The Bibiena Family

The Bibiena Family

The Bibiena Family

The Bibiena Family

Excerpt

Some families stamp all their members with a resemblance so marked that the world at large gives up trying to distinguish individuals and recognizes only a composite entity. The Hapsburgs with their overripe underlip and the Marx brothers with their beak and glaring eye are not more alike than the Bibiena family, who, under eight names, created theatrical designs dating from the 1680's to the 1780's in a style so constant that their whole work looks at first glance as though it might have been done by one man at one time. The story of the Bibienas is a story of family genius working through eight men whose Christian names matter less to us than their family name. When we cannot help confusing one Bibiena with another, it is a consolation to find that their own fellow townsmen and acquaintances did the same.

Three generations of supremacy in a specialty of art is as exceptional in individualistic Europe as it is common in the East among, for instance, the dynasties of armorers and lacquerers attached to the feudal houses of old Japan. The Bibienas were helped in maintaining their century of brilliance by becoming a sort of feudal appanage of the house of Austria and its connections. A career was assured to any member of the family who would train for it so long as a father or an uncle who was about to retire from his post as theatrical engineer would introduce his son or nephew to succeed him, and so long as most German and Austrian Princes continued their habit of preparing for a visit of state or a wedding or a few weeks of opera by asking a royal cousin to lend the nearest Bibiena. It is curious that when Maria Theresa died in 1780, and her successor's economies put an end to the vast festivities of the Viennese court, the Bibienas had wandered far from Austria and their great works had ended. As the resources of the old order declined throughout Europe, so did the imperial splendor of the Bibienas' imagination.

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