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Sacred Eloquence

Giambattista Tiepolo and the Rhetoric of the Altarpiece


Johanna Fassl

This book offers an innovative approach to the altarpieces of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) by discussing them within the intellectual context of the first half of the eighteenth century. Tiepolo occupies a particular position in the history of art: firmly embedded in the eighteenth century, he is one of the last great painters of the classical tradition, and, at the same time, one of the precursors of modernity.
Why has Tiepolo’s religious art often been misunderstood? How can the abbreviation and absence of key symbols in the images be explained and why is this rhetoric of absence so utterly modern? Deliberately concentrating on what is not painted, rather than what is in the picture, the book deals with Tiepolo’s lacunism as an eighteenth-century phenomenon anticipating modernity. It discusses four different forms of rhetoric: iconic, narrative, silent, and visionary. Each discourse calibrates the images within their contemporary religious and philosophical context, which promote this type of rhetoric as highly innovative.


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Preface 13


Preface Giambattista Tiepolo was Venice’s greatest painter of the so-called Silver Age of Venetian Painting. Second president of the Venetian Academy of Painters and Sculptors, member of the same institu- tion in Parma, friend and professional confidante of Francesco Algarotti, sought after by Europe’s courts and clientele, Tiepolo enjoyed not only immense popularity but also high esteem in the artistic world of the Settecento. This favorable response lasted un- til about 1946, when the influential Italian art critic Roberto Longhi accused Tiepolo of an “anachronistic rhetoric” in its most derogatory sense. Subsequently the Venetian painter’s appreciation has been varied and his critical fortune has not been entirely con- gruent with the appreciation of his contemporaries. It is easy to like Tiepolo: the chromatic brilliance of his palette, the fire of his brush, and magnificence of his spectacle. But Tiepolo’s paintings frequently come with built-in enigmas, confronting the viewer with more questions than answers. Fragmented body parts, closed eyes, masked faces, ruptures in the perspective framework, and a touch of darkness disturb the beholder in his search for meaning. Tie- polo’s pictures are indeed often puzzling, ambiguous, and some- times utterly indeterminate. Key symbols are absent and resolution lies outside the world of the picture, to be constructed only in the viewer’s mind. Concentrating on his decorative side seemed an adequate way to escape (what I call) Tiepolo’s rhetoric of absence and to avoid acknowledging the deeper issues behind it. This book grew out of the tercentenary celebrations of Tie- polo’s...

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