Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: A Pictorial Cosmorama

Further Insights

A Pictorial Cosmorama

The playful attitude of the Tiepolos toward their own craft can be traced back to an earlier stage in their careers. The supposed double portrait of the Tiepolos in the Zianigo painting is reminiscent of another double self-portrait on the ceiling of the monumental staircase in the bishop’s residence at Würzburg, which Giambattista completed in the early 1750s with the help of Giandomenico, then only twenty-three years old (fig. 23). The allegorical representation of the four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America) is one of the most spectacular scenographic inventions of Giambattista, the master illusionist of eighteenth-century Venetian painting, whose trompe l’oeils could be themselves described as elaborate optical devices. Painted on the ceiling and the cornice overlooking the staircase, the allegories form the equivalent of an extraordinary pictorial cosmorama (fig. 24).

The two Tiepolos, father and son, peek out of a corner on the ceiling, above the allegory of Europe (fig. 25). The young Giandomenico is wearing a fashionable wig and appears to be looking straight at us, from behind his father’s shoulders; upon further examination, he seems to be simultaneously glancing sideways at his father. Giambattista, wearing the clothes of the trade, a painter’s cap and blouse, seems to be looking intently at the allegory of Europe, thus inviting us to do the same.

Giambattista’s gaze also seems to point in the direction of another detail in the fresco, a slightly awkward female figure in the foreground, dressed in a pink gown (the older Tiepolo’s signature color); she holds a palette and is intent on painting what looks like a map of the earth, or a globe (fig. 26). In a provocative interpretation of Giambattista’s work, Roberto Calasso has described this lady in pink as a quasi-caricature of Madame Painting.54 Calasso links the image of Madame Painting to another caricature found in the allegorical cycle, right below the allegory of America, the New World.55 A “most comical figure, in precarious balance on the cornice of the fresco,” this “intruder,” as Calasso writes, perilously balancing on the edge of “the most dangerous point of the Four Continents,” is “another example of Tiepolo’s virtuoso mastery of perspective.”56 He wears the same taupe-colored jacket as the man with the monocle in the Zianigo painting. We catch a glimpse of this character only from the back, but he is unmistakable because he is “clinging desperately to a large portfolio, his only handhold”—he is the caricature of an artist.57 Calasso goes on to identify this intruder as a personification of the West, “the most reliable,” if ridiculous, “portrait of a civilization.” (fig. 27) 58

Perhaps the connection between the Würzburg cosmorama and the optical theme of the mondo nuovo is also to be found in this family joke, a scherzo about painting, alluded to in both the double cameos on the Würzburg ceiling and the Zianigo wall. Indeed, upon closer inspection, something else catches our eye in the allegory of Europe, where the master and his apprentice, father and son, have nested their self-portraits: what looks like a wooden canopy or scaffolding, hanging over two marble shapes—a truncated column and an elongated altar that form a sort of abstract archaeological capriccio (fig. 28). It is a somewhat odd compositional detail, perhaps a witty reminder that in order to produce elegant marble imitations and hang their deceivingly solid projections on a ceiling, suspended over a monumental staircase, the painter needs to climb perilous scaffolds.

This wooden structure, or scaffolding, indeed recalls the crenellated wooden wall in Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo that we have described as the wall of a casotto, one of those wooden shacks that hosted ephemeral attractions in the piazzetta (fig. 16). Further, we can link the decapitated column of this architectural composition to the column that, in the two 1765 oil paintings, is truncated by the top edge of the canvas (fig. 29). Moreover, in the left-hand corner of the Europe allegory, a massive dome topped with a small minaret-shaped flagpole, reminiscent of San Marco’s cupolas, looms directly over the heads of the two Tiepolos. In a curious symmetry, its curve seems to mirror the curve of the globe that the lady in pink is painting in the opposite corner of the image. On the concave side wall of the large dome, we notice what looks like a roundel or a window, distorted by the slanted perspective from the bottom up. What does this bizarre architectural shape, incongruously floating in the background, as though seen through a distorting mirror, remind us of, if not the lantern and peepholes of a mondo nuovo? Perhaps this detail further confirms that the optical riddle hidden in Giandomenico’s 1791 version of Il Mondo Nuovo can indeed be deciphered as an inside joke that the son plays on his father as well as on himself: a playful, nostalgic reference to their shoulder-to-shoulder work on the Würzburg ceiling.

In his essay, Calasso implies that the allegory of Europe can be read as a transfiguration of Venice: an old civilization fascinated by the discoveries of a New World that, in fact, reshape and unhinge her own cosmography (just as the lady in pink repaints the globe), irreversibly shifting its axis from East to West, from the Mediterranean and the Silk Road to the Atlantic.59 It is not implausible to conclude from our quick tour of the dizzying Tiepolo cosmorama at Würzburg that Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo could contain a tongue-in-cheek reference to his native city as well: another scherzo about painting—and Venice. Venice: an ideal city of stone and marble built on an underwater forest of wooden poles, an invisible scaffold supporting its ancient, monumental weight. Venice: the ultimate pictorial mirage, seen from afar. Venice: the city of Carnival, the ultimate optical box, painted from within. As an architectural, theatrical, and pictorial device, the mondo nuovo contains them both. A perfect mise-en-abîme.

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