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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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Eighteenth-Century Devotion: Eucharist as Sacrifice 114


Sacred Eloquence 114 from which the first drops of His blood flowed and points to the Cross on which He will die. Such a reading is reinforced by the presence of the sarcopha- gus. Now mother and Child rest on that tomb, but in the conclud- ing moments of Christ’s presence on earth He will rise from it. Within the structure of the picture the sarcophagus on the left also counterbalances the figure of Joseph on the right. Directly oppo- site the tomb, Joseph’s departure becomes a further step towards Christ’s death. We find ulterior confirmation of this thought in the cypresses, which, on the pictorial surface, seem to be growing out of the sarcophagus directly beside Christ’s head. Often interpreted as references to the local Paduan environment, these trees also suggest Christ’s destiny.52 Out of cypress, together with cedar and palm wood, Christ’s Cross was carpentered;53 and the slender cy- press trees – to this day in Italy – mark cemeteries.54 The frontal position of the Christ Child, His exposed genitals, and the cross in His right hand thus foreshadow the Passion. The same is true, albeit in a rather idiosyncratic way, of the sculptural motif on the sarcophagus. The relief embellishing the antique tomb features a horse, a pair of spears, and three men, two de- picted in profile and the third one facing out at us. The group of three on the sarcophagus has migrated from Tiepolo’s images of bloodshed and suffering; it is the typical, disparate ensemble...

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