as Orientals, serpents, owls, Death, and the odd intruder Punchinello, come from the same pictorial arsenal. To explain the latter he evokes Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal and calls them a dissonant "prophetic tribe" (20). Chapter 3 discusses three major milestones in Tiepolo's œuvre: the Cleopatra paintings, the Würzburg frescos, and the concluding period of his life in Spain.

Tiepolo benefits from Calasso's literary eye. Leaving aside questions of biography, dating, or iconography, he freely acknowledges ambiguity as a major constituent in Tiepolo's art. It is present in symbols having double entendres, such as the snake, which could stand for both evil and salvation. But it is also found in the migratory aspect of Tiepolo's "tribe," the Orientals, one of his signature themes. They move across his altarpieces, prints, and drawings; their identities blur between rabbinical authority and the forbidden hermitic magic of Ostanes.

The rosa of the title also imparts ambiguity. The color is associated with Proust's women, the soft tonality close to cherry in the dresses of Odette, the Countess of Guermantes, and Albertine. At first sight this color reference may appear as a "recherche" to—once more—accuse the eighteenth century of frivolity and decadence. However, the rosa is full of both possibilities and impossibilities. Proust's Madame Swann appears in a "marvelous dressing gown of crêpe de Chine or silk, antique rose, rose Tiepolo, white, mauve, green, red, yellow, plain or with motifs" (39). It is not just a single hue, but a polyphony of colors, ever changing—analogous to the migratory symbols in Tiepolo's art. We do not have to wait for the Belle...


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