Day 57 – Tobias revisited

Gian Antonio Guardi, The Story of Tobias, c. 1750, Arcangelo Raffaele, Venice.

I’ve told you the story of Tobias and the Angel before (Picture Of The Day 4), so if you’d like to refresh your memory, do have a look there. At the time somebody mentioned the wonderful version of the story as told by a member of the Guardi family in Venice, and it’s taken me until now to get round to looking at it. Talking about Tiepolo last week (POTD 51), I said that he is ‘seen as being on the frivolous side of religious painting’, which reminded me about the Guardi. This is another example of Rococo religious painting which could be considered frivolous – but, as a friend pointed out, frivolity is a rather underrated value. However, the lightness of touch with which this sequence of images is painted does not make the story seem frivolous. If anything, it makes it more magical.

It was painted for the organ loft of the church of the Archangel Raphael. Make a beeline to see it the next time you are in Venice – not only are the paintings a delight, but also this part of Venice is rarely on the tourist trail. However, given that everyone I know seems to want to go to Venice as soon as the lockdown is over, because it has been so wonderfully quiet, I can’t imagine that the quiet will last. A pity, but I want to go – so why shouldn’t other people? The church is one of the oldest religious foundations in Venice – there is a record of it being destroyed by fire back in 889 AD. After all, Raphael is one of the Patron Saints of fishermen, and this is Venice, which is all sea. The current building is the eighth on the site: it was rebuilt for the last time in the 1740s, with work finishing in 1749. The organ was built in the same year by Gaetano Amigazzi. The case is highly elaborate, but a fairly restrained form of Rococo – it is entirely symmetrical, for one thing, and has a rather awkward, inorganic application of decorative details. The story is told on five canvases which have been stretched around the convex and concave bends of the organ loft. The sequence starts and finishes with the small panels to the left and right, which frame two wider canvasses, which themselves frame a bowed inner section. This creates a great rhythm for storytelling: an introduction and development leading up to the prolonged heart of the story, followed by a suitable conclusion, and a coda.  It could be the model for one of the pieces played on the organ itself. Or a five act ballet.

I said above that it was painted by a member of the Guardi family. To be honest, I was hedging my bets. The name you will most often see is Gian Antonio Guardi, the older brother of the better known Francesco. There was a third brother called Niccolò, also a painter, if rather a pedestrian one, and Francesco had a son, Giacomo, who also painted. Their sister married Tiepolo – artists in Venice were especially keen on keeping things in the family. Their father, Domenico, had also been an artist, although nothing is known about his work. He left the workshop to his eldest, Gianantonio, when he died in 1716, at which point Gianantonio was only 17. Very little is known about his work either – there is only one securely documented painting, The Death of Joseph, now in Berlin, which means that the attribution of the Tobias paintings is up for grabs. Even though most people think they are by Gian Antonio, there are still those who hold out for Francesco…

The narrative starts with the departure of Tobias – without bothering to explain any of the back story (I won’t bother to explain it either – head to POTD 4!). All you need to know is that Tobias’s father, Tobit, is blind, and Tobias is heading off in the company of the Archangel Raphael, supposedly disguised as a previously unknown member of the family called Azarias, to collect a debt from some distant relatives. At no point does Guardi try and disguise the fact that Azarias is indeed the Archangel Raphael. On the contrary, the wings are one of the wonders of this sequence, only out-feathered by the brushstrokes with which they are painted. Raphael leads the way, a staff, and Tobias’s left hand, in his right, his left hand held to his breast as a sign of his trustworthiness. Both travellers look back towards Tobit, while the dog, in the bottom right-hand corner, looks towards Raphael to see why they are hanging around. This is probably because Tobit himself is clinging onto Tobias’s right hand – a bit more paternal advice, presumably – while also pointing them the way. Anna, his wife, can’t bear to see her little boy go, and has turned back to the door so he doesn’t see her cry. He’s probably never been away before. Notice how the upward sweep of Raphael’s right wing – at right angles to the other – is matched by the diagonal of the clouds behind. And relish the feathery brushstrokes that we will see in every painting.  Detail gives way to an evanescent evocation of light and airy form.

After some time travelling they go down to a river to bathe – and are attacked by the most enormous fish. It doesn’t look like much of a threat here, but that’s because, following Azarias’s suggestion, Tobias has killed it. It also isn’t that big… it is, as so often, a symbolic fish that will fit better into the composition, and look more elegant as the boy lifts it out of the river with his scarf. The dog tries to get into the action, which is great, as it is only mentioned twice in the story: on departure and at their return. Azarias (Raphael) stands back, issuing instructions with a rather effete gesture – throughout, all characters in this story could be appearing in that five act ballet. Even the dog. I am showing you more than one version of this canvas, for more than one reason. This version gets in closer, so you can see the brushstrokes, and the canvas has been cleaned – so you can see the delicacy of the colours, which matches the light touch of the brushstrokes and the elegance of the gestures – there is nothing muscular about the Rococo. The tree in particular dissolves into an array of almost random dashes of light- and mid-greens: this is Impressionism avant le lettre. Indeed, Canaletto was the universally admired Venetian vedutista – or painter of views – up until the acceptance of Impressionism, at which point people started to re-evaluate the Guardi, and realised how brilliant they were.

