The Rococo period has a rotten reputation as the great silly fizzle following the Baroque, a time when untold hectares of canvas were swathed with images of overwhelming pomp and triviality. Levitating saints, torso-less winged putti, and great sweeps of billowing fabric seem - at first - to be the only substance of the era, all cotton candy with no scholarly nourishment.
``The Glory of Venice,'' a major exhibition at London's Royal Academy, doesn't refute this prejudice, and wisely doesn't argue that the Rococo had its deep side. But it does go a long way toward presenting the charismatic appeal that blows through these deliciously superficial works like a summer breeze.
Covering the whole of 18th-century Venetian art, the exhibition is a sequel to the academy's popular 1983 show ``The Genius of Venice,'' which concentrated on the 16th century.
Glory versus genius pretty well sums up one's first impressions. The 16th-century masters (Tintoretto, Vero-nese, and Titian) are in
a very different class from the painters in the current show (Ricci, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Guardi, and Piazzetta). The former defined the highest phase of Ve-netian art; their 18th-century descendants seem in comparison vitiated and showy.
The exhibit also provides convincing evidence that the quality of work declined steadily throughout the 18th century. Many English critics seized on the stark contrast between the 16th- and 18th-century shows to draw allegories of Venice's political and social decline.
The 1,000-year-old Republic would cease to exist as an independent entity in the 19th century, and it is hard not to find allegories of the coming political dissolution in the overscaled, anxious grandeur of the latter works.
It's tempting to make these connections - especially in a country keenly aware of its own declining imperial powers. And there's certainly strong evidence to support the claim that Venetian artists were aware of the decay around them. Cityscapes don't hide the crumbling Venetian facades; ruin is everywhere and one notices telltale signs of crime and social corruption cropping up in unexpected places.
But the overwhelming impression is not one of autumnal resignation. Rather, in a very touching and compelling way, age is celebrated in these works, offering a rare vision of vigor and confidence in an ancient people.
The usual categories are not respected. Youth is not all strength and beauty, but also has an unthinking rashness that makes it hollow. Blank looks and vacant pleasure dominate in works such as Tiepolo's ``Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden''; cruelty and unthinking resolve leap off of religious canvases such as Tiepolo's ``St. James the Great Conquering the Moors'' and ``The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.''
Even more convincing are paintings by Piazzetta, the great rediscovery of this exhibition. In ``St. James Led to Martyrdom,'' a grizzled though hearty St. James is leading his youthful captor, straining forward with confidence against the ropes that should be dragging him. But older faces are more interesting - kinder, wiser, and more introspective. There is clearly room for celebration of the other end of life's trajectory often a time of wisdom and religious insights.
One is tempted to see in these works what Hannah Arendt called ``the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.'' It is not a greatly sophisticated view of the world, but one built on centuries of artistic habit, a long engagement with the problems of representing people faced with familiar conflicts.
Even at its worst moments of flashy excess, one senses that the timeworn techniques can still reproduce their old effect: Ricci's ``Assumption of the Virgin'' adds little to the tradition it follows, but it works, compelling the view-er's gaze upward, capturing the surprise and elation of the moment.
* The ``Glory of Venice'' exhibition was organized jointly by London's Royal Academy and by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the show opens Jan. 29, 1995, and continues through April 23.