Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden” (ca. 1752), oil on canvas, 105 x 140 cm, Residenz Würzburg © Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung (all images courtesy of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart)

What exactly is Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), that 18th-century Venetian master of illusionistic ceiling painting, doing today in Stuttgart of all places, spiritual home of the automotive industry, city where Daimler, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche are all headquartered?

What relationship can there possibly be between what we often see  on a typical Tiepolo painted ceiling (if we choose to crick our necks) — magnificent horse-drawn chariots surging weightlessly through the air, nymphs and idling gods buoyed up on clouds, all painted in colors of near-sublime delicacy and seductiveness — and the sleek, black luxury sedans tearing along Konrad Adenauer Strasse, just beyond the doors of Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie?

Installation view, Tiepolo: The Best Painter of Venice, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” (ca. 1762/70), oil on canvas, 55.5 x 41.5 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

The simple answer is that Tiepolo is in Stuttgart to at last get his due: Described during his time as the best of all living Venetian painters, he has not had a full-scale retrospective in Germany until now — in spite of the fact that one of his finest painting cycles, his fresco schemes for the Imperial Gallery and grand staircase of the palace at Wurzburg, is one of the greatest feats of painterly virtuosity that anyone has ever pulled off. If you haven’t already seen this crowning achievement, on which he worked with his son Domenico from 1751 to 1753 at the invitation of Prince-Bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau, go see! It’s only a couple of hours’ hard driving down some ferocious autobahn from Stuttgart.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Caricature of a sitting man (on the commode?)” (ca. 1750/60), pen with brown wash on paper, 13.3 x 10.2 cm, National Museums Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett © bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

For Tiepolo: The Best Painter of Venice, the Staatsgalerie has gathered together much of Tiepolo’s best work, including a choice selection of his portraits and many of his paintings on religious, historical, and mythological themes. Tiepolo’s spirit is not at all confined to the 18th century, we may discover to our delight. He also seems to look towards modernity in his attitudes: his ambiguities, his ironies, his dancing humor, his profound spirit of irreverence. And what a master he was of the multiple-figure composition.

For an example of his irreverence look at “The Finding of Moses” (c. 1730). Moses is shown as a small, red-faced, squawking babe of the utmost insignificance who has just been rescued from his fragile wickerwork craft among the reeds. What are a group of towering courtly women, so gloriously tricked out and bejeweled as if for some fete galante, doing in this scene, with their tiny, pampered dog and their feverish attendants? Worthy of Watteau at his most idling, the image seems an uproarious send-up.

Teipolo worked on commissions for princes and monarchs throughout his career, and many of his works were acts of puffery made for public places. What such high-society folk were never likely to have seen are the etchings that he made to please himself. Gathered in a single room as his Caricatures, Capricci, and Scherzi, they seem in all their strangeness and daring to anticipate Goya. (In fact, there are etchings by Goya on nearby walls as if to prove the line of succession.) Why are this owl (with his huffish back to us), this Magus, this monkey, and this ox in each other’s company? And why is the monkey on a chain?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Rinaldo leaves Armida” (ca. 1752), oil on canvas, 106 x 140 cm, Residenz Würzburg © Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Apelles and Campaspe” (ca. 1725/30), oil on canvas, 57.4 x 84.2 cm, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Adaline Van Horne Bequest, © Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

In spite of his veneer of lifelong hat-tipping, Tiepolo was also a delightful, wayward, wily perversity. His late painting called “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (ca. 1762/70) could not be less religious in feeling: Mary and Joseph sit, slumped and desolate, beside a leaning pine amid a landscape that looks Northern European. His representation of female martyrs could scarcely be more sensual. Our perception of what any painting really means is constantly being skewed by this odd detail or that. And his colors! They ravish us from first to last. Veronese would have counted him a worthy successor.

Tiepolo: The Best Painter of Venice continues at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse 30-32, Stuttgart, Germany) through February 2.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...