Villa Valmarana ai Nani has been one of the major attractions at Vicenza in the Veneto region of northern Italy since 1757, its enduring appeal owing everything to the remarkable frescoes whose popularity has survived war, the vagaries of fashion and partisan critique
In Australia, we are fortunate to have on permanent exhibition in the collections of two of our public galleries three magnificent examples of the art of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), the Venetian master painter of various major decorative fresco cycles still to be seen in situ in Europe and of many other works on canvas which have been dispersed around the world. A recent visit to view the great fresco cycles by Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico, in the Villa Valmarana ai Nani on the outskirts of Vicenza, has provided an occasion to reflect upon their works, particularly the frescoes on exhibition there, and so to place those Tiepolo paintings which we have in Australia in their wider context.
After working for the King of Spain, Tiepolo pere died at Madrid on March 27, 1770, only four weeks before Captain James Cook’s historic first landing at Botany Bay, and at the time when those prerevolutionary tendencies which would bring about the downfall of the ancien régime in France were gathering force. Tiepolo senior may justly be described as the last great representative artist and craftsman of that Old World, and one whose lifespan almost touched upon both the beginnings of the American Republic and the early foundations of Australia as a new British colony. In his 1996 essay “Tiepolo as a Painter of History and Mythology and as a Decorator”, William L. Barcham stated: “precisely because Tiepolo’s breathtakingly beautiful paintings of classical and poetic subject matter speak a language of a lost culture but originate in a time so close to ours, they offer the modern world a unique gateway to the past”.
For many years now we have had ready access to two major autograph pictures by Giambattista Tiepolo, namely the very large canvas of Cleopatra’s Banquet, depicting the profligate Wager of the Pearl to be dissolved in wine, acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria through the Felton Bequest in 1933 and which dominates the permanent exhibition of European Art in the Reid Gallery at the NGV, as well as the smaller but no less exquisite Marriage Allegory of the Corner Family which was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1974 but which is presently exhibited, upon long loan, at the NGV. In addition, it has more recently been confirmed that one of the NGV’s pictures, long thought to have been by Sebastiano Ricci, is in fact by Tiepolo senior. This work, The Finding of Moses, had been much debated. The distinguished Italian art historian Antonio Morassi had considered it to be by Tiepolo; more recent research after careful cleaning of the picture has confirmed Morassi’s attribution, so that Australia now boasts three Tiepolo pictures, in addition to some drawings by the Tiepolos held by public galleries.
The Cleopatra picture looms very large in the NGV collection, much as Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana does at the Louvre in Paris. Indeed, it features on the dust-jacket of the later edition of Ursula Hoff’s European Paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, which also contains a detailed essay on it in Tiepolo’s oeuvre. The Marriage Allegory of the Corner Family was a very early and distinguished acquisition by the Australian National Gallery (as it was then known) and whilst it attracted somewhat less attention than Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, it has proved, from the perspective of how Tiepolo is now seen in the canon of the history of European art, a most worthwhile and thoughtful acquisition. One may even venture further to say that of all those made in the 1970s it was the finest acquisition of its kind for Australia’s national collection. Given that Tiepolo is now seen clearly as one of the last great masters of the eighteenth century, in which modern Australia was founded, it is thus by a happy choice that the NGA holds this work to complement and provide ready local comparison with the larger canvas of the Cleopatra.
Michael Levey, one of the leading modern authorities on Venetian art, has assessed Tiepolo senior as “the greatest decorative painter of eighteenth-century Europe, as well as its most able craftsman”. When Levey revised his book Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice in 1980, he noted that when he first wrote it in 1959, there were few studies of artists such as the Tiepolos available in English. There have now been several major exhibitions and re-assessments of Tiepolo’s work, which have resulted in magnificent books and catalogues that have gone far to revive the artist’s critical and scholarly fortunes. More recently, when Roberto Calasso wrote Tiepolo Pink (mainly about the series by Tiepolo known as the Scherzi) he exposed the lengthy campaign waged by the art historian Roberto Longhi to denigrate Tiepolo in order to boost Caravaggio, his favourite painter. Caravaggio’s high qualities are quite different from those of Tiepolo, so there was perhaps no need for Longhi’s academic assault.
