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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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Night: Sacrifice, Devotion, and Beholding 123


Dialogue: Iconicity 123 Muratori rigorously denies the Eucharist to be explicable through rational thought. The Mystery is not accessible to reason, a conception that confirms his opinion that religion consists in faith and revelation. Muratori interprets the practice of the Eucha- rist during mass as an affirmation and renewal of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.78 He combines the terms “sacrifice, Host, immola- tion” as relative to the Eucharist, and states that “this sacrifice [the mass] is nothing but [a reenactment of] the sacrifice on the Cross […] although [Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross] involved visible blood, [the mass] is performed without visible blood.”79 In his dis- course Muratori refrains from entangling himself in theological debates; he considers it a waste of time. 80 His objective is to ap- propriate the doctrine of the Eucharist in order to deepen spiritual life. This practical approach to dogma is also reflected in the final section of the treatise, where Muratori promotes any kind of piety with a precise request. In whatever form the devotion to the Eucharist is performed – processions, benedictions, worship – it must follow decorum, avoiding any kind of excesses, for excess leads to superstition.81 Romana Vetus was finished; it was sent to Venice in 1747 and published in 1748. For the debate between Bianchini and Muratori over the manu- script, see BURLINI CALAPAJ 1997, pp. 166–168. 78 The Eucharist functions as “a remedy for those whose mind is ill and whose eyes are blind, who during mass do not see...

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