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31 January 2010


[Tiepolo] decided to copy, as much as he could, the elements used by Veronese in the most imposing version [of the Finding of Moses], which at that time could be seen in the Palazzo Grimani….It is as if Tiepolo made a crafty bet with himself: could he compose a variation that repeated the highest possible number of elements in a picture, while distancing it as far as possible from the original?…But Tiepolo kept faith with his bet and won it in the manner most congenial to him: by making sure no one noticed.

–Roberto Calasso, trans. A. McEwen, Tiepolo Pink, Knopf, 2009, p.47

I am nearing the end of a book the merits of which need to be celebrated far and wide. Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink is a marvel of lucid and poetic writing of which it seems only Italian intellectuals are capable of in the last few decades (like Eco and Calvino). Best of all, Calasso celebrates the artist who for me was a doorway out of the wasteland of modern painting and back to something at once more illuminating, brilliant, and accomplished. He makes Tiepolo relevant, as he did for the gods in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in way at once modern and antithetical to modernism. Calasso, like his subject, wears his learning lightly, and while he may stretch the artist’s interests in magic per se (my own take on what is going on in the Scherzi will follow), the magical quality of those paintings and etchings finally get an ekphrasis worthy of them.

If you have any affinity for the last great fresco painter in the Renaissance humanist tradition, this book is a revelation. If you want to know what was right about Tiepolo and the artists who shaped him, and what is wrong with those who followed him, Calasso is a piercing observer.

What Baudelaire was calling up was that all-embracing air no longer present in painting after the French Revolution. And that air had a name: Tiepolo. The entire nineteenth century was branded, like a herd of cattle, by its absence. One day, without realizing it, it had forever lost the sovereign sense of sprezzatura, of facility and fluidity of movement. That grand air, on a measure with the skies, which for the last time had been perceived with Tiepolo and his family. Of whom Baudelaire knew nothing, because he had not come across their works (no other country had been as reluctant to welcome them as France, a jealous guardian of its affectations and feelings of sovereignty). But with visionary precision he called up that negative silhouette, based on what was lacking, of an air no longer breathed in the overloaded Paris of the Second Empire.

Calasso, p.9

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