Tiepolo IV: Guardi’s Sister and The Agony in the Garden

 

Continuing her reflections on Tiepolo’s Candaules and Gyges, Dr. Brightman muses, “I wonder whether the model was the painter’s wife . . . If so, she was Guardi’s sister.  Gyges looks rather like the soldier in The Agony in the Garden, who so much resembles General Rommel.” [TK 92/85]

Here it seems Powell’s cluster of art-historical allusions serves to illustrate Dr. Brightman’s erudition rather than advance the plot of Temporary Kings. She drops the name of Guardi as if he were her faculty colleague.  Actually, the Guardi name might describe the three brothers Francesco, Nicolo, and Giovanni Antonio Guardi, whose sister, Maria Cecilia, married Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and bore his nine children.  Francesco (Italian 1712-1793) is usually the cited as the Guardi of record, but in fact it was a workshop that included all three brothers which produced the glorious paintings of the Guardi brand. They include panoramic scenes of 18th century Venice that vie with those of Canaletto for majesty and clarity of detail, but unlike Canaletto, Guardi also produced religious works of great distinction.

Dr. Brightman is not the only one to speculate on the identity of Tiepolo’s models. Maria Cecilia Guardi was often his model. See for example, Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles (1740) now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. To us, the woman in this picture closely resembles Tiepolo’s Cleopatra; however, others have speculated that Cleopatra, whom Dr. Brightman earlier compared to Candaules wife, was based on the patroness of the Villa Labia or on Cristina, the daughter of a Venetian gondolier, for whom Tiepolo abandoned Maria Cecilia when he was 66 (see J. Anderson  Tiepolo’s Cleopatra)

General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel photo, 1942 German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-012-43 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
photo, 1942
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-012-43 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Like all survivors of World War II, Dr. Brightman must have had the name and likeness of General Erwin Rommel (German 1891-1944) vividly in memory. Known as “The Desert Fox” for his brilliant command of Nazi forces in North Africa, Rommel was esteemed by Axis and Allied observers alike. His implication in a plot to assassinate Hitler and his own forced suicide as a consequence must have kept his photo appearing often in British newspapers toward the end of the war.

The same renown does not extend to the soldier in Tiepolo’s Agony in the Garden, which is also known as Christ in the Garden of Gethesmane, which is the garden where Jesus went after the Last Supper and where he was arrested.

Christ in the Garden of Gethesmane Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757 oil on canvas, 20 x 35 in Kunsthalle, Hamburg photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Christ in the Garden of Gethesmane
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757
oil on canvas, 20 x 35 in
Kunsthalle, Hamburg
photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons

The Agony motif does not require the presence of a soldier, and if one of the two hazy figures at the right in Tiepolo’s Agony is indeed a Roman soldier who looks like Rommel, it is only a brilliant scholar like Dr. Brightman who would notice it.  But then, who better than an invention such as Dr. Brightman to give voice to Powell’s own wit and erudition in Temporary Kings?

The centrality of Tiepolo’s work in Temporary Kings serves as a kind of complement to the classicism of Nicolas Poussin, that other giant of the eighteenth century upon whom Powell relies for his animating metaphors.  Poussin’s Dance is a stately round of rising and falling fortunes.  Powell invokes Tiepolo to remind us how sexual desire, lust for power, hubris and nemesis distort and complicate that stately parade.

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