Giandomenico Tiepolo's Il Mondo Nuovo: Peep Shows and the "Politics of Nostalgia"

By Spieth, Darius A. | The Art Bulletin, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Giandomenico Tiepolo's Il Mondo Nuovo: Peep Shows and the "Politics of Nostalgia"


Spieth, Darius A., The Art Bulletin


Giandomenico Tiepolo's Fresco Il mondo nuovo, preserved today in Venice's Ca' Rezzonico museum of eighteenth-century art, is a paradoxical and spellbinding image (Fig. 1). The composition, signed and dated "Dome / Tiepolo f. / 1791" on a trompe l'oeil cartellino at the left Binge, was conceived to decorate the walls of the artist's own Villa Zianigo in Mirano, near Mestre (Fig. 2).1 It depicts the rear view of an excited crowd of contemporary Venetians From all walks of life. The artist emphasized the diversity of the protagonists: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, nobility and members oi the popular classes all share the same fascination with a spectacle that remains at first glance inscrutable to the viewer. Individual identities of the sillers are carefully hidden by turned backs, with the notable exception of two male spectators to the righi of center, both rendered in profile, who are believed to represent Giandomenico Tiepolo and his father, Giambattista, the most famous Fresco painter of the eighteenth century.2 Although it is carnival time, the setting for the buzzing street entertainment remains strangely neutral. Pictorial space is confined at the left by a tattered palisade, and otherwise there is only the vastness of a slightlv occluded skv painted in shades of pale, diaphanous blue. Overall, the selling reminds the spectatOl inore ol a seashore than the Venetian campi (public squares), where Giandomenico often liked to situate his carnival and popular entertainment scenes.

The enigma inherent in the iconography is only enhanced by the apparent mystery of the Fresco's title. How are we to reconcile the visual and semantic information embedded in the composition with the manifold linguistic ambiguities implied by the term il mondo nouvo (the new world)? At what point in the frescos colorful history did the title tome into existence? How did the choice of the title, after it became an accepted convention in the early twentieth century, inform the modern perception and historical understanding of the scene? To answer these and related questions, it will be helpful to examine, as a foundation, the role of street entertainment in Venice in the eighteenth century. Comparisons of the Zianigo Fresco's subject with hitherto untapped contemporary visual and literary testimonials aboul Venetian street entertainment suggest that Giandomenico may have found inspiration in youthful memories ol popular peepshow displays on the Serenissima's central squares.

After this reconsideration ol visual content, I look to the problem of unraveling the historiography ol the painting's title. Since it was coined only after the fresco's detachment from the walls of Giandomenico Tiepolo's Villa Zianigo in 1906, the designation Il mondo nuovo emerged at a surprisingly late point in the work's history; in all likelihood, it owes nothing to Tiepolo himself. The art historian Pompeo Molmenti, a leading authority on Venetian an at the turn of the twentieth century, can be identified as responsible for launching the title. Molmenti's efforts were seconded by Corrado Ricci. Italy's powerful director general for antiquities and line arts at the time. Both scholars were steeped in a cultural mentality thar Richard Drake has called the "politics of nostalgia" in fin de siècle Umbertian Italy (during the rule of King Umberto 1, 1878-1900), whose conceptual ties were loosely linked to aestheticism, decadence, dandyism, and the l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) movement prevalent in other parts of Europe.3 his disposition manifested itseli in Molmenti's interpretation ol the Fresco's iconography in language borrowed from the Venetian eighteenth-century playwright Carlo Goldoni, and in Ricci's propagandists exploitation of the thwarted attempt to export the fresco to France in order to make a nationalist case for the protection of Italian cultural heritage. As opposed to the very personal nostalgia expressed by the iconography of Giandomenico Tiepolo's Fresco, the nostalgia of Molmenti and Ricci had a distinctly political Flavor, since it was designed to overcome the perceived social and cultural decline of post-Risorgimento Italy. …

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