by Giuseppe Frangi
Two masterpieces. Well, one, actually. This could be the title of the complex and curious story of a famous work that Giambattista Tiepolo painted around the year 1740 and which less than a century later was cut up to create what, today, would seem to be two, completely distinct and perfectly finished works.
One part, a grand depiction of a Biblical story, The Finding of Moses, today housed in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, and the other, Alabardiere, a rare jewel part of the Marella and Gianni Agnelli Gallery of Art in Turin.
In theory, were it not for the irrefutable documentary proof, even the most expert eye would be hard-put to detect that these two canvases were a unit. The proportions of the figures are too different, with the halberdier who should be in the background, but actually towers over the real protagonists of the Biblical episode.
In addition, in order to paint this work, Tiepolo was inspired by a prototype painted two centuries earlier by Paolo Veronese and today found in Dijon. In that "model", around the Discovery of the Baby Moses there was no armed figure standing guard.
In short, that addition was something Giambattista Tiepolo came up with, as is authoritatively documented by an old copy of the painting, today attributed to Tiepolo's son, Giandomenico and currently found in Stuttgart.
The news is that from November 17th (to April 1, 2013), all the pieces of this fascinating puzzle will be brought together in Udine Castle in an exhibition entitled I colori della seduzione. Giambattista Tiepolo e Paolo Veronese [The Colors of Seduction. Giambattista Tiepolo and Paolo Veronese], with paintings by these two masters as well as a selection of their drawings loaned by a number of international museums (for more information: www.udinecultura.it).
The centerpiece, obviously, will be the spectacular reunification in a single frame of the dismembered masterpiece.
With this cleared up, the basic question still remains. Why was Tiepolo's large painting cut up? Maybe it was just too big (over four meters at its base,) appropriate to the Venetian palace of Andrea Antonio Giuseppe Corner which was its original home, but too large for the abode of some collector on the other side of the English Channel, as was the plan of art dealer and English consul to Venice, Sir James Wright.
This had always been the most logical hypothesis. But then, a few years ago, two great scholars, Svetlana Alpers (American) and Michael Baxandall (British), wrote a fascinating book (Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, published by Yale University Press) in which they formulate a much more intriguing theory.
According to them, the mutilation of this work was the symptom of an inability to grasp the greatness of the Venetian artist.
According to Alpers and Baxandall, critics have almost always labeled Tiepolo as a great epigone of the Venetian tradition, comparing and contrasting him to Francisco Goya, that artistic genius with a modern viewpoint.
And yet, it is this mutilated painting, if seen once again in its integral form, that calls into question this stereotype and reveals the extraordinarily modernistic language of its Venetian painter. Tiepolo, they explain, is the first artist to conceive of paintings that do not have a single point of perspective from which to be viewed, forcing those looking at them to move and follow how the work develops.
The figure of the halberdier with the extraordinary snow-capped mountains behind him, just as are seen on crisp, clear days from Venice, plays this strategic role of emerging out of the canvas, and with it our viewpoint, no longer centered.
Tiepolo's painting is the first to be in movement, which in order to be understood demands that we put not only our eyes, but also our feet, into motion.