Sérénissime! Venise en fête, de Tiepolo à Guardi Back

The first Venetian carnival was mentioned in 1094. In the sixteenth century it was a cosmopolitan event, widely reported in travel writings and engravings, and by the eighteenth, it was definitively established throughout Europe. This small but evocative exhibition at the musée Cognacq-Jay—a former hôtel particulier in Paris’s Marais district, and a cornucopia for lovers of the French eighteenth century—explores this last period of ascendancy through the art it produced.

Home-grown artists, notably Francesco Guardi, Pietro Longhi and the stalwart of the milordi, Canaletto, loom large. The exhibition begins with three of Longhi’s scenes of ‘everyday’ Venetian life, in the painter’s characteristically broad, colourful style. Set, respectively, in a drawing room, a tavern and a brothel, they reveal ‘la fête’ to have spanned divisions of gender and social class—or (perhaps that should be) to have confused them. In the third of the three, a porcelain-skinned prostitute balances on the lap of an older man, pouring a glass of wine. The second, La Furlana (1740s), depicts a peasant dance in a tavern performed with a poise and elegance reminiscent of the aptly-titled Fêtes Vénitiennes (1718-19) by the great originator of such scenes, the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. What, then, are we to make of the masked women in the elegantly appointed drawing room of the first? When the city is ‘en fête’, take no one at face value.

Faces, in fact, quickly emerge as a theme. Visitors to Venice would frequently adopt new ones. There are at least two forms of Venetian mask: the small black roundel flush to the face (the moretta), and the stiff white half-mask (the bauta) framed by the distinctive black ‘tabarro’. Sumptuary laws forbade the latter for women, but women didn’t take much notice. There are plenty of them wearing the bauta here, notably in Longhi’s Ridotto in Venice of the 1750s, an eleven-figure group, of whom all but two are masked. This characteristically Venetian costume has been specially recreated on the top floor of the permanent collection, where the monochrome faces of the models stand as an eerie presence alongside Boucher’s pink and white Diana After the Hunt (1745).

Though many of the works exhibited here seem to link the freedoms of the mask with prostitution and libertinage, the anonymity it gave was historically the reason for the bauta’s use at Venetian political events involving voting or judgement, which thereby visually confirmed the city as a democratic society of equals. On the other extreme, masks were also essential to the ancient theatre of the commedia dell’arte, where they harden the nuances of character into stereotype, as with the well-loved Arlequin, Scaramouche and Pulcinella (this last, later our ‘Mr Punch’, was traditionally the voice of the people). All three were common appearances at the Venetian fête. Canaletto’s striking wash drawing from the Victoria & Albert Museum shows a temporarily erected wooden platform in the Piazza San Marco, where masked actors mug their lines beneath the more imposing perpendiculars of the Campanile. Such makeshift performance arrangements were common throughout Italy in carnival season, but by the eighteenth century, Venice also had eight public theatres, making it an indispensable destination for (particularly) lovers of opera, both seria and buffa. Native Venetian Jacopo Amigoni’s small portrait of the castrato Farinelli is displayed here, showing the local superstar, decked out in ribbon, gazing at his public with calm self-assurance. These moments of theatre find a visual echo in the composition of Giambattista Tiepolo’s luscious study for The Banquet of Cleopatra (1742-3), whose recent conservation is the subject of a special linked display in the permanent collection upstairs.

Farinelli, like Amignoni and the commedia dell’arte, travelled across Europe (indeed Amigoni’s rococo portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales is still in the British Royal Collection). However, it is clear that, even before that first carnival, Venice had a special relationship with spectacle. Its Doge has long led an annual ceremonial procession to the middle of the Lido, where he ‘marries’ the sea, in an ancient metaphorical formulation of the pact between the city and the waves on which it is built. Such processions and public events are given a whole room of this exhibition, which places the ‘spectacle of power’ on a par with the more explicitly theatrical world of Farinelli and Goldoni (as the presence of the bauta in the chambers of government underlines). Guardi’s painting pair of 1775, showing the inauguration of a new Doge, has Alvise IV Mocenigo carried into San Marco. Employees of the Arsenal run ahead of him with sticks, clearing a path through the crowd, a function they also perform inside the church in the painting’s glittering gold pendant. Above, eighteenth-century bunting hangs from the windows of the square. These were official spectacles, but there were individual projects too. In 1745, the French Ambassador turned his section of the Canal into an elaborate stage set to celebrate the marriage of his Dauphin to Marie-Antoinette of Austria. A contemporary engraving shows the structure surrounded by Francophile figures in gondolas, with acrobats at the centre forming a human pyramid to the sky.

These kinds of extravagant building projects are by far the most visually arresting aspect of this exhibition. A particular highlight is Guardi’s designs for processional boats (bissona) in the final room, one an elaborate chinoiserie construction of blue and gold, the other a gilded barge complete with a life-size figure of Fame blowing her trumpet. These are complemented by the extraordinary design for a regatta ship on the theme of the ‘whale hunt’, designed by Gerolamo and Antonio Mauri for the visit of Prince Edward Augustus, Britain’s Duke of York, in 1764. But though aquatic displays were particularly prominent in this city on the waves, Venice also had more ubiquitous kinds of spectacle. Those familiar with Longhi’s rhinoceros in London’s National Gallery will be delighted by his lion, displayed alongside performing dogs in a public menagerie, where his sullen humanoid face contrasts with the expressionless white masks of the tourists who survey him. Elsewhere, the quack doctor cries his wares to a credulous crowd, while Giandomenico Tiepolo cheekily shows the backs of absorbed spectators gathered around the mondo novo, a kind of proto-peep show. The composition highlights the pervasive visuality of the city, where the respective identities of spectator and spectacle are never entirely clear.

But however magnificent it may have been, Sérénissime also shows the eighteenth century to have been Venice’s swan song. In May 1797 Napoleon’s army approached its gates, and the incumbent Doge, Ludovico Manin, abdicated. With him ended nearly a thousand years of Venetian independence, and cultural ascendancy. It therefore feels apt that the defining quality of so many of these fêtes, captured for the most part in drawings and engravings, should have been transience. As the curators highlight, many of the ‘spectacles of power’ lasted no more than a few hours, after which time ‘costumes, architectures, éphemères’ would all disappear, as quickly as a gondola flitting down the canal. It is a formulation that echoes Prospero’s allusion to ‘this airy insubstantial pageant faded’, which leaves ‘not a rack behind’, or Macbeth’s ‘poor player’ who ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. It is apt, then, that in the final work of this exhibition Tiepolo’s viewpoint should swing back from audience to actor. His Triumph of Polichinelle (1753-4) shows the small hunchbacked figure held aloft by cheering masks, at the head of yet another Venetian procession. At his left is a solid Ionic arch; at his right, a temporary sailcloth theatre. Paying little attention to either, this ramshackle parade of actors, tourists, libertines and prostitutes continues its disorderly progress into the city.

Sérénissime! Venise en fête, de Tiepolo à Guardi was at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, from 25th February to 25th June 2017.