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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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Memory 103


Dialogue: Iconicity 103 dresses us as the beholder, commands our attention in front of the altarpiece, and posits us as His respondent. The pictorial structure and the frontal position of the Christ Child initiate the dialogue with the image. Turning to Tiepolo’s specific symbolism, however, reveals that iconicity goes beyond the absence of narrative and the typical “I-you” situation of work and viewer. The image not only lacks story-telling details, but the painter also decided to omit two of the key signifiers that identify the iconography of the Rest, the ass and the angels. The animal is the element that initially distinguishes the Rest from a depiction of the Holy Family in a landscape; and the angel, in his role of the journey-guide, becomes the companion of the donkey. As seen in Veronese’s Rests, the heavenly creatures also indicate the presence of the divine. We find them precisely in this role in the four small- scale interpretations of the Rest that Tiepolo painted during his stay in Madrid; the ass is always present, and, with the exception of the canvas in Stuttgart, so is the angel.34 The tree trunk behind Mary, barely visible, is the only indica- tion that the picture does not simply represent a generic Holy Family in a landscape but, rather, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Against the dark background, it is virtually impossible to make out the trunk rising behind the figure of Mary; the crown of the tree is completely cut off, no...

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