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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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Transcending Alberti’s Historia: Signs and Countersigns 155


Narrative: Historia 155 celebrate his accession to the office in the controversial mass ap- pointment of cardinals by Leo X on 1 July 1517. Rangone’s titular church was Sant’Agata, hence his veneration for the Catanese mar- tyr. It has been suggested that, despite the grisly subject matter, the picture had been ordered as a collector’s piece rather than as an object meant to inspire religious devotion.22 The figure of Agatha, standing frontally, divides the pictorial field. On either side her executioners have initiated the torment. With pincers in hand, both reach for her breasts, one in front of her and the other from be- hind. The martyrdom is observed by three spectators, two Roman soldiers immediately behind the left executioner, and a figure that appears to be Quintianus in the left foreground. Transcending Alberti’s Historia: Signs and Countersigns Tiepolo’s Martyrdom of Saint Agatha is not only painted in vertical format, but it also differs from Sebastiano’s painting in terms of its narrative construction and chosen moment. Whereas the Renais- sance image depicts the martyrdom in its initial stage, Tiepolo’s altarpiece represents the moment when the horrid torture is over. This choice has serious consequences for both the construction of the image and its reception. A profound shift takes place in Tie- polo’s image: it departs from the canon of narrative as established in the early Renaissance and sets up a particular viewing situation that is characterized by self-reflexivity and introspection. On the stage of the pictorial tradition, the picture is...

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