Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Journey into the New World: Tiepolo’s Cosmorama: Dissonant Notes

Dissonant Notes

What is pure art in the modern concept of the term? It is to create an allusive magic that contains both the object and the subject, the world outside the artist and the artist himself.
Charles Baudelaire60

Our simulation has opened a door, or a peephole, into a new interpretation of Tiepolo’s painting. We have established that autobiographical and optical themes coalesce in the transformation of the scene over almost forty years of its author’s life; and we have understood this transformation as the evolution of a scherzo—a playful motif within a family tradition. Restaged in a larger format at Zianigo, the trompe l’oeil at Valmarana acquires a new, more personal meaning for Giandomenico. What was a lighthearted divertissement at Valmarana turns, in its last metamorphosis at Zianigo, into an ironic, perhaps nostalgic joke about filial piety. Filtered through the mondo nuovo as a mnemonic device, the scene jokingly evokes the aging Giandomenico’s own initiation, his vocation, recapitulating the stages of a career spent looking from behind the shoulders of a famous father until achieving his own independent artistic vision. Giandomenico’s multiple “remembered selves” in the various versions of the painting—the child looking into the mondo nuovo, the young boy with the magnifying glass, waiting his turn, and the adult man with the monocle—could be all self-portraits of the artist who has become aware, peering over his father’s shoulder and learning from his example, of the magnifying power that art provides—a lens that art can finally point at itself. Interpreted as a playful family trademark, the mondo nuovo device which is the subject of Giandomenico’s painting suggests an ironic attitude toward the Tiepolos’ mastery of pictorial illusionism: it certainly secured both a reputation and financial gain for the family but, in the end, the illusion it provided is perhaps not much superior to the cheap amusement that the street entertainers provide with their “little machines” for anonymous crowds at Carnival.

In order to complete our interpretation of the painting as a paradoxical optical game, and exhaust the explanation of all the functions of the mondo nuovo device buried in it, we need to dig a little deeper into the etymology of scherzo. Literally translated as joke or trick, in its evolution from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, from the Rococo to the Romantic era, the term scherzo was charged with multiple, and technical, meanings across music and the visual arts. While the musical term usually indicates the transformation of a symphony’s third movement, the dancing minuet, when applied to painting, the term (sometimes associated with capriccio) indicates a kind of architectural fantasy, or a whimsical composition combining realistic and fantastic or allegorical elements in imaginary scenes and views. Both the terms capriccio and scherzo were adopted by Giandomenico’s father, Giambattista, for a series of enigmatic etchings and drawings that ambivalently inspired Giandomenico as well. Throughout his career, the son also painted several scenes depicting Carnival crowds dancing the minuet, perhaps the most popular formal dance of the eighteenth century. All these different meanings seem to accumulate in Giandomenico’s painting as in a multiplying lens. The Carnival crowd of Il Mondo Nuovo is not dancing but huddles around the machine, as if attracted by its gravitational pull. Yet, a musical subtext is present in the painting, as Harry Mathews suggests: the colorful extras that make up the crowd, those faceless caricatures mostly seen from the back, form a silent choir, a voiceless basso continuo, that both mesmerizes and frustrates us. Inspired by Giambattista’s caricatures, as we have seen, they are both part of a joke played by Giandomenico on his illustrious father and the family trademark. It is indeed to the father-son couple, and to the other figures depicted in profile in the painting, the only individual notes of the score, that we have to return in order to complete our analysis and show how the subject and the object of the painting mirror one another—and how the mondo nuovo is the device that makes this mirroring possible.  

