'This fresco, with its light, colour and impossible perspective (not to mention its Baroque theology) definitely pushed me over the limit.'

The Institution of the Rosary, 1738–39, 45ft 9in by 14ft 8in, by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Santa Maria del Rosario (the Gesuati), Venice, Italy. Bridgeman Images.

Edward Stourton says:
‘No experience quite matches a first visit to Venice. I made the pilgrimage at 18 with a school friend and we quickly became intoxicated by Tiepolo. This fresco, with its light, colour and impossible perspective (not to mention its Baroque theology) definitely pushed me over the limit. That night I suggested to our hostess, a Venetian grande dame, that “Tiepolo is better than Tintoretto”. The Contessa patiently, but firmly, explained that this was like preferring Babycham to a fine old claret. She was right, of course, but I still hanker after the Babycham.’

Broadcaster Edward Stourton presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Sunday

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Tiepolo, unlike Canaletto, was disregarded by the English, which may explain his lingering reputation here as the froth on the coffee of Italian art. But there are other reasons for this misconception. His career coincided with Venice’s last century as an independent republic and its first as a tourist resort. And, today, we commonly regard the 18th century as the age of the scientific Enlightenment, yet Tiepolo was a religious painter, undeniably the greatest of his time.

In fact, religion was at the centre of 18th-century European thought, and nowhere more so than in supposedly decadent Venice. The age of Tiepolo is also that of the sacred music of Vivaldi and Benedetto Marcello, of Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727), Handel’s Messiah (1741), Haydn, even Mozart. In the Catholic church, it was marked by an upsurge of Marian devotion. The Virgin, protectress of the inviolate Serenissima, was especially venerated in Venice. This is the first of Tiepolo’s four great Marian ceiling-paintings in Venetian churches.

The principal Marian devotion is the recitation of the rosary, the prayerbeads said to have been given to St Dominic by the Blessed Virgin in an apparition. In this Dominican church, then newly built, the scene is the subject of the central oval above the nave. St Dominic hands the rosary towards the golden-sleeved Doge of Venice, as the Virgin and Child look down from their celestial cloud and the wicked tumble to eternal damnation. The lightness of effect is increased by Tiepolo’s mastery of the already old fashioned fresco method, wherein the paint is applied to wet plaster.’

This article was first published in Country Life, February 8, 2012