Over the course of approximately thirty years, from the late 1720s through the early 1760s, Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo, the preeminent Venetian fresco painter of his day and an extremely prolific draftsman, executed at least thirty-six drawings of Punchinello, the long-nosed, tall-hatted character from the commedia dell’arte. The majority of the drawings are connected to venerdì gnoccolare, the bacchanalian celebration that takes place on the final Friday of Carnevale in Verona and features a city-wide procession, the singing of macaronic songs, and the distribution of massive quantities of gnocchi and wine. Accordingly, Tiepolo’s Punchinelli cook and eat gnocchi, guzzle wine, pass out from intoxication, and suffer the digestive consequences of their excessive consumption. While the execution of many of the drawings coincides with the periods of time Giambattista spent in Verona, the exact circumstances of their production are unknown.
By providing the most comprehensive existing compilation of the drawings in the form of a lengthy catalogue, looking at the possible influences on the drawings, and assessing them from multiple thematic perspectives, my dissertation represents the most thorough study of Giambattista’s Punchinello drawings to date. It begins with an overview of the drawings’ subject matter and chronology and a review of the relevant extant literature. I go on to discuss the history and symbolism of Punchinello, as well as artistic representations and recent theoretical interpretations of the character. In order to provide context for Tiepolo’s engagement with Punchinello, I look at the status of and attitudes toward Punchinello in the eighteenth century. I also examine Giambattista’s relationships with the two men who are mentioned most often in connection with the Punchinello drawings, Scipione Maffei and Francesco Algarotti, and consider whether they had any impact on the production of the drawings. Finally, using venerdì gnoccolare and the carnival theory of Mikhail Bakhtin as points of departure, I evaluate the different thematic angles from which the drawings can be viewed, as well as the various artistic traditions in which they might be situated. All of these traditions can be considered part of the carnivalesque tradition, a rubric under which, I suggest, the Punchinello drawings also fall. Ultimately, by examining the circumstances of their production, illustrating how many of the concepts inherent in carnival and in venerdì gnoccolare can also be applied to the drawings, and considering how they fit into a number of carnivalesque artistic traditions, my dissertation aims to provide a comprehensive and revealing study of the Punchinello drawings and to determine what they may have meant for Tiepolo.
Illustration: A dish of gnocchi offered to a Punchinello podestà (Civici musei di storia ed arte, Trieste)