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Archive for January, 2010

A damned decent wage.

Giambattista Tiepolo had everything. Tiepolo. the Virgin of Carmel.
So much so that his sister left him out of her will. “He has everything,” she is reputed to have said.

Talent, skills, imagination, charm; there was no end to it, and he met with early and great success. But his greatest moment came with a commission from the Carmelite Brotherhood in Venice.

In my house I have only one poster, and it is of this painting. I saw it on my first visit to Venice, at the Scuola dei Carmini. At that time I spoke not a word of Italian, but I managed to persuade the woman at the door to find me a poster of it. There are about 12 great paintings of Tiepolo in the Scuola, but this one stood. And today in the language school I found a book on 18th Century Venetian painting. I looked up Tiepolo, and this is what I found.

The Carmelite monks were onto a good thing. The Virgin Mary had appeared to one of their order in Cambridge (yes, Cambridge) and handed him two small pieces of cloth, attached to a long narrow strip, probably meant to be worn like a necklace. This, they thought, would be a good subject for a painting, and Tiepolo agreed with them.

He produced a painting of otherwordly majesty; of beauty overwhelming. The poor holy man is treated with dignity but in clearly worldly, even earthy, tones. And before him, a scene of such beauty, such luminosity of colour and light, that is unimaginable. Except to Gianbattista Tiepolo. He saw this vision. In fact he is the one ever truly to see this vision. It has only ever lived in one place; in his mind. And now, thank be to God, in this masterpiece of light and joy.

Tiepolo did not put the cloth in the hands of the Virgin. Instead he delegated its passing down to one of the angels who support her in the clouds. In spite of this, the painting, on unveiling, was greeted with applause. And more.

The gift of this piece of cloth was a shortened time in purgatory and a place in heaven on the first Saturday after death, “or as soon as possible.” (…read the small print!) So awed were the monks on seeing this painting, which, even at this time, was regarded as his greatest work, that they made him the gift of membership of their brotherhood, and incidentally a smooth road to heaven. Now that, is a decent wage for a decent piece of work.

The thing is, that Tiepolo, although no angel (look at those figures in the clouds!) had no need of a special dispensation. He had already seen the glory, known the glory of heaven, he was the one to be sainted. San Tiepolo… It has a ring, doesn’t it?

One bit of success escaped him. He was never highly regarded in France or in England, and we’ll say nothing about America. But there was one young American who saw his work every day, an artist whose work reflects the glorious viscosities and luminosities of the master, one man who can be described at the disciple of Giambattista Tiepolo. His name was John Singer Sargent.

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