A Tantalizing Glimpse Into a Renaissance Art Family Drama

If only we had the kinds of sources animating the relationship between Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas for the father-son team of Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. More familiarly known as Giambattista (1696–1770) and Domenico (1727–1804), they headed up a familial network of Venetian artists that included Domenico’s younger brother Lorenzo; his uncles (on his mother’s side) Giovanni Antonio and Francesco Guardi, and a first cousin, Giacomo Guardi.

But it is Giambattista and Domenico who remain memorable: Giambattista for his spectacular trompe-l’oeil scenes of heavenly grandeur, often bursting through the ceilings and walls of churches and palaces, and Domenico for the suite of 104 Punchinello drawings he made at the end of his life.

Giambattista’s high-flown mannerisms are more digestible the more they are scaled down, which is where Spirit and Invention: Drawings by Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo at the Morgan Library and Museum comes in. In this radiant exhibition, the preferred medium for the Tiepolos — whose images are often, and deliberately, indistinguishable — is pen, brown ink, and wash, an irresistible combination of precision and freedom. The compositions are either single figures or manageable clusters of mortals, angels, and animals, often as studies for large commissioned works. 

Their most prestigious assignment took them nearly 500 miles north of Venice to Würzburg, Germany, the birthplace of Matthias Grünewald, where, in 1750, Giambattista was invited by Prince-Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenclau to decorate his over-the-top Baroque palace known as the Würzburger Residenz. Nothing of Grünewald’s Gothic horror, however, made its way into the frescoes that Giambattista concocted for the reception hall and the 6,200-square-foot ceiling above the grand staircase. It was all power and glory, on earth and in heaven.

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), “Design for a Ceiling Showing the Triumph of Hercules” (c. 1729–31); The Morgan Library & Museum (photo Graham S. Haber)

Domenico was then his father’s dutiful apprentice — Giambattista included their portraits in the stairway decorations — but even at that time, in his early 20s and amid a crushing workload, he demonstrated an independent streak, producing a series of 27 etchings between 1750 and 1753 on the theme of the Flight into Egypt. The series title is telling: “Picturesque Ideas on the Flight into Egypt, a work invented and engraved by me, Gio: Domenico Tiepolo.” (“Idee pittoresche sopra la fugga in Egitto di Giesu, Maria e Gioseppe, opera inventata, ed incisa da me Gio: Domenico Tiepolo.”)

Domenico’s seemingly gratuitous “by me” and the vibe of the Würzburg portraits — in which Giambattista’s rough-hewn face stares into the distance while his cherubic-cheeked son, in an imagistic slight of hand, appears to gaze lovingly at the viewer and at his father simultaneously — offer tantalizing hints of whatever subterranean Oedipal struggles had played out between them. To have Giambattista as both father and master, in the parlance of the time, must have presented Domenico (who, not to forget, shared his first name) with a minefield of conflicted affections.

Nothing if not precocious, Domenico began creating his own works as early as 1747, and on an ambitious scale. Still, he and his brother Lorenzo remained their father’s assistants until Giambattista’s death, accompanying him on extended excursions not only to Southern Germany but also to Madrid (1762–70), executing his designs when he became too frail to paint. It wasn’t until six years after Giambattista died that Domenico married, at the age of 49.

Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “Monkey Swinging on a Parapet” (c. 1790); The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann (photo Steven H. Crossot)

And it’s not until the exhibition reaches the year 1790 that we are offered a glimpse into Domenico’s personal vision. Up to that time, he was still churning out fluttering putti and cloud-borne chariots. But now we encounter two unexpected images: a depiction of three ibex wandering around a forest bluff, and a deranged scene of three monkeys — one flayed, one skeletal, and one chained at the waist — trying to climb over a parapet. 

The wall label attempts to put the latter image in context:

The monkey swinging from a parapet at center is drawn from the frescoes of the Würzburg staircase, where it appears as part of the depiction of Africa. Domenico might have sketched it from memory, but given the Tiepolos’ practice of recording their frescoes, he more likely relied on a drawing in the workshop archive. The two skeletal monkeys at left, which do not appear in the earlier scene and lend a mysterious air to the composition, have never been explained.

That the drawing is both explicable (“drawn from the frescoes of the Würzburg staircase”) and inexplicable (“lend a mysterious air”) is a key to the Punchinello suite, the last great flourishing of Domenico’s career. 

In his 1962 study, The Drawings of Domenico Tiepolo (Faber and Faber), the scholar and art dealer J. Byam Shaw (1903–1992) takes a dim view of Domenico’s imaginative gifts, criticizing him for deriving compositions and motifs from artists such as Mantegna, Titian, and Rembrandt, among others, and from the innumerable drawings that the Tiepolo family firm kept as archival records of their projects. This objection can easily be placed in the context of the ’60s, when originality and innovation were the criteria upon which artistic merit rested. But it is Domenico’s penchant for reuse and recycling that makes his work fascinating to ponder today. 

Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “Punchinello Riding on an Ass in Procession of His Fellows” (c. 1797–1804); The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of Lore Heinemann in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann (photo Steven H. Crossot)

By the time he started the Punchinello suite, around 1797, the High Baroque of Giambattista, and by extension Domenico, had thoroughly vanished. In these final works (10 of which are in the exhibition), he jettisons every last vestige of his father’s world and enters an entirely new realm.

As irony would have it, Domenico’s Punchinello, a hump-backed figure from the Commedia dell’Arte wearing a loose-fitting shirt and pants, a beaked mask, and conical hat, is in fact a borrowing from his father, several of whose own versions — one-dimensional grotesques held up for ridicule — are also featured in the show. But Domenico’s take is unique, an epic anti-hero’s journey from birth to death.

Undoubtedly tied to their time, the drawings feel scabrous at best, their targets lost to us but not their venom. The museum’s introductory text describes the series title, Divertimenti per li ragazzi (“Amusements for Children”), as “falsely naïve,” and states that “they can be read like a catalogue of the biblical, mythological, and contemporary-life subjects that Domenico and his father had painted and drawn,” remarking on “a sly self-consciousness that is distinctly modern, closer in spirit to Goya, and perhaps even to us, than to his father.”

It is worth recalling that Goya began his equally satirical etching suite, Los Caprichos, in 1797, the same time that Domenico embarked on his Divertimenti. But despite the swipes that Goya took at the Inquisition (whose victims wore tall conical hats similar to Punchinello’s), he didn’t wade into the blasphemous waters of Tiepolo’s amusements for children. 

Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “Punchinellos with an Elephant” (c. 1797–1804), pen and brown ink with brown wash, over black chalk; The Morgan Library & Museum (photo Steven H. Crossot)

J. Byam Shaw describes Punchinello as “a sly, lazy, humorous fellow, put to all sorts of tricks, primed with jokes which were often obscene.” And yet the exhibition wall labels explicitly connect Punchinello’s antics with the life of Christ: his apprenticeship in St. Joseph’s carpentry shop, his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the Last Supper. 

The labels, couched as they are in neutral terms (“clearly meant to evoke”; “unmistakable resemblance”; “vaguely reminiscent”), steer clear of irresponsible speculation about the imagery’s intent. But irresponsibility, in light of Domenico’s transgressive gestures, appears to be the name of the game.

In “A Group of Punchinellos Examining a Spider Crab,” beak-masked figures gather around a monstrous, 10-legged crustacean as a young woman races away, her arm raised and head turned in the exact pose as the terror-struck boy in Caravaggio’s “Martyrdom of St. Matthew” (c. 1599–1600). A coincidence? Or a parody of the murdered evangelist, the author of the first gospel, reincarnated as a giant crab?

And in “Punchinellos with an Elephant” (c. 1797–1804), are the bearded men behind the pachyderm, with their turbans and ankle-length robes, meant to be importers of exotic animals or onlookers in a biblical narrative, such as Domenico’s own “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” (1752)? Could the elephant, like the spider crab, be construed as a stand-in for a more exalted presence, a saint or Jesus himself, betrayed by his friends and delivered to his enemies? Or do the horror and fury in the elephant’s eye suggest something more pressing, and catastrophic, at hand?

In 1797, the Republic of Venice fell after more than a millennium of independence, the victim of a double-cross between Francis II, the Emperor of Austria, and Napoleon Bonaparte, whose troops looted the city. The last drawing on display, “The Burial of Punchinello,” depicts the title character lowered by his fellow clowns into a crypt beneath the pavement. Above them, a vaulted ceiling angles off to the right, mirroring the architecture in Tintoretto’s “Finding of the Body of St. Mark” (1562), in which Venice’s patron saint, another martyred evangelist, lies lifeless on an identically gridded floor. Punchinello, and Venice, buried in the rocks.

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), “Profile Study of a Man in Cloak and Mask” (c. 1757–62); The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann (photo Steven H. Crossot)
Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “Punchinellos Feasting” (c. 1797–1804), pen and brown ink with brown wash, over black chalk; Collection of Peter Marino, New York (photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images)
Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “St. James (or St. Roch) Taken to Heaven” (c. 1755?), pen and brown ink with brown and gray wash; The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann (photo Steven H. Crossot)
Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), “Blindfolded Cupid in a Dove-Drawn Car” (c. 1770?), pen and brown ink and wash; The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased as the gift of Mr. John M. Crawford, Jr. (photo Steven H. Crossot)
Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), “Studies of Apollo and Other Figures” (1752), pen and brown ink and wash; The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (photo Steven H. Crossot)

Spirit and Invention: Drawings by Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through January 28. The exhibition was curated by John Marciari, Charles W. Engelhard Curator, Drawings and Prints.

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