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An 18th-century Everyman. Domenico Tiepolo's `Punchinello' drawings are a comic vision

Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings, Introduction and legends by Adelheid Gealt, preface by James Byam Shaw. New York: George Braziller, Inc. 197 pp. $80 Not only one of the earliest big (11 inches by 15 inches) art books of the season, ``Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings'' will undoubtedly be one of the best. The drawings have not been seen together since sold by Sotheby's in 1920. Publisher George Braziller has produced another superb example of book craft, wedding artistic and economical demands and blessing the general reader in the process.

The son of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the greatest Venetian painter of his time, Domenico witnessed the last days of Eternal Venice and its proud patrician civil tradition; he was there when Napoleon ``liberated'' the city in 1797 and handed it over to Austria. The Punchinello drawings, done at the end of his life, are an unforgettable mix of melancholy and comedy.

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The Punchinello figure, already well established by the 18th century, is a variation on a theme, or themes, rooted in the commedia dell'arte, or Italian popular theater of the late middle ages. Masked actors improvised on traditional plots of unruly character; in time, the roles became fixed in farcical types (Harlequin, Pulcinella, Pantaloon, Columbine). In their recent study of the contemporary relevance of this tradition, ``The Triumph of Pierrot,'' Martin Green and John Swan try to show that this represents ``a recoil from our society's dominant respectable values,'' and see the tradition alive in street theater and rock music.

Well, maybe. In the hands of a master, the Punchinello story yields far more than such historicism suggests. Domenico Tiepolo was such a master. What Green and Swan would call the ``oscillation'' of values caused by social decline did not produce in Domenico mere farce or satire, but sublime comedy. In this set of 104 drawings -- various washes over graphite and chalk -- he portrays a great variety of scenes from the life of Punchinello.

Crowds, street scenes, country dances, a game of bowls, a walk in the rain (see illustration), hunting scenes, a dinner scene, a circus, abduction by a centaur: The range and verisimilitude of these scenes owe something to Domenico's father's two series of engravings of caricatures and fantasies of everyday life. But his father's engravings were haunted in a way Domenico's are not, haunted by the otherworlds of magic and death. Domenico somehow builds on this melancholy to arrive at something that transforms, even transcends it.

As James Shaw explains in his lucid introduction to this handsome book, ``By the 18th century, Punchinello had some fairly consistent features. As his Italian name, Pulcinella, suggests, chickens were in his family tree, an ancestry confirmed by his long, beaklike nose. His bulging stomach testified to a certain gluttony in his nature. The hunched back, floppy dress, and conical hat all contributed to his comical, awkward, and ridiculous appearance. Theater scripts exploited his propensity for bawdiness, trickery, violence, and rapacity. A rascal, a cheat, and a liar, Punchinello magnified the worst human traits into grotesque caricature.''

Ecce homo: Behold the man! Domenico's genius was to see Punchinello as Everyman. As the drawings show, the Punchinello in us all is absurd, playful, destructive, oblivious, and somehow, ultimately forgiven.

The title page of the series shows Punchinello staring at a stone structure planted firmly somewhere in the countryside. A plate of gnocchi -- his favorite pasta -- is on the ground. A dog sniffs the foot of the doll cradled in the crook of his left arm.

Is the structure a stage, a tomb, an altar, or what?

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As Adelheid Gealt writes in her excellent legend, it appears that Punchinello is being invited ``to mount his small stage and present the first act.''

All the world's a stage, quoth the poet. The truth of the commedia dell'arte tradition -- so poignantly embodied in Charlie Chaplin -- is that even the most sincere human gesture can be ridiculous.

Domenico's comic vision softens the satire implicit in this point of view. Page after page, no matter how foolish, even grotesque, Punchinello seems in these drawings, a gentle, serene sunlight bathes him in the light of eternity.

As we go through the life of Punchinello, the tone darkens. Violence erupts in hunting scenes and executions. Finally, having become as lumpy as the gnocci he eats, he collapses.

After his burial -- needless to say, Punchinello dies without nobility -- we get a surprise. A skeleton representing death and wearing Punchinello's conical hat rises from the grave, startling the assembled mourners and putting them to flight.

As usual, birds wheel overhead in the serene abyss.

While these drawings, this vision of man as Punchinello, will appeal to the astringencies of late 20th-century taste, they will also help to transform them, mellowing and strengthening them. It's as if Mozart's late music had been produced visually.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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