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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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Dialogue: Iconicity Dialogue Sometimes it is necessary to “speak figuratively,” declares the eighteenth-century rhetorician Giuseppe Maria Andrucci in his Della poesia italiana of 1734.1 The statement is made in the section that discusses the use of metaphor, a most effective way to embel- lish an enunciation. Speech needs to be enriched, retains Andrucci, for the human mind is too fertile for it to be content with express- ing itself in simple terms. The speaker has to play his game of us- ing “ill-fitting” words in a very calculated manner, and the maxi- mum art is to master figurative speech. The desire to speak in a figurative manner is an expression of poetic rhetoric and conforms to Vico’s use of hieroglyphics in the Dipintura.2 Both figurative speech and hieroglyphics are cryptic when considered on their own; in order for them to make sense they rely on their immediate context, and sense is made only through the constructive work of the receiver. 1 “La mente umana è troppo feconda, perché le bastino i proprj termini, ad esprimere tutti i diversi suoi pensamenti. Le parole ordinarie non sono o- gni volta giuste: talora son troppo forti; talora, anche troppo deboli. Quin- di per indicare con esatezza e con energia ciò, ch’ella pensa, è obblicata sovente a valersi di parole non proprie, trasportandole dalle cose, che pro- priamente significano, a significarne altre. Ma questa è l’opera, e la fatica: e la massima arte, e la più difficile, siccome in più luoghi afferma Aristotele, è appunto il saper usare...

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