TIEPOLO, Giovanni Battista
(b. 1696, Venezia, d. 1770, Madrid)
An Allegory with Venus and Time1754-58
Oil on canvas, 292 x 190 cm
National Gallery, London
To enter fully the radiant world of Tiepolo we must travel - to Venice, his native city, then back to the mainland to Udine and Vicenza, across the Alps to Würzburg in Bavaria, finally to Madrid in Spain where, fearing the shift of taste in his homeland, he elected to spend the last years of his life. The greatest decorative painter of his century, he was happiest working in fresco where his 'rapid and resolute' manner was a technical necessity. Under his virtuoso brush airy spaces, shimmering with light, opened on walls and ceilings to admit heroic beings - Christian, mythological, allegorical, historic or poetic - dazzling to mortal viewers. He has been called the last Renaissance painter, and borrowed much from Veronese. But Tiepolo, even more than Veronese, was never wholly serious when painting epic. He can be majestic but not solemn; poignant rather than tragic. In the century which discovered feminine sensibility, he introduced a note of tenderness into the sternest and loftiest imagery.
Luckily for us, something of the freshness of Tiepolo's mural decorations is preserved in his oil sketches and in this canvas, painted to be inserted into the ceiling of a room in one of the many Venetian palaces of the Contarini family. It is designed to be seen from below, but at an angle, as we step through the door. From infinitely luminous skies, Venus, sumptuous in her white, gold and pink nudity, has swooped down in her chariot; her team of doves, released from harness flutter lovingly above her, and from a dawn-tinted cloud the Three Graces strew roses. Below, winged Cupid, her divine son, hovers with his quiverful of arrows. Venus has come to consign her newly born child, freshly washed with water from an earthenware amphora, to Father Time. Having set down his scythe, Time here signifies eternity rather than mortality. The child - wide-eyed, thick-lipped and with a precocious widow's peak in his hairline - resembles page boys frescoed by Tiepolo shortly before on the staircase of the prince-bishop's palace in Würzburg. He is clearly meant to be a real baby. Venus' only human child, born to a mortal father, was Aeneas the founder of Rome. The Contarini, one of the oldest families in Venice, had fabricated for themselves a lineage from ancient Rome; the reference to Aeneas thus suggests that the ceiling may have been commissioned to proclaim the birth of a son. Through august parentage and his own heroic deeds, a Contarini boy might be expected, like Aeneas, to win eternal fame.