Four Decorative Scenes
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted these four narrow panels during the 1740s for a Venetian palazzo near Merlengo, northern Italy. At this time Tiepolo was enjoying growing fame across Italy, and receiving prestigious commissions for monumental ceiling paintings and wall decorations in grand palaces.
The paintings were inspired by Torquato Tasso’s popular sixteenth-century poem Jerusalem Delivered, which was set during the First Crusade, a Christian military campaign to recapture Jerusalem from Islamic rule. However, Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield is the only panel in the series with an identifiable story: the ill-fated love of the Muslim sorceress Armida and Rinaldo, a Christian knight.
The other panels – Seated Man, Woman with Jar and Boy, Two Men in Oriental Costume and Two Orientals seated under a Tree – include objects and types of people found in Tasso’s poem. In all of the paintings, Tiepolo’s pale pastel tones and soft brushstrokes create a dazzling atmosphere.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is best known for his monumental ceiling paintings and wall decorations which transformed palaces and monasteries from his native Venice to Germany and Spain. These four narrow panels, together with four larger decorative paintings (The Art Institute of Chicago) and a ceiling painting (now destroyed), were commissioned for a salone, an ornate room in the Venetian palazzo of the powerful Cornaro family in Merlengo, northern Italy. They were painted during the 1740s, shortly after Tiepolo’s return to Venice. He had enjoyed growing fame across Italy while working on prestigious commissions in Milan and Udine.
The shape of the National Gallery’s paintings suggests that they were displayed as wall panels, possibly positioned either side of the larger paintings. Rich Italian families commissioned pictures like these to embellish their homes and to emphasise their wealth and status, as well as to provide entertainment to guests familiar with the famous stories shown. Tiepolo’s paintings, with their pale pastel tones and soft brushstrokes, would have helped to create a dazzling atmosphere.
All eight wall paintings were inspired by Torquato Tasso’s popular sixteenth-century romantic poem Jerusalem Delivered, set during the First Crusade, a Christian military campaign to recapture Jerusalem from Islamic rule. However, Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield is the only panel of the four owned by the National Gallery with an identifiable story: the ill-fated love of Armida and Rinaldo, a Christian knight. Rinaldo had been enchanted by the sorceress Armida; in Tiepolo’s painting, he turns away on seeing his reflection in a magic mirror, the spell broken.
Tiepolo often drew upon ancient and modern literature and art as inspiration for his frescoes and oil paintings – here, Rinaldo’s amour, sword and shield are inspired by those worn by heroic warriors from classical antiquity. He explored similar episodes found in Tasso’s poem in later frescoes at Villa Valmarana near Vicenza (still in situ). This story was a popular one in eighteenth-century Europe and was often the subject of operas, plays and concerts.
The other panels in this series, such as Seated Man, Woman with Jar and Boy, include types of people and objects taken from the artist’s imagination. The brilliance of Tiepolo’s colouring and the expressiveness of his figures dressed in imaginative costumes, seen in Two Men in Oriental Costume and Two Orientals seated under a Tree, reflect an eighteenth-century taste for the Rococo. In all four paintings, Tiepolo’s figures are elongated and idealised, and their poses and expressions are varied and intriguing; often their faces are obscured from our view.