PRINT December 1966

Tiepolo Acquisitions at the Met

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM HAS very quietly purchased and placed on view three huge mural paintings by the 18th-century Venetian master, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Reputedly the best of a set of ten painted for the Dolfin family of Venice in the early 1700s, the huge oil paintings were acquired for an undisclosed sum from a source as yet undisclosed. It is not clear when the murals first arrived in the United States.1 Unquestionably the acquisition is a major, even miraculous, one; yet the paintings, the largest of which is 18 feet high and 11 feet wide, are something of a disappointment. Virtually everything associated with the word Tiepolesque—expansive spacing, luminous, high-keyed color and a sense of weightlessness—is absent. Instead, Tiepolo indulged a distantly Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, the lingering Baroque realism of which undermined the decorative effect of otherwise ravishingly painted canvases. Since Tiepolo was not a particularly original illustrator, his decorative powers could not suffer compromise lightly.

Tiepolo in fact painted these canvases—idealized representations of episodes from Roman military history—when he was in his thirties, more or less at the outset of a lengthy career and when he was subject to various influences, from Rembrandt to Piazzetta. Countering this youthful eclecticism was an astonishing gift for monumental composition and its attendant decorative propensities. But the internal flaw in the Dolfin murals is that they are at least as realistic as they are decorative, so that they fail to generate a truly monumental feeling. The depicted action so dominates the pictorial field that a rhetorical rather than symbolic vision emerges.

The subjects represented in the paintings are The Capture of Carthage, The Triumph of Marius and The Battle of Vercellae. Men on horseback slaughter the resisting foe, a captured warrior is led before his conqueror’s chariot, a battle takes place amidst a scene of general devastation. Yet the representations are significantly devoid of blood, sweat and tears, having been purged by the demands of a decorative idealism. But Tiepolo had not yet mastered the art of grouping his masses within a cumulative contour that breaks up space into decisive, delineating units. Instead, mountainous accumulations of men, animals, machinery, bits of antique statues and all of the paraphernalia of battle simply clog the visual path to the characteristic openness of all monumental decorative art, from Veronese to Puvis de Chavannes.

The point is that grandeur requires considerable space—open space—in which simply to unfurl. In Tiepolo’s most characteristic manner, that of his major decorative fresco cycles, the figures are more or less dwarfed by their architectural setting or, borne aloft upon conveniently available clouds, range throughout the sky where they serve as visual stepping stones to the infinite. Indeed Tiepolo’s success with endless aerial ceiling vistas results from the judicious placement of striking clusters of figures against a massive backdrop of sky, invoking space as a metaphor of grandeur. The inevitable reasonableness of a more earthbound composition, with a top and bottom, resists fanciful flights into boundless space. In other words, decorative grandeur presupposes a field extending to the outermost limit of its frame. The principle holds true for certain modernist paintings as well.

Meanwhile, a consequence of Tiepolo’s youthful dependence on rhetoric as a surrogate for the monumental is irony. In a style in which emotional depth is not a crucial objective, the Dolfin murals seem more emotionally empty than they actually are, precisely because of the rhetorical inflation of content. The function of decoration on the grand scale is to be decorative first, and the expression is in the decoration. The best of Tiepolo’s murals are likewise emotionally empty in the expressive sense, but the lack is compensated for by grandeur of scale and effect. Not that the decorative excludes expressive values, but that their inclusion demands an illustrative bias as opposed to the symbolic bias of “pure” decoration, whether the old master kind or the new abstractionist kind. And this is another kind of decoration. “Illustrative“ decoration deals with facts and is ultimately sensible; ”symbolic" decoration deals with an idea and is artificial. Tiepolo rendered his subjects symbolically.

But as Tiepolo’s sub sequent development was to confirm, artifice fully developed reflects a sensibility as genuine, as moral, as any other. It differs from others only in its artistic solutions. At its best, it elicits emotions which, if they lack the resonance of the deepest and most intimate kind of human experience (which is ultimately also the most universal kind) nonetheless represents a genuine excitation through its imagery over a quality of being. It is the irony of modernist art, which in major abstractionist art since Abstract Expressionism has achieved a contemporary, decorative and symbolic style, that it should continue to be obliged to support ideologically archaic legends of crisis and deprivation. It is apparently the continuing price that style must pay to exist in and be consumed in, a democracy.

Sidney Tillim



1. The exact provenance of the pictures, other than that they originally belonged to the Dolfin family is difficult to entangle. In Morassi’s monograph on Tiepolo (Phaidon) one of the three, The Battle of Vercellae, is reproduced (opposite page 14) and recorded as being in the collection of Camillo Castiglioni in New York. In an unsigned article on the paintings in its October issue, Art News reported that the pictures were acquired from the “estate of the late Camillo Castiglione (sic), formerly of Vienna, who brought them to New York after World War II.” In his report in the New York Times (Sept. 20, 1966), John Canaday wrote that the Metropolitan’s pictures “came into the possession of a German collector, unnamed by the Metropolitan, who, early in the Hitler regime, had them rolled up under the supervision of experts, and brought them to this country.” The original set was broken up in 1870 when it was sold by the family, and just when Camillo Castiglioni acquired the pictures is not known, nor is it clear whether the pictures passed through other hands before he purchased them. Moreover, it is not necessarily true that the pictures were indeed purchased from the family estate. Still another party may have been involved. The Museum press release which announced the accession says nothing about the immediate source of the paintings, and my own inquiries in to the matter have yielded nothing but a comment that the Art News account is ambiguously worded.