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Giambattista Tiepolo
Imagine yourself standing alone in the midst of a huge, classical banquet hall. The room is empty of furnishings, yet you have the feeling that you are in the midst of a crowd of people enjoying a lush feast. It is a feast for the eyes that carries over to the other senses. You can almost hear the music, the sounds of laughter, of endless dinner chit-chat, smell the food, taste the wine, and feel the warmth of the other guests. Only the fact that they seem frozen in mid-bite betrays the truth that you are not dining in decadent splendour with none other than Anthony and Cleopatra. It is an instant frozen in time. None of it is real. all of it is painted on the walls. Closer inspection reveals that the room is, in fact, surprisingly plain, only the simplest of door frames provide any form of architecture not rendered in quadraturisti or trompe l'oeil perspective. You are in the Palazzo Labia in Venice and you have just been overwhelmed by the frescos of Giambattista Tiepolo.

Tiepolo was born in 1696. Influenced in his early years by Veronese, as well as the newly unearthed frescos of Pompeii, his work is often considered the epitome of Baroque fresco painting. Born and raised in Venice, he grew up in a city bathed in painting and art of the highest calibre. It was not a city friendly, however, to his chosen medium--fresco. The climate was too damp, the presence of mould a constant adversary to such art. As a result, painting on a grand scale was limited somewhat by the sizes in which canvas could be stretched (though such limits were, themselves stretched to the utmost). Tiepolo discovered, however, that with the addition of white sand to the fresco mixture the problem of moisture leading to mould and mildew could be conquered. That, along with succo su fresco method (using an organic binder in the paint) was a solution that freed him to cover enormous surfaces his competitors could only dream of.

Actually, he had few competitors. And so in demand was he for his glorious, panoramas of baroque splendour than any would-be rivals usually ended up working for him. The History of Anthony and Cleopatra completely covers all four walls of the room, floor to ceiling including the ceiling. It's a tour-de-force that he found himself repeating again and again, in Venice; in the Clerici Palace in Milan; later in the Wurtzburg Palace in southern Germany; and after that, in Spain, where he died in 1770. His style was high Baroque, but there was a feather lightness to his work that may well have given inspiration to the Rococo style. Subjects were historical, or mythical, but always dramatically breathtaking in their audacious handling of figures, nature, and most of all extravagant architectural verisimilitude. His incredible plaster painting style and techniques rank him as one of the two or three best painters of his century.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 June 1999


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