Commentary on The Hebrews gathering manna in the desert; sketch (Los hebreos recogiendo el maná en el desierto, boceto)
According to Antonio Morassi, these two works are sketches for La cadutta della manna (The Gathering of the Manna) and Il Sacrificio di Melchisedec (The Sacrifice of Melchizedek), two large canvases (10 x 5.25 m.) destined for the lateral walls of the Santísimo Sacramento chapel, the right wing of the transept of the San Lorenzo parochial church in Verolanuova that Tiepolo painted in 1740 (1) and that still remain in situ today. Theologians consider both of the Biblical episodes represented to be pre-figurations of the Eucharist, entering into thematic dialogue with L’ultima cena (The Last Supper) that Francesco Maffei (1605-1660), painted mid-way through the preceding century to be situated above the altar of the same chapel.
Tiepolo was already recognized in Venetian circles at the time these works were carried out. He received his artistic formation in Gregorio Lazzari’s studio and the works done in his youth are relatively dark, revealing the influence of Rembrandt, among others. One example of this tendency is the Madonna di Carmelo (Madonna of Carmel, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) in which the violent contrast between lights and darks approaches that typical of Giambattista Piazzetta (1682-1754). In 1726, his first large commission outside Venice produces a decisive change in his career; he was called upon for the decoration of the Archbishop’s palace and cathedral in Udine, and it would mark a new phase in his work where light would become the most distinctive element. As opposed to the symbolic light employed by Caravaggio or Rembrandt, which needs darkness as its complement, Tiepolo’s daylight inundates his works and generates shadows with vivid tones. On the other hand, in contrast to the warm palette of the Venetian maestros, he tends towards cooler colors, generating a volatile, translucent atmosphere. Our works pertain to the beginning of his luminous period, which would provide the basis for his enormous fame in Italy and beyond for over four decades.
The loose brushwork and forms lacking definition are telling of the nature of these productions as sketches, in which the primary compositional, spatial and chromatic lines he would follow in the Verolanuova canvases appear. The two sketches conceived of as pendant (the two definitive works were destined for the lateral walls of the chapel) present compositions with similar structures. As is the case in Il sacrificio di Melchisedec, the group of figures in the lower left sector, the trees and the angels amid the clouds in the upper portion configure a composition that is closed to the left; in The Hebrews Gathering Manna in the Desert, the same elements arranged toward the right generate a composition that closes toward that side. In this way, the compositional schemes, conceived of in mirror fashion, provide a means of inter-relating both works.
The scene in The Hebrews Gathering Manna in the Desert illustrates the story from the book of Exodus (16:1-21), in which Moses promised the Israelites that every morning they would find manna scattered on the ground that had fallen from the sky. Adapting the work for the wall where it would be placed implied the challenge of narrating the story in a markedly vertical format; Tiepolo resolves this by distributing the numerous figures on three levels, according to their participation in the miraculous deed. The Israelites are distributed in the lower section in various postures, kneeling down to gather manna or with arms raised. To the left, on an outcropping that rises up from ground level, Moses raises his arms and looks to the heavens, accompanied by other figures that surround him. Finally, above this the angels appear, one of whom holds the recipient from which the divine food falls. The figures on these three levels that allude to the earthly world, the celestial realm and the mediation between them carried out by Moses, are linked to one another in compositional terms. Some of the scene’s elements, such as the horseman with his arm raised in the bottom section, the tent poles alongside Moses or the trees generate vertical or diagonal lines that lead the gaze from one focal point of interest to the next, inducing a dynamically ascendant reading that moves through the work. Another factor that provides a differentiated reading between different sectors of the work is the illumination. The lowermost portion has intense shadows created by the numerous people found in varying poses, while in the uppermost section the angels move about in a diaphanous atmosphere where light defines a variety of subtle tonalities in the clouds.
In the foreground of Il Sacrificio di Melchisedec to the left, a crowd of young and old people in different positions confront a compact formation of soldiers positioned on the right of the scene. Both groups frame the space in the center, where slightly further back, the priest and King Melquisedec stands beside an altar, offering a sacrifice of bread and wine in honor of Abraham, kneeling before him. In the upper portion, a group of angels contemplates the Biblical scene amidst the clouds (Gen. 14:18-20). The manner in which figures are arranged is what gives shape and meaning to the space in this work, so that three compact groups surround the two main characters, delineating their area of action at the same time that they acknowledge the importance of the event. Tiepolo’s ability to organize multitudes without sacrificing either the clarity of the account or the emotional intensity appropriate to the Biblical occurrence is what defines this piece’s originality.
Three dominant archetypes can be clearly recognized in both of these canvases: the patriarchal old men with ample tunics and turbans, the semi-nude young people and the soldiers with armor, shields and helmets that remit to ancient Roman times. These varied types of people can also be found in the Capricci series of ten etchings, published in 1743, in which the author set his imagination loose, presenting contrasting characterizations between young and old or between oriental patriarchs and Roman soldiers. These drawings, which Tiepolo did for himself, present a repertoire of characters and postures that he would use in these and other works from this period.
by Ángel M. Navarro – Alejo Lo Russo
1— In a letter to Count Gian Francesco Gambara dated January 11, 1740, Giambattista Tiepolo accepts the commission for the creation of these works. Cf. William Barcham, Giambattista Tiepolo. New York, Harry Abrahams, 1992, p. 80
1911. MOLMENTI, Pompeo, Tiepolo, la vie et l’oeuvre du peintre. Paris, Hachette, p. 117, reprod.
1934. DA ROCHA, Augusto, “Galerías privadas”, Boletín del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, a. 1, vol. 1, septiembre octubre, p. 17, 13.
1962. MORASSI, Antonio, A Complete Catalogue of Paintings of G.B. Tiepolo. London, Phaidon, p. 7-8.
1976. PIOVENE, Guido y Anna Pallucchini, La obra pictórica completa de Tiepolo. Barcelona, Noguer, nº 126a y nº 127a, p. 104, reprod.