We know what Giambattista Tiepolo looked like, because he put himself in so many of his frescoes. There he is in 1726 at the age of thirty, with his wonky nose and his ironic trembly lips and his lively scared eyes, standing beside the furious figure of Jacob on the wall of the Patriarch’s Palace in Udine. And there he is again twenty-seven years later, beside his son Domenico, the eyes a little sadder, the lip a bit more tremulous, on the ceiling of the Prince-Bishop’s palace staircase at Würzburg, the matchless Treppenhaus, which for two centuries was the largest fresco in the world and is still one of the most beautiful. But about what Giambattista Tiepolo thought we have scarcely a clue. “Of all the greats of painting Tiepolo was the last one who knew how to keep silent”, declares Roberto Calasso in this superbly ambitious, quirky, sometimes querulous, sometimes lyrical and finally persuasive essay. It is no disability that Calasso should be famous as an imaginative and painstaking explorer of myth rather than as a historian of art. For it takes a close reading of those enormous frescoes to make Tiepolo declare himself to us in the same way as Kafka was made to speak in K. and the dusty lumber of Greek myth was shined up in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. There is perhaps no other way to rescue Tiepolo from the condescension of posterity and to reinstall him in the high culture of the West.
more from Ferdinand Mount at the TLS here.