Among the figures in profile, two—Pulcinella and the young lady with the dove—seem to be looking at each other across the crowd from opposite sides of the picture (figs. 30 and 31). With their reciprocal gaze, they frame the scene. As shown in our simulation, Pulcinella’s gradual emerging from the crowd, from the Prado to the Zianigo version of Il Mondo Nuovo, eventually replacing the smoking charlatan next to the crenellated wall of the casotto, transposes the family scherzo to a peculiar place, inhabited by this strangest of all comic creatures. Indeed, with his intrusion, Pulcinella—the only clearly recognizable costume—is the most appropriate conjurer for a joke, a scherzo. Or, perhaps more appropriately, for a lazzo, a farcical stock character routine—the clowning, nonsensical jests or pranks typically performed by the Zanni, the servant-tricksters of the commedia dell’arte, but most masterfully by Pulcinella.61 As for the lady with the dove at the right, though unmasked, she would seem to represent Colombina, another stock character from the commedia dell’arte, the female counterpart to the Zanni, the servant-mistress of disguise with social aspirations. Indicating this, she holds a colomba, a dove, in a basket. An odd couple indeed, Pulcinella and Colombina, the latter usually associated in the commedia dell’arte with the Bergamo-Venetian figure of Arlecchino, or Harlequin. Indeed, the painting presents us with a comic stage that can be linked to Goldoni’s theatrical reform, in which masked figures of the commedia dell’arte mingle with characters taken from everyday life. Once again, in Giandomenico’s painting, as in Longhi’s vignettes or Goldoni’s plays, world and theater mirror each other. Here, I argue, lies the key to the virtual realism of Il Mondo Nuovo, a Carnival scene that draws its entire meaning from the joke embedded in the theatrical device half-buried in it. Could Il Mondo Nuovo, interpreted as the representation of a comic stage, be more than just a lighthearted scherzo? Could it contain also a lazzo—a biting, satirical jest? If so, Pulcinella would be its theatrical prompt—its punchline. Indeed, holding up his gnocco impaled on a fork, like the baton of a conductor, Pulcinella plays a dissonant note in the composition.

Giandomenico also depicted Pulcinella in La Stanza di Pulcinella, the Room of the Pulcinellas at Zianigo, now reinstalled at Ca’ Rezzonico (fig. 32). With the dimensions of a small dressing room, the space is swarming with little white Pulcinellas, climbing up from the bowels of the earth, on a ladder. They enjoy themselves on a swing, woo women during Carnival, get drunk, and tumble in a circus act as though to mimic and mock the aristocratic protagonists of the tales and mythologies described by Giambattista in his phantasmagoric trompe l’oeils. It is not by chance that the term phantasmagoria (literally, an assembly of ghosts) and the optical spectacle it defines—a kind of magic lantern show (as discussed later, in Chapter Three)—became increasingly popular in the years in which Giandomenico painted Il Mondo Nuovo, in the immediate aftermath of the bloody French Revolution, with all the ghosts it awoke.62 And it is not by chance that Giandomenico’s apotheosis of the Pulcinellas is dated around 1797, the same fatal year as the fall of Venice to Napoleon’s armies. Indeed, Giandomenico’s obsession with Pulcinella is displayed, beyond La Stanza di Pulcinella, in a work that absorbed him in the last years of his life, at Zianigo, from 1797 until his death in 1804: the 104 drawings of the Divertimento per li regazzi (Amusement for the kids) (fig. 33). Here is perhaps the last key to the interpretation of the mondo nuovo as both a little machine, a new technology, and the device of an elaborate theatrical prank: indeed, a long tradition, harkening back to the previous century, links Pulcinella to the mondo nuovo, the ultimate tool of Carnival, a device that, with an optical trick, shows the world upside down—exactly as it is.63 The 104 drawings of the Divertimento, illustrating the life, deeds, and death of Pulcinella, have been interpreted as Giandomenico’s self-portrait in a world populated by Pulcinellas.64 In other words, Pulcinella, c’est moi. What does all this suggest about the meaning, and the working, of the machine that is the subject of the painting—the scherzo, or lazzo, disguised in it as a distorting mirror? Is it possible that all the meanings of the mondo nuovo coalesce in Pulcinella’s antics?


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