Calasso’s book is an engrossing meditation upon Tiepolo’s works and takes its title from the rare and famous colour which was later dubbed “Tiepolo Pink” as a remembrance and celebration of Tiepolo’s use of it in his frescoes; it was the same kind of identification and distinction that was conferred upon the French painter Nattier by the colourist’s trade description of “Nattier Blue”. However, Calasso also provides an engrossing and telling analysis of the whole troupe or tribe of personages, derived from classical mythology, the deities described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Crusader history and legend and in early Italian literature, as well as the stock characters of figures of the various types associated with the Commedia dell’ Arte. He provides an interesting interpretation of the motives which may be discerned in Tiepolo’s paintings, drawings and etchings, which goes well beyond the facade of the ever-compliant professional painter able and willing to provide the magnificent images which his patrons wanted to see conjured up on the ceilings and walls of their palaces and villas, in Italy and elsewhere.
Levey points to Tiepolo’s great ceiling for the Residenz at Wurzburg as “among the finest achievements of European painting”. Many commentators have concurred in that view; ranging from Sir Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation in 1968 to the recent figure of Waldemar Januszczak in his somewhat more popularising (and even humorous) DVD series Rococo, both of which remark upon the Tiepolo Residenz frescoes as one of the high points of Western European art, as well as being entirely indicative of its epoch.
The Villa Valmarana ai Nani (left) is one of the major attractions at Vicenza in the Veneto region of northern Italy. Vicenza is known as the city of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) and it contains numerous examples of his architecture, including his Basilica in the town centre, together with many other buildings such as the Palazzo Chiericati and the Teatro Olimpico; and there are various country villas spread across the Veneto region, ranging from the famed Villa Rotunda nearby to the Villa Barbaro at Maser and the Villa Emo at Fanzolo near Vedelago. The Palazzina and Foresteria comprising the Villa Valmarana ai Nani were not designed by Palladio, but they are nevertheless Palladian in the Vicentine style. They house the superb series of Tiepolo frescoes which have consistently drawn dedicated art lovers to visit the Villa ever since the Tiepolos finished them in late 1757. The best-documented visit in recent decades was that made by the late Brian Sewell in about 2005 for inclusion in his film series (now on DVD) The Grand Tour.
The Valmaranas are a venerable family in the Veneto and have been associated with the civic life of Vicenza for centuries. The Venetian branch of the family have owned Palladio’s Villa Rotunda in the Berici Hills since 1912, and after extensive restoration work it opened to the public in 1986. It is sited on its hilltop only a short distance from the Villa Valmarana ai Nani. That name derives from a legend to the effect that the residents in a far-off time had a daughter who was dwarfed and consequently, to protect her from that fact, her parents employed only dwarfs as servants. Inevitably, the day came when a handsome prince arrived on horseback and the girl, on seeing him, realised the truth of her situation and threw herself off the tower to her death. At this, the servants all became literally petrified by the tragedy and thus they remain to this day in the form of some seventeen statues of the “nani” (dwarfs), which surmount the walls of the gardens at the Villa.
This legend is not the only special thing about the setting of the Villa on the hill of San Bastian in the Colli Berici; it overlooks the enchanting Valletta del Silenzio, a place of utter tranquillity, where the pastoral scene has been unchanged for centuries. Giulio Vallortigara Valmarana has noted that the Villa features in various literary contexts, including Piccolo Mondo Moderno by the novelist Antonio Fogazzaro (who married Margherita Valmarana), Paul Morand’s Les ecarts amoreaux, Edith Wharton’s Pienezza di Vita, Susan Wise’s Un conte Presque bleu and Viola by Alessandra d’Agosti, all of which have settings in the Villa. The current chatelaine of the Villa is the Contessa Carolina Valmarana who, assisted by other members of her family including Giuseppe Vallortigara and his son Giulio, looks after the Villa and the frescoes for the public who come to marvel at what the Tiepolos painted, both in the main Palazzina itself and in the nearby Foresteria in which guests were accommodated. They were frescoed by the Tiepolos, father and son, commencing in 1757, in response to the generous commission of Count Giustino di Valmarana, who died just as they began.
