Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: An Uncanny (Musical) Scherzo

Further Insights

An Uncanny (Musical) Scherzo

In light of its autobiographical dimension, the scherzo embedded in the mondo nuovo may in turn hide a more subtle psychological conundrum, a more intimate Oedipal ambivalence on the part of Giandomenico. The double self-portrait of the Tiepolos, father and son, inserted into the painting alerts us to another intriguing possibility: Could Pulcinella serve as a double for both Giambattista and Giandomenico, inseparable and complicit in their artistic destiny? Indeed, as already mentioned, the source of Giandomenico’s Pulcinella drawings is found in another set of Giambattista’s drawings: his enigmatic and uncanny Scherzi di Fantasia, in which the white ghost of Pulcinella peeks out from a gravestone “among…skulls, and scattered bones,” or gives counsel to a strange assembly of characters, part of an allegorical meditation about life and death (figs. 34 and 35).65 Is Giandomenico’s old age divertimento, his self-portrait as a jocular Pulcinella, also an exorcism of this gloomier paternal version? Who is Pulcinella, really, this mocking doppelgänger who has long inhabited the Tiepolo household? A childhood toy turned into a frightening phantasm?66 The eruption of the Unheimlich, the Uncanny into the peaceful domestic realm of the Zianigo country retreat?

Pulcinella’s intrusion in Il Mondo Nuovo can help us explain Giandomenico’s painting as an ambivalent homage to the paternal legacy—a scherzo turned into a lazzo. Here lies the clue that enables us to connect the optical and musical motifs of Il Mondo Nuovo. Following the musical analogy introduced by Mathews, we can now recognize in the 1791 painting a transformation of the Carnival scene that has found so many representations in Giandomenico’s career, beginning with The Minuet of 1754 in which Pulcinella makes an appearance, his white, conical hat rising from a crowd of revelers and thespians, and culminating in the 104 variations of the Divertimento drawings (fig. 36).

In musical terms, the scherzo of Il Mondo Nuovo can be interpreted as the evolution of a dancing minuet, a prelude to Giandomenico’s last compositions, the Divertimento and the Stanza dei Pulcinella. This is appropriate, considering that musically the scherzo is the autonomous development of a dance movement, usually the third movement, customarily a minuet. Indeed, from Boccherini and Haydn to Mozart and Beethoven, some scholars have seen this development as a transformation from Ancien Régime courtly formality to subversive Romantic humor. The formal, slightly ridiculous aristocratic figures dancing the minuet in the scene painted by Giandomenico in 1791 (fig. 37) have been ultimately replaced by the unruly cortege of tumbling Pulcinellas in the Divertimento.67

Over the course of forty years, both the mondo nuovo and Pulcinella, the ghost of Carnival, took center stage in Giandomenico’s work. Perhaps our obstinate search for an additional lens, and a hidden meaning, in Il Mondo Nuovo has led us to this final discovery: Giandomenico’s Pulcinella embodies a dual optical and musical riddle that ironically sums up both a family heritage and an entire artistic and theatrical civilization, from Rococo to Pre-Romanticism, from the Old World to a somewhat disquieting, somewhat sardonic glimpse of the New. Just as the optical theme of Il Mondo Nuovo evolves from a playful trompe l’oeil to a satirical magnifying lens trained on a scene of collective voyeurism, the musical theme of Il Mondo Nuovo evolves from a Rococo dance in minor key—a minuet—to a Romantic “demonic scherzo,” a genre that “has a special affinity with the topos of the danse macabre,” as Lóránt Péteri writes. 68 In short, Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo is the prelude to a symphony of ghosts, a real phantasmagoria disguised as child’s play: the uncanny Divertimento per li regazzi.

“The commonly attributed features of a scherzo,” Péteri adds, “its agility and its dance or mime like quality—immediately raise the question of what or who is moving, what or who is being set in motion.” 69 Isn’t this also the tension between immobility and movement that we can detect in Giandomenico’s several versions of the painted Minuet? It’s the same tension that indeed pervades Il Mondo Nuovo and its figures and caricatures, frozen in place, caught in odd poses, as in a snapshot. This tension is finally unleashed, in the 104 drawings, in the jumble of the Pulcinellas: a decorous ballroom dance, the minuet, turned into an unbridled tarantella, or a furlana, a feverish popular dance that we might think of as the musical equivalent of a lazzo (fig. 38).

If Giandomenico’s painting is indeed an elaborate optical and musical scherzo, the farewell of an artist who looks back with ironic nostalgia over a life and career spent in the shadow of a great father, then, we could perhaps apply to Il Mondo Nuovo what Gustav Mahler is reported to have said in a letter about his own musical scherzo, the third movement of his Symphony no. 2, Resurrection. In it, the “world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror,” a telescopic mirror that gazes into the past and sees a distant future; and what it sees, at an incommensurable distance, is reflected in the eyes of “one who has lost his identity and his happiness.” 70

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