In this version, before cleaning, we see more of the composition, and we realise that this is not so much a river, as the Venetian lagoon, complete with a ruined watchtower on a nearby island. And in the background on the right you can see ‘what happened next’ – they roasted the fish and ate it, saving some of its vital organs for later.

We arrive at the sweeping central section, bowing out towards us, with a gap in the centre allowing a view of the distant hills across the water. This gives the impression that the composition is a continuous narrative, showing two separate episodes on one canvas. On the left, we see the ‘distant cousins’ Tobias has come to find. They point towards the right of the image almost as if they are witnessing the arrival of their young cousin, the tall stranger (after all, they can’t see his wings) and the dog – although their gesture also serves to tie the two halves of the composition together, and to direct our attention to Tobias. As chance would have it, he had arrived at just the right time – they have a daughter of marriageable age, and, although Tobias is young, and may never have been away from home before, he is old enough… We see Azarias presiding over the wedding on the right.

The two servants carrying a hefty platter in the bottom left of this detail contradict the idea that this canvas is a continuous narrative, as I suspect they are bringing provisions for the wedding banquet. However, they are on the other side of a narrow stretch of water from the two richly dressed ‘cousins’, but are on the same ‘island’ as Tobias, so I wouldn’t rule it out altogether. If it is a continuous narrative, Guardi has feathered the two scenes together along a shallow diagonal – which seems like an entirely Rococo thing to do. Having said that, it does look as if they’ll have to clamber over a pile of detritus on their way. The outfits of these servants, coordinated in colour and loosely based on Venetian 18th century fashion, tell us that they work for a very wealthy household – but then, the two ‘cousins’, husband and wife, are finely dressed themselves – particularly the husband in his rich red and blue. His turban tell us that we are not in Venice any more – even if, to the right, we can see a gondolier… Just next to him, at the end of the parapet, is a jaunty vase, asymmetrical and quirky. To be honest, I think there is more life and vitality, more invention, in this one vase than in the whole of the organ casing we saw at the start. If only they’d asked the Guardi to design that too!

Azarias presides over the wedding, even though no one in the household knows he has such a very close relationship to God. He points upwards as Tobias kneels, head bowed in prayer, his wife-to-be kneeling devoutly and devotedly by his side. What the cousins didn’t initially mention was that she had been married six times before, and had murdered her husband on their wedding night every time. Azarias didn’t seem too worried about that, though, so they went ahead as planned. Just to the right of the bride you can see a censer burning – nicely framed by an archway, to give it an ecclesiastical feel. This is the heart of the fish which they had saved, sacrificed to bring good fortune at Azarias’s suggestion. And it worked – according to the book of Tobit, at this point the demon, which had been possessing the young woman, was driven out to Egypt, where it was bound in chains by the Angel. He must have been able to fly pretty quickly, as I don’t think they noticed he had gone. The mention of Egypt has led some people to suggest that, earlier in the story, they hadn’t been attacked by a fish at all, but by a crocodile – which would, let’s face it, have been far more threatening. Once married, according to the story, ‘… they went to sleep’. There is indeed a maid preparing a large, canopied bed on the far right. But I’m not sure it’s sleep that they had in mind. The dog, bottom right, continues to build up its part, and remains curious.

Again, two versions of this one – the first to show you what photographs of paintings often look like – flattened out, and made to look like a museum piece – and the second as it really appears on the organ loft, curving back from the central section. I’m not sure how they took the first photograph– maybe it was taken after cleaning: they would probably have removed the canvasses from their curved stretchers to do that. Anyway, Tobias decided to cut the wedding celebrations short, because he wanted to get back to Dad. And here he is, looking far too young to be married, clasping a box in his left hand, and touching his father’s face with his right. Azarias had suggested making a paste from the remaining organs of the fish (which they had probably kept in this very box), and applying it to Tobit’s blind eyes. On washing them, he could see again, he was cured – a miracle! The gathering of the figures in the centre of what is effectively a landscape is entirely charming, I think. Tobit is seated in the centre, with Anna bending down to care for him on the left, so that she and Tobias, reaching in from the other side, are on the same level. This is framed across the diagonal by the ever-curious dog and the angel, the former’s snout on the same line as the latter’s wing. Anna, Tobias and the dog look at Tobit, while Raphael looks over to Tobias – checking he’s doing it right, I suppose.

In the final scene, Azarias reveals himself as Raphael, before flying off back home to the Throne of God. He points up into the blue, as Tobit, Tobias, and the dog kneel in amazement, awe and adoration, their postures revealing their age – and their species. At the top right there is a green curtain, about to fall on this most delightful divertissementLa commedia è finita!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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