One starts with the frescoes executed by Tiepolo senior in the Palazzina. In his book Venetian Painting (1958), Jean-Louis Vaudoyer wrote:
They are romantic illustrations of scenes from the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Orlando Furioso and the Gerusalemme Liberata. Their luminous brilliance reinforces that of the flowers in the garden seen from window after window, thus apparently reflecting the landscape in magic mirrors. Just as in fairy-tale, the illusions of a May morning have been converted by enchantment into the forms of delightful young people, a poet’s vision of girlhood, improvising the most amusing comedies, the most graceful dances, as the sun mounts higher. Everything is weightless. All the shadows are dimly blue, golden, rosy or lilac-coloured. No other painter in fresco, with the possible exception of Piero della Francesca—to whom, however, there can be no question of relating Tiepolo—possessed to this extent the gift of etherealizing the elements of a painting and capturing the variety of degree in the most fragile, fugitive and unstable hues.
This last is a most important point, for as Vaudoyer earlier notes:
they are painted in fresco. This procedure demands a rapidity and assurance of execution which forbid drafting, sketching, retouching and second thoughts. The work must be undertaken, pursued and finished on a single impulse, before the layer of fresh mortar, which greedily absorbs the colouring matter, dries out. Furthermore, a fresco can only be painted passage by passage, each in its entirety … The imaginative and executive faculties of the fresco painter must therefore be exercised simultaneously. Tiepolo possessed both these faculties in sovereign measure.
This is the key to these great cycles in the Villa.
The scene depicted in the entrance hall on the piano nobile is the tragedy of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis (right), which is prevented by the goddess Diana sending “one of her own hinds in place of the intended victim”, as Fernando Rigon descibes it in his book Giambattista e Giandomenico Tiepolo, Villa Valmarana ai Nani. Diana appears on the ceiling, “allowing the winds to blow once more on the Greek fleet” whilst “on the panels over the doors, the four rivers of the planet emphasize and re-affirm the universal dimension of the tragic episode as a key event in the adventure of mankind on Earth, evolving over time from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice”. In the first room, the subject is the Iliad and “the focus is on the opening of Homer’s masterpiece epic with the ‘fatal wrath’ of Achilles after his chief, Agamemnon, has seized Briseis, his favourite slave”. Nearby, Eros is shown in flight, over a small rural landscape by the younger Tiepolo. On the ceiling, the goddess Minerva “intervenes directly, in disguise, to restrain the Greek hero, who is enraged by the injustice and seizes him by the hair”. Finally, we see Achilles down by the sea and “consoled by his Mother who has emerged from the waves”.
The second is the Orlando Furioso room where, as Rigon notes, there are trompe-l’oeil effects simulating framings in the Rococo style. It is worth noting that most of the quadraturist and perspective work was done for Tiepolo by Gerolamo Mengozzi-Colonna. Here, as Rigon notes:
it is Angelica, the delicate young lady so hotly disputed by the knights of Ariosto’s poem, who falls in love with Medoro, a young, unknown soldier whose wounds she has so compassionately tended to. The humanizing power of Love, her supposed blindness and the freedom of her choices are celebrated in her triumph on the ceiling.
Next comes the third room, decorated with scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas unwittingly brings into the presence of Dido, Queen of Carthage, the figure of Eros who has been disguised by Venus as Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, at “a banquet in honour of the castaway on the African shores of her realm”. Sadly, Venus’s triumph, depicted by Tiepolo on the ceiling, was lost due to a bombardment of the upper rooms of the Villa in the Second World War.
