Tiepolo’s Magic Well

Upper: Detail of Image below
Lower: Copy after Tiepolo Drawing

I, a complete novice, was in an art class the other day copying as a watercolor a drawing done in ink by Giambattista Tiepolo. The copy is illustrated above (lower image). While working on the shadows, though, in the lower left corner where the pole lies over the top of the well I realized that it looked as if the pole was resting on the paper. And then it dawned. The pole is Tiepolo’s pen, the well his inkpot. That is why the pole seems to be part of the scene while also appearing to rest on the paper itself (see upper image). It is a very subtle visual illusion and confirms once again that artists are always thinking in this mode whenever they put pen to paper or brush to canvas.

Wells, of course, were springs of magic. For thousands of years “people came to these wells and sat in their presence in silence, or danced, sang, left offerings and dipped ritual objects into the waters. They used the wells as a way of connecting with the powers of the spirit world.” As Brian Bates explains, water from wells was thought to flow from the very source of life, from deep down in the Lower World.1

Tiepolo’s long, thin pole (his “pen”) dipped into his magical inkpot and drew this scene from his mind, a visual fusion of his motif and the paper, inkpot and pen in front of him. Thus, at first, our eyes fool us. We think we see a scene from nature when, in truth, we see a mental image in the mind of a great master in the act of its own making.  

I am only scraping the surface of Tiepolo’s well because, however simple the original may seem, it is almost certainly full of profound symbolism. It must be because it comes from the pen of a great poet.


Originally published April 17th 2011


1. Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages (London: Pan Books) 2002, pp. 133-4

Posted 22 Oct 2012: TiepoloTheoryVisual Perception

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