Instead, it is this eminently pagan bonded pair of youth and age, male and female, that bears the burden of his reality; whether they represent — for the moment — Truth and Time, Venus and Vulcan, Hades and Persephone, Venus and Time, deep down, they are all one and the same, the eternal wedding of opposites.
His old men are still powerfully muscular, and his milk-white women have the strength of body and will to match their venerable consorts. Tiepolo returned repeatedly to painting the contrast between a besotted Marc Antony and a majestic, disdainful Cleopatra, acting out the eternal strife of war and love, Mars and Venus. In his career as a publisher and writer, Calasso has always shown himself to be a voracious reader, but he reveals himself in this book as a no less ravenous observer who brings a voluptuary delight to all his descriptions — especially to his descriptions of paint and painted flesh crucially, and fortunately, the book itself is a beautiful object, lavishly furnished with illustrations.
Tiepolo layers paint so lightly that we can often see the exquisite underdrawing beneath, and are meant to. For all his skill with colour, he is as much a graphic artist as a painter, and it is the graphic artist who may fascinate Calasso most of all. Carnival season began on the first Sunday in October, gathered momentum after Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, and culminated in the week before Lent. Seven characters, seen from behind, are walking tranquilly in a rainfall that cannot be seen. What strikes one is the silence, the solitude of the strollers.
They are close, they are going in the same direction — and they ignore one another. Put another way, did either Tiepolo, father or son, ever create a figure that did not tell a story? The engravings — at least here we are on firm ground — are openly fanciful. The ground slips from beneath us as soon as we try to pin a date on them, but basically they were done when Giambattista was in his 40s and early 50s; they are works of his maturity but not his old age.
Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso
The people of the engravings are anything but reassuring. There are warriors, a mangy dog, a tombstone or tombstones, a pyramid, ancient urns, a barren branch, a writhing snake wrapped around a rod an emblem signifying the passage between life and death , owls, satyrs, nymphs, skulls, an axe, young men and women.
Tiepolo, of course, was not the only Venetian for whom antiquity had taken on an aura of menace; however distinctly his infinitely light touch with the burin may divide his engraving style from that of Piranesi, there is a similar sense in their engraved work that the ancient world hovers over the modern like a gathering storm. Ruins are beautiful spurs to the imagination, but they also tell terrible histories of corruption, violence, calamity, destruction and they give us the measure of our own lives with pitiless precision.
Tiepolo, so far as we know, never stood under the shattered vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius or saw the coins that melted when the Visigoths sacked Rome, but he could see enough in Venice itself to suggest that he and everyone he knew were creatures of a day.
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What was lurking down those canals at night, or on those winter days when the fog hovered over shrouded figures? When epidemics struck? What was it like to take a headful of harlequin players off to the green mountains of Bavaria, or the arid heights of Madrid? For one of the most striking qualities about Tiepolo and contemporaries such as Georg Friedrich Handel is the extent to which they still inhabited a world pervaded, perhaps driven outright, by myth. Julian Barnes.
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