The fourth and last room of the cycle in the Palazzina depicts four scenes from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, “the story of Rinaldo who, enamoured of the enchantress Armida, the enticer and seductress of knights, lays down his arms and abandons his duties as a hero in the liberation of Jerusalem from the infidels”. Rigon notes that in this room:
Tiepolo captures all the literary qualities of Tasso, conveying with his brush the typical characteristics of the literary genre of elegy. The tone is mostly sentimental and amorous, but it inevitably has a moral element to it. When his senses return to the realm of reason, Rinaldo leaves his beloved and returns to his military duties. The Shadows of passion can thus be defeated by the Light of intelligence on the ceiling … Giambattista’s art reaches its height in this parting shot: in the tenuous and toned-down colours, in the emotional and languorous atmosphere that seems to match that of the nature outside, as the light of sunset streams into a room that faces west, in an autumn of maturity and ripening. This is a reciprocal mood, and it fully restores the incantation of Armida’s enchanted garden of the mind.
These scenes of Rinaldo and Armida carry special and even contemporary significance, in that one of the frescoes shows Rinaldo’s military colleagues holding up to him a shield as if a mirror, thus curtly reminding him that unless martial duty is given priority over decadent diversions, those enemies bent on dominating and destroying the city and its civilization will succeed. Rinaldo is thus shamed at seeing himself reflected on the shield amidst floral fripperies. There is a lesson here still for our times. The scenes commissioned by Count Giustino Valmarana reflect not only Humanist meditations on classical themes, but also carry stern messages to recall the viewer to hard reality. The Valmarana family has a distinguished tradition of military service; and in one room of the Villa Rotunda, for instance, stands a large artillery shell as a memento of the Alpine and Veneto campaigns of the Italian Army against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany in the First World War.
We now move to the Foresteria. Rigon points out:
the Foresteria, or guest house, of the Villa is much more than just an annexe, in terms of both location and size, for it dominates the entrance to the residential complex. The proprietors wished their guests, some of whom would have been just passing through, to find decorations at least as important as those in the main residence. Giambattista kept the fresco decoration of just one room solely for himself, leaving almost all the others, which were larger than those in the Palazzina, for his son. There were no fewer than seven rooms, all with the same delightful view of the natural surroundings of the secluded Valletta del Silenzio. From the North, there is a Chinese room, a room with “rustic scenes”, a “Gothic Pavilion”, a room of the Gods, a room of “Carnival Scenes” and a room of “Putti”. Only in the main hall, towards the left, which starts the tour, the elder Tiepolo embarked upon his ultimate exploit, devoting it entirely to the Olympian deities of Antiquity.
Here, as Rigon so eloquently puts it:
the seven main representations (like the seven planets known at the time and the seven days of the week) are summoned to the walls, starting with the king, Jove, on the wall between the two windows opposite the entrance. The series continues with the two most celebrated divine couples: the lovers Mars and Venus, engrossed in their irreconcilable passion on the left, and the twins Apollo-Sun and Diana-Moon on the right, with the latter fading in the radiant brilliance of the former. On the two portions of the entrance wall, a conventional and yet inspired Mercury is echoed by the inscrutable figure of Saturn’s elusive profile. He does not show his age-old face but simply the sole of his foot and his scythe, with the weighty traces and rapid swipes of which he slices the soil and hacks down life.
It completes Tiepolo senior’s part in the extensive fresco work executed at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani.
It is important to note that this is not merely, as the Contessa Valmarana has noted, a matter of a turning “from the Father to the Son”, but that it is also a moment of poignancy for the whole lifework of Tiepolo. Although Tiepolo would go on to do other great fresco works, notably for the Spanish Crown in the Royal Palace at Madrid, this change to the younger artist is also of great symbolic significance in the history of Western painting. For, as Rigon says, this
aristocratic leave-taking of the patrons, heroes of literary culture deified by the painting, who loved the pretence of a world of fables brought to life by notes of the sublime, is here interpreted for the last time by Tiepolo. Hereafter, he would hand over to his young son, who was born in the 1720s. Giandomenico proved best at interpreting modernity and contemporaneity, and for the “foresti”—the guests—who were used to journeying through the land to the fashionable venues of their age, he brought out a sweeping repertoire that ranged from exoticism, which had by then turned into Orientalism, to strange birds, “lunar” rites similar to those of Gozzi’s plays, Levantine trade in porcelain and in the rarest silks and sweetest fruits, all the way through the dawning eclecticism that was to become so dear to the bourgeoisie.
