Gwinnett is musing on Iphigenia in Veronese’s depiction of her sacrifice: “Tiepolo painted an Iphigenia too, more than once, though I’ve only seen the one at Villa Valmarana.” [TK 26-7/23]
This is not the only time that Powell refers to this fictional Veronese (see Constable, Pepys, and Veronese at Dogdene); the Tiepolo, however, is real.
As this is the first of many references to Tiepolo in Temporary Kings, it is worth taking a moment to get acquainted with this pillar of 18th century Venetian painting. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696-1770, also known as Gian Battista or Giambattista) was the son of a middle-class Venetian family and trained from an early age to become a painter in the workshop of Gregorio Lazzarini. Tiepolo’s early mastery of drawing, design and paint craftsmanship enabled him to strike out on his own and win commissions from the Doge, the church and private aristocratic patrons not only in Venice but throughout the Veneto.
Tiepolo’s subjects include both Old and New Testament scenes, the lives of saints, both Roman and Greek mythology and allegories of the virtues. Though he is not known as a portraitist, he famously included portraits of himself and other notables among the throngs that populate his paintings. Visitors to Venice (including Powell at the 1958 literary conference that gave him the setting for TK [TKBR 419]) marvel at Tiepolo’s majestic and fantastic ceiling frescoes: apotheoses and allegories that transform roofs into celestial panoramas. His prodigious command of perspective and pictorial organization make his name synonymous with this spectacular Roccoco form.
By the middle of the 18th century Tiepolo’s fame was such that he won commissions for royal residences beyond the Veneto, first in Germany and then in Spain, where he died in 1770. Among Tiepolo’s nine children, his sons Gian Domenico and Gian Lorenzo also won acclaim as painters and printmakers, but their names are not to be confused with that of Gian Battista Tiepolo, a giant of the age.
Gian Battista may have been the most prolific painter of the sacrifice of Iphegenia. His second best known painting of the sacrifice was for the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanti in Vicenza. One painting of the sacrifice that was once attributed to him is now credited to Gian Domenico.
Gwinnett recalls Tiepolo’s fresco at Villa Valmarana in Vicenza, west of Venice. Tiepolo’s Greek classicism here is Roman-flavored in costume and architecture, much favored by Italians of the 18th century. In this depiction, Iphigenia’s father, Agamemnon, stands behind the alter on which his daughter is to be sacrificed to Artemis. That goddess must be placated if winds favorable to Greek ships will blow, allowing them to retrieve the beautiful Helen from her Trojan in-laws. Iphigenia was said to agree to her own sacrifice for the good of Greek unity, and is revered as a heroine for her courage. In Tiepolo’s depiction, a putto flutters at the left with a deer in tow, which Artemis will substitute for Iphigenia at the last minute, whisking the girl off to become a priestess of Artemis’ cult.
Tiepolo’s painting of this drama is tightly fitted into an orange and blue complimentary scheme in pale values, filling it with sunlight and delicate breezes wafting in off the Adriatic. Though the moral weight of Greek tragedy is certainly in evidence here, Tiepolo’s set design is more of a piece with Greek mythology’s incorporation into Italian opera and its sensuous delights.