I HAVE NEXT to no interest in the 18th century Italian painter Giambattista Tiepolo, but I'll follow a favorite writer anywhere. I even read David Foster Wallace's book on Georg Cantor….
Calasso is a kind of scholar-at-large, I guess. He does not seem to have any academic affiliation or speciality or even field--he has written about literature, painting, politics, mythology, and religion with equal finesse. He seems extraordinarily well-read but carries it lightly; he's the perfect example of writerly sprezzatura, able to write gracefully and illuminatingly about any topic to which he turns. We in the U. S. A. have no one like him. (Sontag came close.)
Calasso emphasizes that Tiepolo comes from the era right before painters were expected to scorn patronage and instead fiercely, uncompromisingly pursue their own vision, etc. Tiepolo was grateful to his patrons and prided himself on skillful execution of whatever their program was; he was a pro, we could say, in the last cultural moment before that became fatally uncool.
But Calasso also makes the case that Tiepolo left his particular sensibility right below the surface in everything he did. At the heart of this argument is Calasso's careful disentangling, in the second of the book's three long essays, of the iconological puzzles in the series of etchings Tiepolo titled Capricci and Scherzi. Calasso finds Tiepolo had his own program after all, discernible, once we know what it is, in the mythological paintings, the Antony and Cleopatra paintings, the famous Four Continents frescos.
How persuasive would any of this be to an actual art historian? No idea. Wallace's Cantor book imparted to me all sorts of notions about calculus that, in later conversation with actual mathematicians, turned out to be eccentric.
But that hardly bothers me--reading Calasso is too great a pleasure to relinquish, whatever snorts he may excite in professional academics. For instance, loved his revision of Walter Pater on the Mona Lisa when he writes of the beautiful, fair-haired young woman that shows up in painting after painting by Tiepolo--
Four years after Palazzo Labia, Tiepolo's Cleopatra moved to Würzburg. She became Beatrice of Burgundy and she had to marry Frederick Barbarossa. She did not change her hairdo, with large pearls braided into her hair, worn drawn back at the forehead and gathered up into a sumptuous bun. She knew perfectly well what suited her best. As for colors, she stuck to the golden yellow she had already used in various rehearsals for the meeting with Antony. And above all she couldn't forgo the tall ribbed ruff, which encircled her neck so well and plunged down as far as her bosom. Even though this time, kneeling before the altar, she could not leave her breasts bare, as happened at the banquet with Antony. As for the rest, she knows she is the very same woman who had been Cleopatra and one day would be Venice--and, centuries before, she had been Pharaoh's daughter who saved Moses from the waters., All these appearances suit her equally well and are simultaneous, all refer to the same full and opulent phase of her beauty. There is only one detail she cannot do without: she always wears a choker around her neck, a single string of large pearls. But she does change her earrings: at her wedding with Barbarossa there reappear two large baroque pearls, which she had not used since Antony's day. Who knew if someone would notice? By then, a lot of time had gone by.