(a ghost of these words appears in the 25 October 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Section)
The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is hardly a household name in the United States. A few of his paintings, drawings and etchings are scattered in major museums in the country but to see his work in its fullness one has to have gone to Venice, Wurzburg, Germany and Madrid to view the magnificent ceiling paintings and frescos crowded with either religious or classical figures captured with a dazzling sense of color that easily rival Michelangelo in their grandeur and complexity. His name became an adjective for a fabric shade of pink. He is included in all the standard histories of art and his name is always linked to Veronese and others in that cast of prolific painters who can easily be confused by a visitor to Venice. Possibly, this necessary introductory paragraph runs the risk of providing an excuse for both skipping what is to follow and the book that occasioned the review. However, to miss rushing out to get the latest book by Roberto Calasso would be a terrible intellectual disaster and it is the next best thing to actually going to Europe to see Tiepolo’s work for yourself.
Calasso is the most interesting, demanding, inquisitively intoxicating critic writing anywhere in the world today. This claim is based upon his books, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, The Ruins of Kasch, Ka, The Forty-Nine Steps, Literature and the Gods , K and his newest one devoted to describing the life and work of a painter who seems so obscure as to be invisible even though his work has been seen by millions. The word critic does little justice to a writer like Calasso whose every sentence is rooted in a profound understanding and discerning appreciation of all the major literatures of the world both ancient and modern and these sentences always entice their readers to more thought, more reading, to reflection, to wonder.
Early on he tosses down the gauntlet, the intellectual dare, “Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe. And like all true happiness, it was full of dark sides destined not to fade away, but to get the upper hand.” Remembering Tiepolo’s dates (1696-1770) and what comes after which is really the time we still live in, “Painting steadily became a monologizing activity, a calm delirium that started and stopped every day, with the hours of daylight behind the windows of a studio. Artists remained brimming with moods, whims, caprices, and idiosyncrasies. And in the end even they risked disappearing.”
Providing a complete survey of Tiepolo’s work from the prolific beginnings in Venice and then his productive travels across Europe, Calasso is not for a moment deterred by the fact that there is not a single bit of self commentary and never resorting to any sort of crude historic guess work he is elegant in his generalizing and astonishing in the particularities as when commenting upon a painting depicting Antony and Cleopatra at the moment when she is about to dissolve her priceless earring in a glass of vinegar, “Anthony represents the power that invades the world but he does not possess the two pearls. Only one of which is sufficient to vanquish him. What happens to the other? It was sawn in two--- and the two halves were attached to the ears of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon. There is decidedly something paltry about that Western Power, obliged to adorn one of its goddesses with two half pearls that the Oriental queen was prepared to swallow in a sip of vinegar.”
Aptly and beautifully illustrated it should be mentioned, Calasso centers his book about an attempt at explicating--- though never committing the vulgar sin of doing a definitive version--- of the Caprricci and the Scherzi, two series of etchings packed with a cast of mysterious characters, who much like a company of a great Hollywood studio in the old days: magicians, Magi and other visitors from the East, beautiful young men and women, and a plethora of other creatures in particular snakes and owls who will and have appeared in many disparate roles in the great paintings that enclose this mysterious center of mystifying events, which have defied understanding until this moment. Calasso’s explication with the constant crossing and re-crossing of these characters and creatures is written in a style that evokes the reading of a deeply compelling novel and that skill can be seen in his teasing out of the proliferation of snakes in the etchings and their constant re-appearance in the paintings. Of course he starts from the Garden of Eden on to the magical transformation of a staff into a snake during the Egyptian captivity, the plague of snakes in the desert and then, “Moses’s gesture when he brandished a bronze serpent and told the murmuring Jews to look at it, was a gesture that marked the discovery that evil can be cured by its image… It was the discovery of the image, of its healing power. It is one of the supreme Jewish paradoxes that this discovery was made by he who would be remembered and celebrated as the enemy of images…”
However, Calasso pushes his insight into an intriguing engaging way into Tiepolo’s work, “Salvation through looking which the Fathers of the Church would ignore because the only thing that truly concerned them about the story of the brazen serpent was the prefiguration of the Cross was recognized by a painter before any theologian… hence the serpents: horror, fascination perhaps even revelation.. A tangle that no one can loosen unless he joins those Orientals, youths and Satyresses under a dazzling noonday sun as in the desert (in the Capricci and Scherzi).”
Finally Calasso takes leave of his readers while describing one of Tiepolo’s last paintings, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, “Mary, Joseph, the child and the donkey can barely be seen in a corner. They are anonymous extras, absorbed in the landscape. The vision is still to come. There is an intact stasis—and the wonderful silence of the world.” Where the attentive reader has always been remembering Calasso’s quoting the great French reactionary Joseph De Maistre, “I have read millions of witticisms about the ignorance of the ancients who saw spirits everywhere: it seems to me that we who see them nowhere are much more foolish.”