Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Journey into the New World: Tiepolo’s Cosmorama: Pulcinella's Secret

Pulcinella's Secret

The wise ones we are
From burdens freer (…)
It gives us pleasure
To go with leisure…
—J. W. von Goethe, Faust71

Throughout this chapter, and within our simulations, we have followed the evolution of a painting from an amusing trompe l’oeil to the satiric representation of a voyeuristic frenzy: the mondo nuovo device has provided the lenses through which Giandomenico’s paradoxical mocking vision has finally revealed itself in all its multilayered dimensions, as “an allusive magic that contains both the object and the subject, the world outside the artist and the artist himself,” to quote Baudelaire.72 In turn, our journey into the painting and through its transformations has shed new light on the way this “ingenious little machine” embodies a novel attitude toward the world with all its geographical and social, imaginative and cognitive boundaries.

If the allegorical characters of Giambattista’s dizzying architectural trompe l’oeils were like larger-than-life actors on a grand operatic stage, to be admired from below with wonder and amusement by mere mortals, Giandomenico instead sets us firmly on the ground, at street level, our eyes fixed on the human comedy that plays out before us, of which we are also a part.73 By denying us the view it promises, Giandomenico’s ambivalent homage to his father’s art has revealed its own critical stand, in the name of a playful virtual realism, hiding its modernity under the disguise of a conventional motif. In the uncanny Carnival scene of the Mondo Nuovo, the utopian promise of a New World, an Elsewhere, is reduced to a bizarre fashion, a trick, a gadget. Virtual mobility and social voyeurism coalesce as the emerging trends of modern life. Frozen in a ridiculous pose, the odd characters and tourists populating Giandomenico’s painting compose the caricature of a society captive to its own masquerade—a society of Pulcinellas. Inside Pulcinella’s machine, Venice itself, the Theater of the World, is caught in a loop, scaled down to the size of a mondo nuovo—a miniature world stage, a gadget. From a Venetian point of view, the phantasmagoria of the Pulcinellas in Giandomenico’s Divertimento and the Stanza announces the beginning of the end of the old Republic—or, more precisely, the sunset of the ideal Venice immortalized by Canaletto and other vedutisti in their paintings for the benefit of countless Grand Tourists. Giandomenico’s Pulcinella cycle can be therefore considered an imaginative, bizarre reflection of the finis Venetiae: the end of the glorious Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic, and the beginning of its afterlife as a caricature of itself, a virtual ghost of its ancient glory. As such, the future that Il Mondo Nuovo announces could indeed be “a future both tragic and comic…peopled by irreverent, foul-mouthed characters, free and equal,” according to the cries for freedom and equality coming from beyond the Alps and, even farther away, the New World.74 And if the Divertimento can indeed be interpreted as the extreme self-portrait of the artist as Pulcinella, Giandomenico is also part of the picture, in multiple disguises.

Yet, who, or what, exactly, is being set in motion by unleashing Pulcinella, this roguish spirit, this embodiment of the Everyman? What is Giandomenico’s real attitude toward the revolutionary cries coming from afar? Are his swarms of Pulcinellas the celebration of a brotherhood of all human beings, Pulcinella’s unique life as “any life,” as Giorgio Agamben has written recently?75 Or do they represent the genie who has broken out of the bottle? Scholars disagree on this point too. Is Giandomenico’s Pulcinellas an expression of corrosive humor, his implicit adherence to, or sympathy with, the new revolutionary ideals? Or does Pulcinella express Giandomenico’s ironic attitude as a skeptical misanthrope, equally detached from the Old World he grew up in and the ideals that herald the New? I agree with the latter view. Seen with disenchanted eyes from his country retreat at Zianigo, the world in 1791 could, indeed, look like a joke, a tragicomedy.

If, in his spectacular scenographies and allegories, Giambattista turned history into phantasmagoria for the benefit of his aristocratic patrons, Giandomenico’s Pulcinella at the end of his own career announces a New World in which history, with all its phantasmagoria, has turned into a farce, a Carnival. In short, Pulcinella’s kingdom on Earth is the domain of nonsense and carefree dance. Seen through his favorite device, the mondo nuovo, from the point of view of Pulcinella-Giandomenico, the New World is nothing but a joke, a lazzo.76 “The New World is an Old Thing for me,” Pulcinella says, “since I’ve seen it at least one hundred and fifty times.”77 But such a reading of Il Mondo Nuovo painting as a scornful prank, and the mondo nuovo device as a distorting, melancholic lens, would not be entirely fair to Giandomenico: he goes on playing unperturbed, in his paintings and drawings, with his irreverent doppelgänger.

Is that what the woman in a conical hat—we recognize her silhouette from the Zianigo painting—points at in one of Giandomenico’s Divertimento drawings (fig. 39)? With her back turned to us, she enigmatically indicates Pulcinella’s daring act as a trapeze artist, a motif repeated on the ceiling of the Stanza dei Pulcinella in Ca’ Rezzonico (fig. 40): the artist’s mask floating above it all, looking down on us, with a mocking sneer.78 And isn’t the crenellated wall in the backdrop of the Divertimento drawing reminiscent of the wall of a casotto—indeed, the same as that which appears as an element of set design in the painting, on the “prompt side” of the stage? Repositioned as the backdrop of Pulcinella’s circus act, does the crenellated wall suggest that this scene, indeed the whole Divertimento, the entire life of Pulcinella takes place not outside but inside the ephemeral enclosure of a casotto, at Carnival time, in the piazzetta? Is this what the woman is telling us, directing our gaze with her enigmatic gesture?

As we look one last time at Il Mondo Nuovo, we realize that we, the observers, are also inscribed in the painting, forever trapped in its optical theater, within its game of mirrors. Inside Giandomenico’s virtual casotto along with Giambattista, Giandomenico, and all his remembered selves, as well as Colombina, Pulcinella, and the other figures of the Tiepolos’ uncanny Carnival, we find ourselves among a cortege of colorful ghosts, caught in the voyeuristic vortex opened by the time machine of Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo, the backstage to the unfathomable New World in which we live.

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