We have anticipated seeing Candaules and Gyges. Earlier in TK, Nick discussed the day’s extra-curricular activities with Russell Gwinnett and Dr. Emily Brightman. We learned that the Venitian palazzo of the socialite Jacky Bragadin, distant descendant of Marcantonio Bragadin, the patron of Giacomo Casanova, harboured a Tiepolo ceiling almost never on view to the public. Dr. Brightman described the ceiling as “‘One of the painter’s classical scenes—Candaules and Gyges. The subject, thought to have some contemporary reference, caused trouble at the time the ceiling was painted. That’s why the tradition of playing the picture down, keeping it almost a secret, has persisted almost to the present day.’” Gwinnett added, “”I’ve been told it’s not unlike the Villa Valmarana Iphigenia in composition . . . The owner won’t allow it to be photographed.’” [TK 41-43]
As with several others of Dance’s most evocative works of art (e.g., The Seven Deadly Sins tapestries at Stourwater [BM 199/190]), this one also is Powell’s fiction, a convincing synthesis of art-historical clues and clever plot drivers. There is a Bragadin palazzo in Venice, now made into a boutique hotel that boasts Marcantonio and Casanova as former occupants of the building. And of course, Venice is home to many Tiepolo ceilings, but none anywhere depicting Candaules and Gyges, a somewhat obscure tale of sexual intrigue and betrayal.
We learn at length, and soon enough, the image content of Tiepolo’s ceiling and the extended tale on which it is based [TK 81-90], so there is no need to spoil the reader’s fun by revealing it here. But it is worth remarking on the cleverness of Powell’s conceit that this painting is said to be similar in composition to Tiepolo’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia, for it allows Powell to describe in the most vivid terms this imaginary ceiling while looking at its alleged real-life look-alike in the Villa Valmarana, which we have documented earlier. [TK 26-27/22-23] This extended evocation of a glorious–if imaginary– work of art stands out from Powell’s usual brief, deceptively casual, artistic references. Here Powell rivals the majesty of his ekphrasis of the Poussin painting that sets in motion the entire enterprise of the Dance. The prominence of this description of Candaules and Gyges announces its importance as a metaphor in Temporary Kings and reminds us of Powell’s deep conviction of art’s power to assign meaning to life’s apparent chaos.
Even Tiepolo’s sublime color palate is harnessed to Powell’s enterprise. Nick looks from the colors on the ceiling to Pamela Fitton’s costume:
White trousers, thin as gauze, stretched skintight across elegantly compact small haunches, challengingly exhibited, yet elegantly formed; hard, pointed breasts, no less contentious and smally compassed, under a shirt patterned in crimson and peacock blue, stuck out like delicately shaped bosses of a shield. These colours might have been expressly designed — by dissonance as much as harmony — for juxtaposition against those pouring down in brilliant rays of light from the Tiepolo; subtle yet penetrating pinks and greys, light blue turning almost to lavender, rich saffrons and cinnamons melting into bronze and gold. [TK 88]
We wonder if this passage is another Powellian homage to Proust, who was so enchanted by Tiepolo’s colors that he used them to describe the clothes of the women about whom he obsessed — Odette, the Duchesse of Guermantes, and Albertine. Albertine wore a Fortuny gown with sleeves of “cherry pink which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.” (quoted in Karpeles Paintings in Proust, p. 260). We like to imagine that the crimson of Pamela’s shirt rivaled the “cloak of a magnificent Tiepolo red” worn by the Duchesse. (quoted by Stebbins Ruskin, Proust, and Carpaccio in Venice in MacDonald and Proulx Proust and the Arts, p. 85)
Finally, while a painted episode from the tale of Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo is a fictional feature of the Dance, the scene of King Candaules offering his naked wife to the secret view of his friend Gyges is the dramatic subject of at least five other paintings that we have identified. The earliest is by Jacob Jordaens (Flemish 1593-1678) and is notable for its recruitment of the viewer into the voyeurism attributed to Gyges and his enabler, Candaules.
A second Candaules and Gyges is by William Etty (British 1787-1849) and resides currently in the Tate Britain. It shows passages of expert rendering of flesh, but to our eyes a very awkward pictorial arrangement.
Finally, a rendition of the same scene in 1859 by the academic Jean-Léon Gérôme (French 1824-1904) is more stately and balanced, if lacking in the drama the scene suggests.
Given these less than compelling alternatives, perhaps Powell was right to simply invent the painting that would combine Tiepolo’s ethereal color, elegant figures, movement-filled stage management and titillating wit to serve as the central motif in the unravelling mystery of Pamela and Kenneth Widmerpool’s marriage.