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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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The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha 149


Narrative: Historia 149 The Martryrdom of Saint Agatha The date for The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha is based on a text by Gi- rolamo Silvestri, written in 1755, which records on the high altar of the church of Sant’Agata a large pala of “recent date,” which sub- stituted a prior depiction of Saint Agatha by the hand of Palma il Vecchio.8 Pietro Brandolese documents Tiepolo’s picture in 1795 and states that it was commissioned by the monastery of the Benedictine nuns in order to adorn the high altar and represent the titular saint of their church. He confirms that Tiepolo represented the martyrdom of the saint, a subject that the painter had already treated for the Basilica of the Santo in Padua in 1736.9 Immediately after the suppression of the church of Sant’Agata at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tiepolo’s altarpiece left Lendinara. In 1834, the convent was re-consecrated to the Capuchins, who im- mediately decorated the high altar with a canvas by Andrea Pozzi. Rather than the martyrdom, the replacement features a standing Saint Agatha pressing a white cloth onto her chest.10 Tiepolo’s al- tarpiece passed into the Munro collection in London. It was sold in Paris in 1878 to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, where it is still housed today. Unfortunately, it is impossible to consider the pic- ture with respect to its original surrounding, for nothing remains 8 Silvestri elaborated his story of Lendinara in the 1645 Malmagnati manu- script. Cited in BRANDOLESE 1795a, pp. xxiii...

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