Great Works: An Allegory with Venus and Time (c.1754-58), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

National Gallery, London

Is it possible to sleep, tread, loll, lean and generally pontificate on clouds? That is one of the various unserious questions we often ask ourselves when we stare into some of the paintings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, that weightless prestidigitator of 18th-century Venetian art. Appreciating the art of Tiepolo is a little like being stuck inside one of those sealed spaces-between-spaces that exist between two locked doors at the entrances to city banks. You are neither in nor out. You exist, albeit temporarily (we hope), in an in-between world.

This is exactly our state of mind when we inhabit the painted world of Tiepolo in this painting. It feels like a world which exists outside the moral universe which we customarily inhabit. It lacks both gravity (we can see that at a glance, of course) and gravitas. It feels morally weightless, gorgeously fanciful, a lightsome, sumptuously decorated simulacrum of this serious world of good and evil. The Renaissance has been blown away, as if it were a dream.

Not all of his work is like this by any means, but it is a powerful strain. Its values are nothing but the seductive values of the lovely, painted surface. He is taking his commission to paint this ceiling of a private villa very seriously, but there is nothing except sheer play in the way that he is treating his theme. It is, in short, perfectly at one in spirit with Venice itself, that sometime great empire which, when this painting was being made, was in a condition of irretrievable decline, and would finally fall to the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte about 40 years after the work was finished. All it had left was its magnificently decadent surface sheen. And so it has remained, and Tiepolo still resides there, beguilingly magnificent, sharing a common mood with Longhi's closeted interiors of the prosperous at play, and Guardi's delightful architectural caprices.

First of all we admire the shape of this great picture, so uncustomary, so attention-grabbing. We can speculate that Tiepolo is following the shape of some 18th-century architect's decorative pattern book for a ceiling panel. This lovely series of broken curves is somewhat like an oval in its overall shape, but not exactly. It is also a little – just a little – like a stylised rendering of that floating, scalloped shell on which another Venus, Botticelli's this time, also floated towards us, except that she was borne up by waves rather than clouds. It reminds us of the shape of a lovely brooch or cameo on the handsome swell of a painted bosom; it enhances our conviction that what we have here is pure, decorative, eye-bogglingly self-conscious spectacle. Yes, that's what Tiepolo was, so often, an exquisite interior decorator, a man for all ceilings – like Michelangelo before him, who in fact snarled and grumbled about the fact that he had been commissioned to paint the Pope's ceiling for the Sistine Chapel because it was so lowly a task in comparison with his life's truly great work, which was the creation of deathless works of sculpture.

As we stare at it, we feel ourselves almost pitching dizzily backwards into empty air, mimicking the painting's own movement, which seems to fall backwards into the far blue depths of the sky as we look and look. He seems to be observing this assorted gathering of mythological beings, Venus, Cupid and Time, from so many dizzyingly different angles simultaneously. It is not merely a matter of determining a single point of view, and remaining steadfastly faithful to it like that fanatical Uccello once used to do. Venus, who is surly, aloof or simply icily indifferent – that face is very difficult to read – has handed over her pudgy son, an aged baby with a pronounced widow's peak, to Time, who looks a little like a sentimental pantomime sailor. How gorgeous are the fabrics which billow about her! A pearl-studded belt loosely laps her waist, very seductively, as if it were a sly male arm. Meanwhile, pudgy-buttocked Cupid climbs the air in company with his enormous quiver of arrows. His testicles are just peeking through, arrestingly. This baby is Aeneas who will become, in time, a hero of heroes. All that future is set aside for the space of this painting. Here he is nothing but a sulky, finger-sucking child suspended in crowded air.


The brilliant, tirelessly productive Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was born in 1696 and died in 1770. His range of work was immense, and he travelled extensively in Europe. He painted murals, genre scenes, historical and religious works, and also found time to be an accomplished draughtsman and etcher. His paintings are celebrated for their lightness of touch, their airiness, their gorgeous blue skies, and he was celebrated for his great decorative schemes throughout Europe. He kept a busy workshop, and he was often assisted with his great murals by his less talented sons Domenico and Lorenzo.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game