I'm a little obsessed lately with Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's series of Pulcinella frescoes in the Ca' Rezzonico and January was a very good month to indulge this fixation. Even during the busiest times of year people rarely linger among these works--there are so many other things to see in the palazzo, including the famous ceiling frescoes of Domenico's father, Giambattista, on the piano nobile
--but in January it was possible to hang with them (so to speak) almost without interruption.
In a city filled with grand gestures, with paintings intended for public spaces and functions, these frescoes were painted by the artist in the lesser ("non-monumental") rooms of the family's mainland Villa Zianigo between 1759 and 1797 for his own enjoyment. It's interesting to think about the significance of Pulcinella for the painter: a character he (as well as his father) painted throughout his career and to which he returned in a big way near the end of his life with a series of 104 wash drawings for Il divertimento per li ragazzi
(Entertainment for Children
But even more interesting, at least to me lately, is the significance of these Pulcinella paintings in our own time. As many other people have noted, the series of frescoes in Ca' Rezzonico is hardly just kids' stuff. No more than Pulcinella is.
Though famously a creation--and symbol--of Naples, the character of Pulcinella is traced by Pierre Louis Ducharte in his classic study of Italian commedia dell'arte to two different characters in the ancient Roman theater.
Befitting this dual paternity, the 17th-century character of Pulcinella could take two different forms: one, high-strung and given to a peculiar peeping sound, another, slow moving and reserved. Sometimes these two different manifestations appeared together in the same production.
But the Pulcinellas of Tiepolo's frescos riotously embody traits for which the character is most famous. Ducharte writes: "Never one to be bowed down by the cares and responsibilities of a profession, [Pulcinella was] eccentric and selfish..., strongly inclined to sensual and epicurean gluttony.... Self-centered and bestial, he had no scruples whatever, and because the moral suffering from his physical deformity reacted upon his brain at the expense of his heart, he was exceedingly cruel."
Collodi's Pinocchio would share many of these traits before he reformed himself and "became a real boy." But there's no hint of any possible reformation or self-improvement in Tiepolo's frescoes. His Pulcinellas carry on, unredeemed and unredeemable, to the bitter end.
And the end of certain things, we are told by Ca' Rezzonico's text on these frescoes, was probably very much on Tiepolo's mind as he painted these works. The end of the Baroque style exemplified by Giambattista Tiepolo, the end of the Venetian Republic itself, and perhaps the end of the larger Eurocentric world.
These last two points seem to be made most emphatically and famously in the large fresco Il mondo novo
. It's in a separate larger room from the Pulcinellas I'm focusing on and depicts a large group of figures, their backs to us, intently watching a performance we can't see in a small tent. It's a crowd of fashionably-dressed ladies and gentlemen and children and a solitary Pulcinella seen in wide-screen Cinemascope, and beyond them and the top of the little performance tent that they fix their gaze upon lies the broad ocean and empty horizon.
|Il novo mondo|
But there's a more intimate version of this theme in the little room of Pulcinellas, too. Again, there's a luminous horizon and ocean but a group of Pulcinellas pays them no heed: they drink, they talk, and
one, foregrounded among an array of objects that represent almost the full extent of their customary concerns--a food basket, a wine pitcher, a shuttlecock and racket (only a wench is missing)--sleeps off his excess. Over the crest of the hill on which they stand, the conical top of a Pulcinella's hat is visible beside a flag. I'm not sure what to make of this. Indolent and indulgent as they are, might this tribe of Pulcinellas be considering a military campaign of some sort? This is far more worrisome than their sloth.
One thing seems certain though: if a new world is in the offing, it's beyond the awareness of these Pulcinellas. All their revels depicted in this room end in this image of exhaustion: self-absorbed and self-interested as ever, they seem blind to what lies beyond. A new world may very well be dawning, but there is the dark sense in this painting that it is bound to occur elsewhere, across the ocean, far away.
It's not hard to imagine why Tiepolo would have had this sense in the last years of the Venetian Republic but, sadly, it's a sense that most young contemporary Italians seem to share: a recent poll by The European Institute of Political, Economic and Social Studies showed that nearly 60% of them are ready to move abroad. They've lost hope that anything can change in this country that is sometimes still derisively referred to (by Italians themselves) as "the country of Pulcinella."
But it's not only Italians who are concerned: Pulcinella's gone global.
I suppose that's what keeps bringing me back to these frescoes: a sense that they depict not just Tiepolo's time but our own more effectively than most contemporary art at the Biennale or elsewhere. That odd old foreign anti-humanistic art form of the commedia dell'arte
seems more and more useful to me for conceptualizing blind human appetites and an almost infinite capacity for destruction. I mean, the corporate name Monsanto
itself sounds almost like a stock character from the commedia dell'arte
--though its greed, cruelty and viciousness puts poor Pulcinella to shame....
|Follow these fellows at your own risk|