In the past few years, some of my favorite shows at the Museum of Fine Arts have been consigned to the long corridor that connects the two newer wings to east and west of the building, near the Fenway entrance.
I am thinking in particular of the two shows of Dutch prints and drawings from the George Abrams collection, the wonderful exhibit of smaller works from the collection by Jean-Francois Millet, and then the terrific “Manet in Black” show, which is ongoing.
The latest in this modest but engrossing succession of shows is “The Invention of Fantasy: Eighteenth-Century Venice,” a selection of works on paper by the likes of the Tiepolo family (especially Giovanni Battista and his son Giovanni Domenico), Canaletto, Piranesi, and Piazzetta.
Organized by Clifford Ackley and Stephanie Stepanek, the show is a casual affair — something like a sprinkling of confetti that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the torn-up blossoms of an exotic, aromatic, and untraceable plant.
The Invention of Fantasy: Eighteenth-Century Venice
Anything Venetian, of course, is bound always to feel exotic. It must be the world’s most unlikely and romantic city. But when you align Venice with the 18th century — the Venice, in other words, of Casanova and Tiepolo — you have something irresistible in its allure.
How much of this allure comes over in the small, black, white, gray, and brown works on paper here is difficult to say. But it’s more than you might think. It’s heightened and framed, anyway, by one of the first works in the show, the page of a book illustrated by Gaetano Zompini.
Zompini’s etching shows three Venetian figures crossing a bridge. The image is infused with a dangerous, conspiratorial air. The verse inscribed beneath strikes an ominous note that has remained consistent in literary, artistic, and cinematic evocations of Venice right up to the present:
“By night, whether to the theater or to the gambling room, I’m the one whose flame serves as a light. I’m paid since I know how to get anywhere.”
There’s a connection, that is to say, between getting lost (the defining condition of being in Venice) and being susceptible — aesthetically, romantically, imaginatively.
Only a handful of the prints here actually depict Venice, or Venetian life. Among them are a small brown ink and wash sketch by Francesco Guardi showing a view of the Riva degli Schiavoni from the arched loggia of the Ducal Palace at St Mark’s Square, and two genre scenes by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo showing a milliner’s shop and a banquet, both in Venice.
All three are rendered with a light, spontaneous touch and quavering lines that seem to suggest not just the instability of Venetian light but the insubstantiality of reality itself.
Unlike the more famous Canaletto, whose postcard views of the city are marvels of architectural detail and pictorial control, Guardi came to embrace a more fluid and at times darker vision marked by greater invention.
Guardi is one of many artists in this show who, to some degree, turned away from visible reality and indulged more fantastic, gossamer visions. Indeed, he mastered a new form of picture-making — an invention that originated in 18th-century Venice — called the capriccio (from the Italian for whim or fancy).
Everything is connected in 18th-century Venetian art. Just as Guardi, more than any of his peers, perfected the capriccio, a form pioneered by Marco Ricci, Ricci’s uncle, Sebastiano, pioneered the more general stylistic category of the Venetian rococo, which was brought to its shimmering peak by Guardi’s brother-in-law, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Giovanni Battista, meanwhile, is not to be confused with his son Giovanni Domenico who, although capable of being quite wonderful, was neither as virtuosic nor as inventive as his father.
It all gets confusing — the more so here because all these artists are represented in the show, but not always by their most “representative” work.
Among the most famous capricci are the architectural fantasies of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. One such image in this show is a drawing in pen and brown wash called “Fantastic Monument.” Curiously, it was given to the MFA by a Dr Timothy Leary. (The same Dr Leary who advocated psychedelic drugs and coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out”? I’ve been assured not. What a pity.)
The sketch is notable for its shadowy foreground, setting off a distant structure that seems to dematerialize as it ascends. Was Piranesi on drugs when he made it?
One suspects not. But his imagination, and the imaginations of a number of other 18th-century artists in Venice, were certainly tuned in to the beauty and mystery of classical ruins. These artists took delight in extending these ruins, visible in the Italian landscape all around them, into fanciful, intoxicating zones of the imagination that opened up new realms of pictorial potential.
Many of the results, mind you, were frankly decorative: The European 18th century — at least until it turned blood-red in about 1793 — was pastel-colored, and many of its greatest pictures — by Watteau, by Chardin, by Fragonard, by Tiepolo — were painted on a small, domestic scale, as if aware of their own humble status as adornments or spurs to private thought.
But if civilized values of independent-mindedness, reason, and skepticism were playing an ever greater role in intellectual life, those values were capacious enough to tolerate and even cherish imaginative fancies, too.
Perhaps the most interesting case of these pictorial fancies was a series of 23 etchings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo called the “Scherzi.”
In bright, corrosive light that seems to eat away at their forms, these strange images show a cast of beautiful women, old and young men, families of satyrs, Pulchinellos, owls, and snakes. These figures interact mysteriously in a setting that includes crumbling ruins, sculptural reliefs, musical instruments, weapons, and trees leaning at odd angles.
Tiepolo gave none of them titles or inscriptions. “All unfolds in perfect silence,” wrote Roberto Calasso, who subjected them to a lively, extended analysis in his 2010 book, “Tiepolo Pink.”
However one interprets these superb, highly charged images (Calasso believes they are images about the act of looking, attempts to mediate the invisible), they are a reminder of what I love most about the 18th century: its willingness and ability to integrate values we now consider frivolous (flirtation, whim, fashion, imagination) with the sturdiest, most permanent values of a civilized life, and the most existential questions.
Such an ability seems, if not uniquely Venetian, at least characteristically so.