Roberto Calasso has been called a Renaissance man, and he could truly say with the English essayist Francis Bacon, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” Over the last quarter-century, his books have covered a dazzling range of cultures and times, seeking the myths at the base of each. He has written about the formation of modern Europe in the age of Talleyrand (Il rovina di Kasch, 1983; The Ruins of Kasch, 1994); about the origins of Classical civilization (La nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988; The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1994); about the cultures of India (Ka, 1996; Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, 1998); and about authors Franz Kafka (K., 2002; English translation, 2005) and Charles Baudelaire (La folie Baudelaire, 2008).
Why Calasso would choose Giovanni Battista Tiepolo for his first book-length essay on a painter may not be apparent right away. Tiepolo, after all, is famous for his virtuosity, for the ease and speed of his work, and for the simple pleasure that many critics have found there. As Calasso observes, Tiepolo may never have read a book; he simply absorbed the images around him. If the painter made his mark with frescos for Venetian palazzi and is remembered for his trademark pinks and reds, his subjects turn out to present iconic images of East and West, often in their encounters with one another, as in a dozen paintings of Antony and Cleopatra from his later years. This larger cultural concern becomes increasingly clear over the book’s three main sections.
The opening section takes its title from a comment once made about Tiepolo, that his paintings give “pleasure accompanied by light.” Calasso starts with the remarks of Tiepolo’s contemporaries, who described him as a happy man painting quickly and prolifically. He thinks of Tiepolo as “the last breath of happiness in Europe,” a happiness that would end with the age of revolution and the conflicts of modern life. He notes with approval Mark Twain’s entry in a European diary that “Tiepolo is my artist,” observing that the artist was ignored by the academicians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for exactly the reason that Twain liked him: He gave simple pleasure. Much less approvingly, Calasso quotes Henry James’s diary entry about a “pompous” fresco by Tiepolopompous because it seemed so large and self-confident. Then, after reviewing the comments of major art critics such as Roberto Longhi, Calasso notes the irony in their view that his work lacks complexity: While the academic paintings of Twain’s decades now seem hackneyed, Tiepolo remains vibrant. His works continue to give pleasure.
To make his case for Tiepolo’s complexity and depth of meaning, Calasso turns next to the artist’s relatively small body of etchings: the Caprici and Scherzi created in the 1640’s. These thirty-three “caprices” and “jests” have received very little attention, most critics being content to remark on the artist’s facility and the ease, or sprezzatura, with which he appears to have produced them. They are anything but simple, however, for they are replete with snakes, birds and beasts of prey, and other disturbing images. Many of the images are from the Italian commedia dell’arte, including the pervasive Punchinello (the Punch of the English Punch-and-Judy puppet plays). Here especially, Calasso relies on his own encyclopedic knowledge. He is able to trace the snake symbolism, for example, through mythic images of gods and heroes back to the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus.
Calasso sees the caprices and jests as a single, unified movement, related to one another as a musical prelude is related to a fugue. Taken together, they form a sort of mute book or novel without words, telling a story that no eighteenth century novelist managed to narrate. There is not a straight plot, so much as a cast of characters and a set of episodes through which they pass. As a consequence, each etching represents a potential beginning or middle or ending, depending on a viewer’s perception of the whole.
If there is a unifying theme to Tiepolo’s work, it is magicthe white magic of the Neoplatonic magus who draws power from stars and from herbs and other substances that stars influence. Magicians of this sort exploited the occult, literally “the hidden,” connections between the heavens and the earth, connections that extended to the human being as the epitome of creation. Such magic was “natural” because it depended on nothing outside of natureno devils were invoked, only spirits of the created elements and the heavens above. In the Italian Renaissance, this magic was thought...
(The entire section is 1952 words.)