Indeed, some observers have found in the younger Tiepolo’s work on these rooms the premonitory indications of modern realist or “vernacular” painting, not quite yet Courbet-like, but a distinct turning away from the Arcadian realms of the deities as depicted by Tiepolo senior, to scenes of everyday life, or at least, of an idyllic pastoral and times of rural festivity. Hence, as Rigon says:
this concession to “landscape” in the various seasons of the year is matched by an opening out to nature, in its closest and most immediate form, complete with views of peasants and country folk in the Venetian countryside. In an adjacent room, which is close to the earth and its products, the field workers, who are decorously civilised and no longer simply poverty-stricken, in their own way offer the “natural” origin of reason, as championed by the Enlightenment. They turn their backs on the remains of fauns and satyresses, inhabitants of the woods and clearings of an Arcadia that has now disappeared forever and which, against a monochrome background, stretches out on the tympana of ornamental panels over the doors. The colours are flawless, assertive and forthcoming, with an instantly comprehensible mundaneness, like the vernacular of popular culture. In the more secluded rooms, it is the merriment of town and villa that comes to the fore. This ranges from the private joy of breakfast with chocolate, between a black boy serving it and a little chained monkey fretting on the balustrades of two fake staircases, to that of the streets and little Venetian squares with carnival masks. It includes the cosmorama of the new world, or “mondo novo”, the diviner’s hut, as in the gazettes, in performances of the Commedia dell’Arte or of Goldoni’s “reformed theatre”, somewhere between the comic and the satiric … [and] … small figures of peasants make their way towards a distant village, turning their backs on the rural world of their origins, which was falling into disrepair and becoming urbanized in a society that already foresaw an industrial revolution in the offing.
However, here one must be on guard against the modern art historian’s almost compulsive desire to correlate developments in painting with those in the social and political spheres. And whilst comments like those of Rigon have some validity, they should not be carried too far in some general attempt to locate in the younger Tiepolo’s frescoes the reflections of an apprehension by him of a world about to change irrevocably and to improve. Such change was not necessarily going to turn out all for the better, as the twentieth century was ultimately to show. And already, even in Giandomenico’s paintings in the Foresteria, we can find also more ominous apprehensions of the fate of the ordinary person, and especially of older and infirm people, in such a “brave new world” as the idealists of the so-called “Enlightenment” sought to envision it. Brian Sewell pointed to Giandomenico’s image of an elderly woman who is resting on her way to market in the town with a heavy basket of eggs to sell. As Sewell says, on closer inspection, she is not merely resting: the whole effort is not easy for her, as she is disabled and probably arthritic, as suggested by the crutch or walking stick on the ground and her swollen ankles. This figure of an elderly woman may well be derived from a similarly garbed and posed figure of an elderly woman seated with a basket of produce who appears in Titian’s Presentation in the Temple in the Accademia Gallery at Venice.
Francis Haskell, in his important study Patrons and Painters: Art and Society in Baroque Italy (1963), has commented on what the Tiepolos created at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani in response to the family’s commission for fresco decorations, noting:
Only very rarely did Tiepolo stray from dreams of grandeur to the world of pure enchantment. The most striking instance is in the beautiful series of frescoes illustrating romantic scenes from Homer, Virgil, Tasso and Ariosto which he painted for the Valmarana family at Vicenza.
Writing of Giandomenico’s scheme in the Foresteria, Antonio Morassi stated that “it constitutes one of the highest pinnacles of eighteenth-century villa painting”. Goethe saw the frescoes on his Italian journey in 1786, but whilst admiring them, had some reservations about Tiepolo’s work in the “sublime style” and the contrast between the mythological frescoes of the Palazzina and those of the Foresteria; but this seems a trivial objection now that the division of work between the father and son is clear. Dr Precerutti Garberi notes that “the nineteenth century drew a veil of oblivion over Tiepolo” but that in about 1880, Molmenti noted the Valmarana decorations, yet his erroneous reading of a date on the frescoes as 1737 long prevented a proper understanding of the history of the frescoes until, in 1941, Morassi discovered that the signatures were of Giandomenico, and then the correct date was deciphered as being 1757.
