Domenico Tiepolo's New Testament drawings come to Stanford

The exhibition of 12 drawings throws a new light on the 18th-century artist's "rediscovered masterpiece." The drawings are selected from hundreds in his New Testament cycle – including two that have never been shown publicly before.

The lovingly, lavishly drawn pictures almost shimmer on the golden-hued paper, as if the 18th-century Italian artist were trembling as he drew – and trembling not from age, but joy.

Hundreds of Domenico Tiepolo's gorgeous, virtuoso drawings have been found in what is perhaps the largest known New Testament cycle produced by any single artist. The count stands at 316 drawings, and the number is still climbing with rumors of others, many in private collections, yet to be identified.

A dozen of them – including two never before seen by the public – are featured in a new exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center: "A Rediscovered Masterpiece: 12 Drawings from Domenico Tiepolo's New Testament." The exhibition runs from March 2 through May 29.

Tiepolo (1727-1804) has always been overshadowed by his father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), the preeminent decorative painter of his era, but one wonders if this newly assembled collection will jiggle that assessment.

"He achieved great things," said Adelheid Gealt, director of the Indiana University Art Museum, who has for the last decade undertaken an international mission to locate, identify and reconstruct this cycle with Professor Emeritus George Knox of the University of British Columbia. (The Cantor exhibition drawings are on loan from Indiana University.) While Giovanni Battista was a renowned painter of sacred cycles, his son "took it to a whole new level," Gealt said.

'There's nothing like it'

"It's an extraordinary monument in and of itself. There's nothing like it."

There's a reason for the shimmer: Domenico was a Venetian, and the effects are a deliberate evocation of gold mosaics in Venice's San Marco, one of Tiepolo's main sources.

The quavering, shivering impression in charcoal, ink and wash is not the result of age or amateurism, but "a conscious graphic decision," said Gealt.

"It's brilliant draftsmanship – superficially clumsy and earthbound, but so sophisticated. When artists hide their genius rather than slamming it in your face –that is the best art of all."

Tiepolo was a contradiction; he saluted the past but also looked centuries into the future with a cinematic approach to art. In the New Testament cycle, "He speeds time up, slows it down, jumps over events and goes back to them," said Gealt – a very early flipbook, at the least, but much more than that.

By the time he was a teenager, Tiepolo was his father's chief assistant, traveling with him all over Europe to decorate grand palaces from St. Petersburg to Madrid, where they were when his father died in 1770.

Afterward, Tiepolo appears to have largely withdrawn from the world, creating murals at the family villa at Zianigo near Mirano – today, about 90 minutes outside Venice. He married and had two daughters, both of whom died.

But these were not fallow years for his artistry, as once thought. Nor were they quiet years: Europe succumbed to the upheavals of the French Revolution, and the depredations of Napoleon eventually led to the French occupation of Italy. Enlightenment notions were all the rage, yet Tiepolo turned to the themes of his forefathers, embracing the radical innocence of such artists as Fra Angelico.

"He was very cognizant of the earnest, innocent piety so embedded in 14th- and 15th-century Italian art," said Gealt.

"It was a time of skepticism, a time when Napoleon is destroying churches and secularizing the world," she said.

Perhaps that's the reason you could almost swear these drawings are from the Renaissance, until you see contemporary touches, such as the Orientals, Levantines, Turks and street characters of Tiepolo's Venice or the 18th-century workman's breeches on a shepherd.

Was Tiepolo turning to the past an act of quiet defiance? We don't know what he thought – he left few written records. His autobiography is sienna ink on ochre paper, "a whole synthesis and record of his faith, from a literary and pictorial standpoint," said Gealt.

Yet Tiepolo was avant-garde in other ways, demonstrating "a freedom of choice that we assume artists in the 18th-century didn't have," said Gealt.

Wide range of influences

To flesh out his themes, Tiepolo borrowed episodes from such apocryphal sources as The Golden Legend, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and The Gospel of James. Even the revelations of a 16th-century Spanish mystic are included.

In another mysterious choice, the cycle draws heavily from the Gospel of Mark in an era that considered Matthew as the gold standard. Today Mark is considered the earliest work – did Tiepolo through intuition anticipate the discovery of later scholars?

Some scholars initially scoffed, Gealt said – artists, after all, weren't well educated, let alone scholarly. But this one apparently may have been.

"The inscriptions in the drawings show he was far more literate than most artists," she said – for example, one drawing includes the entire Apostle's Creed.

There is no known patron for the drawings, no known audience. Powerful as these paintings are, and staggering in their number, scope and range, they are not the only paintings of his final years – leading perhaps to another explanation.

Prior to this cycle, he was best known for his Entertainments for Children, a comprehensive series of over 100 drawings of Punchinello, the tragicomic clown of commedia dell'arte who would later put the punch in "Punch and Judy." Was Tiepolo looking back toward his own lost daughters? Or did he have other children in mind?

His younger brother was a priest in the Order of the Somaschi, which was dedicated to the care of orphans. It's very likely that his drawings contributed to the entertainment and very unorthodox religious education of the children.

When Tiepolo died, the New Testament cycle was left in his studio – with no cataloging of titles, no record of which subjects had been drawn, no dates, no total numbers. They had never been exhibited or published. Collectors quickly dismembered and dispersed the collection. (Two of the drawings in the exhibition – "The Education of the Virgin" and "Judas Returning the Money" – have been recently discovered and never before exhibited.)

When Gealt and Knox came into the picture in the mid-1990s, they spent a decade traveling the world, scouring public and private collections, inventories and sales catalogs. Gealt admitted it became an obsession.

Now the obsession is ours. "People are just astonished," said Gealt, "from the sophisticated connoisseur to the innocent and inexperienced."

"Never has anyone not taken an interest in this art once they see them," she said. "They are magnets for the eyes."

Clearly, then, the rediscovery is more than a miracle – it's the fruit of painstaking, meticulous labor and scholarship. For us, the exhibition is an extraordinary, virtuoso grace note in an increasingly busy and distracted world.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177. 

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,