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Giambattista Tiepolo: Painting the Virgin, Evoking Music

On the night between March 26 and 27, 250 years ago, the great painter, interpreter of the splendors of the Venetian aristocracy, died suddenly: Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770). While the Vatican Post Office celebrates him with a stamp, we approach the greatest artist of the eighteenth-century Venetian painting in our usual way: through passion for music.

On April 15, 1754, Giambattista signed a regular contract with the governors of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, according to which, for a remuneration of eighteen hundred ducats, payable in three installments, he had to paint the three frescoes still visible in the attached church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, known as the Pietà: the Triumph of Faith or the Coronation of the Virgin, an oval in the vault of the nave of 13 x 7 meters; Faith, Hope, and Charity, an oval representing the three theological virtues above the sanctuary of 3 x 2 meters, and David and the Angel, the chiaroscuro round above the high altar with a diameter of 2 x 5 meters.

The orphanage of Santa Maria della Pietà in Riva degli Schiavoni (today the Children’s Provincial Institute “Santa Maria della Pietà”) — which we dealt with here — was one of the four Venetian conservatories for girls, well known for the performance of songs and music by the putte, the virtuous girls who lived there. We know how much their fame went beyond the Serenissima, thanks in part to their famous maestro Antonio Vivaldi, as his friend Charles De Brosses, French scholar and politician, attested in 1739:

The best music is that of charitable establishments. Of these there are four, all containing natural daughters, female orphans, or those girls whom their parents are unable to educate. They are maintained at the expense of the State, and their principal education is that of music. They can sing like angels, and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the hautboy, the violoncello, and the bassoon; the largest instrument of music has no terror for them. They are treated like nuns. They alone perform at these concerts; and at each of these, forty of the students play. I can assure you there can be nothing more charming than to see a young and pretty nun, dressed in white, with a bunch of pomegranate flowers in her hair, conducting the orchestra and beating time with the greatest skill and precision. Their voices are excellent, light and well trained. … Of these four charities the one to which I go the most often is that of the Pietà; it is there where the symphonies are the best given. (Selections from the Letters of de Brosses, London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1897, pp. 50–51)

Let us now consider the ceiling of the church: Tiepolo began to fresco on June 13, 1754, and on August 2, 1755, just over a year later, it “was made visible” (cfr. P. Gradenigo, Notatorio III, to date, in Notizie d’arte…, edited by L. Livan, Venice 1942). The artist reproduced the coronation of the Immaculate Virgin there. Mary is dressed in white satin like a bride, as the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass of the Immaculate Conception proclaims: Gaudens gaudebo in Domino quia induit me vestimentis salutis quasi sponsam ornatam monilibus suis, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord … for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation … like a bride adorned with her jewels” (Is. 61:10). Erected on a large celestial globe, the Madonna, typical of Tiepolo, is about to be crowned by God the Father, to whom Christ, whom God exalted “at his right hand as leader and savior” (Acts 5:31), and the holy Spirit “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3:22), are next.

So much could be said when contemplating this fresco, from which — as from other such works of art scattered throughout the world — the Church continues to fulfill her fundamental task of evangelization. Let us limit ourselves to music, exalted here by the painter, judging by the many angelic musicians and the choir girls who, placed along the cornice, participate in the scene. An overall view of the entire painting, from fortissimo in the balustrade, close to the oval frame, through to a piano in the sea of clouds, immersing ourselves in the luminous circle that makes everything rotate, reveals a lot of music.

The choir and orchestra, placed at the end of the fresco, certainly allude to the concerts of the institute’s famous putte, the ospealère, recognizable by the distinctive pomegranate flower that they all have on the nape, in their hair, or on their foreheads. Along the edge, among the musical instruments, we find a portative organ; a violin; two timpani; an oboe; a harp; an archlute; a double bass; a natural trumpet; another violin; another kettledrum; another natural trumpet near Christ; a natural trumpet more, whose terminal opening or bell is visible; another violin; a cello; and, just before the organ, a natural trumpet. To the right of the globe, in the lower part, are the girls’ choir, intent on following the parts they hold. Some sing, others await their entry.

What do they perform? A piece of Gregorian chant or a composition by their director of music, such as Gasparini (1701–13), Vivaldi (1703–41), Grua (1719–26), Porta (1726–37), d’Alessandro (1739–40), Porpora (1742–44), Bernasconi (1746–52), Latilla (1753-66)? It is true that Vivaldi had been dead for fourteen years when Tiepolo’s works of art were discovered in this church; however, in front of this painting we like to think of the music by “the red priest of Venice” adhering to the words of two illustrious scholars, which we report below together with a link to a beautiful video.

Antonio Morassi, an internationally renowned art historian, compares the Coronation of the Virgin to one of Vivaldi’s most intense sonatas, in which “the twitching rhythm lights up the rising vision towards the zenith with ever more vivid light; and the chromatic chords, in which yellow and lilac predominate, become more and more limpid and crystalline, until they get lost in the vast light of a sidereal space that is the door of eternity” (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, Bergamo 1943, p. 33).

Egidio Martini, Venetian art critic and painter, makes us admire “the ceiling of the Pietà full of angels and light, where il Tiepolo, with painting, seems to have almost wanted to compete in musicality with the great Vivaldi’s  triumphant ‘glory’” (La pittura del Settecento veneto, Istituto per l’Enciclopedia del Friuli Venezia Giulia 1982, p. 56).

Let there be Vivaldi’s Gloria!

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