This oval canvas, its pendant (1997.117.8
), and two others in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, formed a set. As the figures are seen from below, the ovals probably were installed above doors or some other architectural focal point of a room in a Venetian palace. Painted shadows fall to the right of the figures in this work and one of the Rijksmuseum ovals, and to the left in the other two, suggesting that Tiepolo took note of the fall of light in the original setting. Because of the generic character of the objects the figures carry, it is difficult to establish precisely what they symbolize and whether, indeed, they are meant as allegorical figures. The two in Amsterdam have occasionally been identified as Fortitude (with a club) and Prudence, while those in The Met, both of which have vases, might be thought to show Temperance (see Aikema 1996 and Favilla and Rugolo 2012). It is, however, equally likely that the figures were intended not as allegories but as capricci
—works intended primarily as decorative accouterments that made a conscious play with other pictorial elements in the room. This would be very much in keeping with Tiepolo’s interest in the theme of artistic invention that he explored in his etchings during the 1740s.
The two ovals in Amsterdam were formerly catalogued by the Rijksmuseum as works by Domenico Tiepolo—an attribution corrected by Antonio Morassi (G. B. Tiepolo: His Life and Work
, London, 1955, fig. 55)—and were erroneously reported to have come from the Palazzo Labia, Venice (see Aikema 1996; and Elisabetta Martinelli Pedrocco in Palazzo Labia a Venezia
, Turin, 1982, p. 232). A more likely provenance, from the Palazzo Cornaro on the Campo San Polo, is suggested by Romanelli’s (1998) discovery of an eighteenth-century inventory. His idea has been further explored in a detailed study by Favilla and Rugolo (2012), who have put the study on a firmer, documentary basis. If their proposed reconstruction is correct, the four ovals formed part of the decoration of a modest-sized room on the second floor of the Palazzo Cornaro. The palace had been designed in the sixteenth century by Michele Sanmichele, but in preparation for a marriage its interior was redecorated between 1736 and 1747. Payments for work in the second floor Sala degli Specchi run from 1741 to 1743, with Girolamo Mengozzi Colona—Tiepolo’s frequent collaborator—paid on September 24, 1741 for the fresco decoration to surround a ceiling painting by Tiepolo (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) for which payment had been made on July 2. The walls of the room were decorated with woodwork by Antonio Gai, with mirrors (whence the name of the room), and, according to the eighteenth-century inventory published by Romanelli, four rectangular canvases with figural compositions derived from Tasso ("Quattro pezzi di quadro bislunghi rappresentanti figure del Tasso—del Tiepolo") and four monochrome canvases simulating bas reliefs over the doors ("Quattro sopraporte di chiaro scuro basso rilievo—del Tiepolo"). When he published the eighteenth-century inventory, Romanelli suggested that the four canvases with subjects taken from Tasso should be identified with the large canvases of stories of Rinaldo and Armida—characters in Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata
(Jerusalem delivered, of 1580)—now in the Art Institute of Chicago. This thesis has been disproven by the further documentation published by Favilla and Rugolo. According to their reconstruction, the "bislunghi" canvases can more plausibly be identified with a series of narrow, upright pictures in the National Gallery, London, showing, as indicated in the inventory, "figures" taken from Tasso’s poem. Three of these canvases have a light source from the right and one from the left, which partly conflicts with the lighting in the series of ovals (two lit from the right and two from the left). Whether this is sufficient evidence for excluding the ovals as part of the reconstructed cycle seems unclear, especially since the vases that are a conspicuous feature of The Met's canvases relate to motifs in the main pictures. Based in part on incorrect dimensions and in part on the duplication of the supposed attribute of the figure (a vase), Favilla and Rugolo had eliminated The Met 1997.117.8 from the set. As already noted, it is far from clear that any of the figures were intended as allegorical, and on balance the group is consistent in style.
At some point between 1828 and 1847 the paintings in the room were dismantled. The fate of the four ovals during this period is not known. Morassi’s (1962) statement that they were among the nineteen Tiepolos that Waagen saw in the mid-nineteenth century in the collection of Edward Cheney can be discounted (see G. F. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain
, London, 1857, p. 173). According to Waagen, Cheney’s pictures were "sketches for ceilings" (not single figures), and none of the Tiepolos in the sale of Cheney’s collection (Christie's, London, April 29, 1885, nos. 158–70) corresponds to the Allegorical Figures.
Keith Christiansen 2014