Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pitched Down and Hauled Up: G.B. Tiepolo at Gesuati

It's Up, up and away! in most ceiling paintings in Venice. It's as if the sunroof of whichever church or palace or scuola you find yourself in has opened to reveal high above us, not only the most fantastical of architectural settings (sometimes unrelated to the architecture of the real church or palace or scuola), but a realm of being as distinct from our own as that represented in Byzantine mosaics by an uninterrupted field of gold.

We're inevitably presented with a grand vista that recedes onward and upward away from us to a celestial fadeout far above, while we stand with a stiff neck below, our feet firmly on the ground, trying to take it all in.  

But the other day while visiting the church of Santa Maria del Rosario--aka, I Gesuati--on the Zattere, I noticed that things are a little different in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's ceiling paintings of the life of San Domenico.

It's not just that, as you can see in the photo above, there's a figure in the largest of the three ceiling paintings who looks to be falling downward in our direction. No, he actually appears to have broken out of the picture, beyond and just below the edge of the sunroof, and entered our earthly plane of Being.

I don't recall noticing this effect in any other ceiling painting in Venice and it's actually quite striking.

Some bad boy has been given the heave-ho and here he comes, tossed head-over-heels down into our earthly realm like so much unwanted trash. The message is quite clear: there's the realm of the devout up above--all blue skies and gold clouds and pink light and the most glorious shades of colored robes--and then there's us down here. And, alas, we know what we're like.

I know it's supposed to make you aspire to that upper realm of beauty, truth, and piety, but couldn't it just as well simply give some of us down here a complex? And isn't there someplace else they can chuck the bad eggs--how about hell, for example? We have enough trouble down here as it is.

Or are we supposed to assume that where we are is about as bad as it gets?

But the message of broken picture planes, it turns out, isn't simply oriented in one direction. It's not only the bad and their pet snakes who appear to share our space, but, miraculously enough, angels.

Or at least the ends of their robes.

Look at the smaller (though still large) painting of San Domenico catching a ride to heaven with a troupe of angels below. Look at the red and green robes of the one angel in the bottom right corner, the one uninvolved, rather distant, actually, from any of the heavy lifting with which the other angels have their hands full.

Those robes are not simply a trompe l'oeil effect, but are quite literally two different three-dimensional pieces of actual cloth, or at least painted and shaped canvas.

Suddenly it seems as if the heavenly beings up there aren't so entirely, impossibly distant from us down here as we might expect.

The gulf between Their realm of being and ours is bridged not simply by a falling sinner, but by the garments of a hovering angel. And an angel with his hands free!

Is it too much to hope--or pray--that he might give us a lift?


  1. Thank you! I am home feeling poorly and you just made my day! i love the Gesuati ceiling :)

    1. I'm so happy to find out that a post on Tiepolo was just what the doctor ordered! It's amazing the effect that certain paintings and painters can have; I know what you mean. I hope you feel better soon.

  2. I've been in that church many times but haven't even noticed the details you point out. Coming in 18 days so I'll make a point of having a closer look.The ceiling in San Pantalon by Fumiani also has cutouts but the effect doesn't look as striking as your Tiepolo. Ruskin obviously hated the Fumiani- he doesn't hold back!

    1. Thanks for reminding me of San Pantalon, Andrew, it's been too long since I've seen it. I remember the first time I walked into that church 20 yrs ago, not knowing anything about it and wondering if there'd be much inside at all, considering how they hadn't had enough money for a facade & left it looking a bit like an old barn... The ceiling blew me away, which is no aesthetic judgement (Mr Ruskin), just inescapable fact.