One cannot pass from these assessments without noting the detailed study of the frescoes by Rodolfo Pallucchini, Gli affreschi di Giambattista e Giandomenico Tiepolo alla Villa Valmarana di Vicenza (1945). Whilst its 134 main plates are monochrome only, it remains an authoritative work on the frescoes. Pallucchini concluded his essay by remarking:
the frescoes of the Villa Valmarana constitute an essential moment in the development of Venetian artistic culture in the eighteenth century, especially in the evident differentiation of two tastes or manners; and above all, by the high affirmation of lyrical abandon yet a coherence of style in the pictures by Giambattista Tiepolo and also offering very clear and coherent instances of the contrasting taste of Giandomenico.
In a thoughtful essay on works by the Spanish master Zurbaran, Somerset Maugham wrote: “There is in them the easy power of a craftsman who knows his business.” Much the same can be said of the Tiepolos’ works, yet their facility was nothing “easy”, but long matured.
Overall then, it is clear that the important and beautiful cycles of frescoes by the Tiepolos, father and son, which decorate the rooms at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani at Vicenza are amongst the finest things ever done by the Tiepolos. They are also of signal importance as showing turning points in the achievements of each of the artists in this family team. We may recall here that in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Lord Marchmain quizzes Charles Ryder as to his interests in Venetian painting, Ryder nervously offers the name “Bellini”, only to be asked “Yes? Which? … [there were] three to be precise … in the great ages painting was very much a family business.” So it was with the Tiepolos; and likewise, it simply will not do for anyone visiting Venice and the Veneto in search of the works of the Tiepolos to leave their explorations at what can be found in palazzi and galleries in Venice such as the Ca Rezzonico, where Giandomenico’s Villa Zianigo frescoes now are. A visit to view the Tiepolo frescoes at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani is indispensable to any serious student of the works of both of the Tiepolos.
This consideration of those fresco cycles at Vicenza also serves to place better in their wider context our three pictures by Tiepolo senior, which now hang in the National Gallery of Victoria at Melbourne. The large Cleopatra’s Banquet canvas of 1743–44 is cognate with similar large canvases by Tiepolo in major European galleries and also with the style of working seen in the frescoes on poetic and legendary themes in the rooms of the Palazzina and entrance hall of the Foresteria at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani. Whilst Australia lacks an example of the younger Tiepolo’s painted works, we do have the remarkable ceilingpiece by his father, Marriage Allegory of the Corner Family, which at least gives us an example of his depiction of the nobility in an idealised and allegorical setting, just as Giandomenico’s rooms in the Foresteria at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani show us depictions of country folk and of rural labourers resting in their pastoral settings. The NGV’s more recently identified work The Finding of Moses (1740–45) by Tiepolo senior also provides an example of his developed work, depicting an extensive group of figures in a wooded landscape, and is cognate with the work in the Palazzina cycles.
The foundations of European settlement in Australia in the late eighteenth century have been recalled by Michael Pembroke’s excellent book Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy (2013). As Pembroke makes clear, Governor Phillip was not merely a most capable navigator, a captain of sailors, an enlightened and able administrator, but also a cultured man, so it is appropriate that significant works by the hand of Tiepolo senior, the Old World’s most gifted fresco painter active in Phillip’s own lifetime, now reside in public collections of the nation Phillip founded, accessible to the Australian people for study and enjoyment.
Lastly, permit me to mention a couple of points of Australian interest from my recent visit to the Villa Valmarana ai Nani at Vicenza. First, to note that among the various portrait photographs of family and visitors to the Villa, such as the late Queen Mother, the sepia photograph of Sarah Bernhardt was taken by Falk Studios of George Street, Sydney, in 1891. Second, my driver to the Villa was named Rodney, who cheerfully informed me he was an Australian, from Canberra.
I am grateful to the Valmarana family for assistance they kindly provided.
Dr Hassall visited Vicenza to see the Tiepolo frescoes in September 2015.