Venice 1696–1770 Madrid
Giambattista Tiepolo was the greatest Venetian and Italian painter of the eighteenth-century rococo, the greatest painter of illusionist ceilings since Correggio and the finest propagandist for the past glories of a city in terminal decline. He achieved an international reputation and was invited to Germany and Spain. His work has sometimes earned the disapproval of later critics, notably Bernard Berenson, as too worldly.
Tiepolo’s early works reflect the tenebrism of his predecessor Piazzetta (1682–1754). His mature style is heralded in his frescoes at the episcopal palace in Udine (1726–29) which proclaim him the heir to the sumptuous sixteenth-century colorism of Veronese (1528–88). His greatest innovation in ceiling decoration was a newly atmospheric suggestion of a limitless heavenly empyrean where gods and mortals disport themselves in a sunny and expansive world free from care. His frescoes required numerous preparatory sketches, which today are widely dispersed in public collections, enabling his virtuosity to be enjoyed on a small scale and without craning one’s neck! A typical sketch is the Perseus and Andromedain the Frick collection, New York (1730–31), showing a joyful Panglossian couple with the manacle on Andromeda's wrist the only hint of her recent peril. Not all his frescoes were illusionist, notably his Banquet of Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia (mid 1740s) where Tiepolo quite specifically parades himself as the heir to Veronese.
Tiepolo's style never radically changed. He painted many magnificent altarpieces, for example the Madonna with Dominican Saints in the church of the Gesuati (1747–8) where an aristocratic and shadowed Virgin presides over the saints below picked out in luscious detail. The artist's sunny elitism was recognized abroad and in the early 1750s he was invited to decorate the Würzburg Residenz in Germany. In his largest ceiling (sketch in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) he immortalized an otherwise insignificant prince. On his return to Venice, he painted one of his airiest decorations in the residence of a nouveau riche papal family, the Ca Rezzonico. In the Villa Valmarana on the mainland he was assisted by his son Giandomenico (1727–1804) who contributed more realistic scenes of everyday life among the provincial gentry and like his father was a highly accomplished draftsman and printmaker. One of Giambattista's most poignant altarpieces is his Santa Tecla Liberating the Town of Este from the Plague, still in situ, where the agony of a pandemic is presented in such engaged terms as to suggest a degree of personal experience. In 1761 Tiepolo was invited to Spain to work in the royal palace, where he encountered a rival, the neo-classical painter Mengs (1728–79). Mengs made Tiepolo's rococo style look old fashioned and the latter's attempts to adjust to the new taste were not wholly successful.