Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Building of the Trojan Horse (c.1773-4)

This monumental picture by Giandomenico Tiepolo depicts the building of the Trojan horse on the beach outside Troy. The only example surviving from a set of three compositions on the myth, it depicts Greek artisans building a giant wooden horse.1 It seems to be a perfect allegory for Tiepolo's own activity: the composition of this gigantic painting. And both the horse and the painting have a powerful secret hidden inside: one's an army, the other an allegory.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Building of the Trojan Horse (c.1773-4) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT

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The foreground may even have resembled some aspects of Tiepolo's life in that the tools and props depicted could also have been found in an eighteenth-century studio: ladders, hammers, make-shift seats, discarded fabric and implements on the floor. 

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Detail of Giandomenico Tiepolo's The Building of the Trojan Horse

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The hive of activity is directed by a figure on the other side of what resembles a dried riverbank, his identical twin in more worn clothing behind him. Artists have long depicted themselves as part of a double act, guided or encouraged by a second "artist" standing behind them.2 The pointing figure (and we have explained how a pointing finger often paints) is thought to be either Epeius, the builder of the horse, or the Greek king Agamemnon with Odysseus. There is no consensus. King or craftsmen, though, the two figures represent one artist, either craftsmen themselves or royalty, the latter a common way of depicting an artist’s most creative self. (See Artist as King)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Giandomenico Tiepolo's The Building of the Trojan Horse

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Over on the other side of the composition the most prominent worker sitting next to the brightest highlight raises his brush to paint the white rump of the horse as though it was a blank canvas primed for painting. The horse appears fully painted with no part unfinished so the artist's active presence, his raised hand holding a brush frozen in space as though about to paint, can really only be explained by the content of the allegory, that the horse’s white rump is a blank canvas. We are watching the creative moment.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Giandomenico Tiepolo's The Building of the Trojan Horse

 

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Tiepolo was not without a sense of humor. An easel in Italian is a cavaletto (literally a small horse) which may explain why this giant horse faces “into the canvas” as the four legs of "the artist's little horse" always do. The joke does have a serious point: however small the details of an artist's practice are in life, some take on gigantic importance in his mind. And that is what we are looking at here: the scene in his mind at the moment this monumental painting was conceived.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Giandomenico Tiepolo's The Building of the Trojan Horse

Click image to enlarge.

The significance of the dry riverbed or stream is uncertain. In my reading the two men (representing the "artist") are separated from the main motif to emphasize their independence, in another reality. They are not manual craftsmen but, dressed as classical philosophers, represent the artistic intellect required to compose the painting quite apart from the manual labor needed as well. The Venetian Tiepolo would have been very familiar with Giorgione's Tempesta, a landmark of Venetian art, constructed in a similar manner. in it a standing man is separated by a small stream from a mother with her infant on the other side. I have always believed that the man represents Giorgione, the thinking artist, with the mother and infant as his "painting". Tempesta, then, depicts the mental image in Giorgione's mind at the moment of its own conception. That explains the stroke of lightning in the middle: an idea has arrived. Tiepolo composed his picture on a similar basis: the artist as intellectual on one side, the artist as craftsmen on the other struggling as artists always do (with the help of assistants) to complete the picture.

More Works by Tiepolo, Giandomenico

Notes:

1. Edgar Bowron in Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2004, p. 94

2. A few examples: Luca Signorelli depicted himself standing to one side of a painting accompanied by Fra Angelico (the Capella Nuova in Orvieto) ; Raphael posed with a friend for a double portrait, once imaginatively titled Raphael with his Fencing Master, and it is the friend who points not Raphael; Manet stands to the far left with an artist-friend in Music in the Tuileries and to the far right with his wife in Fishing. In all cases the artist is in a different reality, separated from his "painting" with a partner, even though they at first appear to be part of it.

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