Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: A Family Theme

Further Insights

A Family Theme

Focusing on some of the revelers, our simulation has shown a series of transformations linked to the optical theme of the painting. Yet, an important change also takes place in the social makeup of the crowd. As Adriano Mariuz writes, “The theme performed in the guesthouse at Valmarana [is] revisited [by Giandomenico at Zianigo, thirty-four years later] with the spirit of someone who in the meantime has aged and understands also that the world he loved has aged with him.”40 Mariuz suggests that what in the Villa Valmarana, in 1757, was “a delightful scherzo,” a playful joke, in the Zianigo portego is ”translated into a deliberately rougher language to become a view of contemporary society.” Another interpreter, Harry Mathews, goes so far as to say that the Zianigo painting represents “a society of imbeciles.”41 From this point of view, therefore, what was originally an amusing trompe l’oeil is progressively charged with satirical overtones, turning a scherzo, an aesthetic amusement, into a biting social critique at a time when Venice, in 1791, had already begun its irreversible decline into decadence, just a few years from the traumatic loss of its independence.

There is, indeed, a literal “turn” on display in the 1791 painting. The figures crowding around the mondo nuovo, waiting to virtually travel the world, form a kind of solid wall in front of the observer. Facing the scene at a perpendicular angle, we find ourselves in an odd position: backstage, behind the scenes.42 Mathews has counted twenty-seven figures in total, five of which are somewhat identifiable characters, like “individual notes” outside of what he calls the basso continuo, or figured bass, of the whole group. Mathews thus introduces a musical dimension to the painting that, as we shall see, will provide a suggestive key to our own interpretation of its composition.43 This musical dimension is closely related to the spatial composition: indeed, the fresco presents us with “a parataxis of figures seen from behind, a series of anti-portraits” or, as Mathews describes them, “back-masks.”44 Their faces concealed, the viewer cannot read them. Their “silent,” nonfigural presence challenges us to better understand their role.

Giandomenico’s father, Giambattista, explored the motif of the figure seen from behind in his caricatures (fig. 17). Yet Giandomenico takes his father’s legacy a step further—and in a new direction.45 Take, for example, one of the most peculiar figures on the left of the 1791 fresco, highlighted in our simulation (fig. 18). A certain strangeness emanates from the posture of the body, the forked hairdo or wig, the clothes, and the shoes. Or consider another figure that our simulation brought to the fore: the large woman with a funny, conical hat—a caricature that Mathews wickedly calls Cul Majuscule, “Majestic Ass” (fig. 19). How are we to understand their elusive oddness? Do these figures represent the real source of Il Mondo Nuovo’s unsettling power, the secret of its comic strangeness, through an implicit homage to the comic vein of Giandomenico’s father, Giambattista, “a literal transposition into an image of the expression ‘laughing behind someone’s back’” as Mariuz writes?46 What precisely are these odd characters looking at and what is it that we cannot see?

Let’s now focus our attention on those characters in the 1791 painting who do not have their backs turned and are not masked—the “individual notes,” as Mathews says. From left to right, as shown in our simulation, the main characters in profile are: Pulcinella, the Neapolitan stock figure who has replaced the street peddler or charlatan; a young boy, next to the mondo nuovo, who has replaced the masked figure of a boy holding a magnifying lens; two gentlemen, standing on the right of the mondo nuovo, identified by scholars as the Tiepolos (father and son); and a lady with a dove, a bookend to Pulcinella. We will return to Pulcinella and the lady with a dove; I focus first on the two Tiepolos (the father, Giambattista, and the son, Giandomenico).

Scholars have speculated that their presence suggests a “story” behind the painting. They both look toward the left, their gaze pointing to the mondo nuovo. Indeed, all the gaze lines traversing Giandomenico’s painting, from left to right and right to left, seem to converge on the mondo nuovo or, rather, the child looking into the device, held up in the arms of a figure wearing an elegant red waistcoat with golden epaulettes, perhaps the child’s father, who looks down toward two boys standing next to them, waiting for their turn to look inside (fig. 20).47 Some scholars even speculate that these figures compose a “family group,” a “father accompanied by three boys” and that this family at the center of the picture represents Giambattista himself taking his three children to see the mondo nuovo at Carnival. If the child peeping into the mondo nuovo is an image of “Giandomenico’s remembered self,” the painting would thus look to the past, to Giandomenico’s childhood, with nostalgia. 48 This nostalgic look would also signify an ironic homage to the father, Giambattista, the great illusionist, the master of immeasurable perspectives: peering with amazement into the mondo nuovo, the young Tiepolo (“Giandomenico’s remembered self”) first experiences the power of illusion that characterized his father’s craft.49

Conversely, Jonathan White has suggested that by presenting us with a child looking into the mondo nuovo, the painting actually intends to direct our gaze not to the past but toward an unfathomable future: Giandomenico “wants us to understand that it is the next generation that gazes into the unknown.”50 According to White, “in this new world, the cosmorama [would be] a sign of the very act of looking beyond the known context of Venice, which it makes possible.”51 Looking beyond Venice, perhaps, but from an exquisitely Venetian—and Tiepolesque—perspective. According to this interpretation, the “new world” contained within the painting would thus exist in time, rather than in space. The sense of foreboding that pervades the scene would be for things to come—not distant lands, the longing for an unknown beyond, or Elsewhere; and not things past.

The key to the meaning of Giandomenico’s painting may well lie in the autobiographical “story” that scholars have detected in it: an elaborate flashback opening a sort of temporal vortex in the realistic fabric of the painting. In our interpretation, we’ll go deeper into the story told by the painting, with all its symbolic nuances: it may turn out that past, present, and future are indeed part of a single, manifold space-time continuum, that only a painting can seize and visualize, in all of its simultaneous dimensions.

Indeed, the autobiographical story and the optical theme of the composition coalesce in this interpretation, enabled by our immersive exploration of the painting which reimagines its two-dimensional space in a three-dimensional one, thus also giving depth to the characters that populate it. Taking a cue from Mathews, we can perhaps recognize Giandomenico’s remembered self not only in the child peering into the mondo nuovo, but also in the older boy standing next to the large, enigmatic figure in the yellow frock (“Majestic Ass”).

As our simulation shows, this boy in the middle, waiting his turn to look into the mondo nuovo, has taken the place of the masked figure with the feathered hat holding a magnifying lens, a key hanging from his belt, present in the 1765 versions. In its transformation, this boy, an intermediate figure between the child peering into the mondo nuovo and the grown-up Giandomenico holding a monocle, points to an evolution of the optical theme across generations. In their reciprocal positions, the Tiepolo father-son grouping—the son with the monocle, peering from behind his father’s shoulders, both looking in the direction of the children —create a kind of (asymmetrical) generational chain that links the past to the future, as in a loop.

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