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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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Muta Poesis: The Chorus Silence The Abbé Dinouart wrote his treatise on the art of silence as a re- action to what he called the fury of talking and writing about relig- ion and government. 1 It is like an epidemic, he says, that has in- fected not only the ignorant and the fools, but also the most enlightened philosophers.2 Dinouart’s apprehension about the lo- quatiousness of his time is informed by the pre-revolution spirit of eighteenth-century France and the encyclopedists’ zeal to describe and classify both objects and thought. His discourse is written like a medical treatise, analyzing the illness of verbosity and prescribing remedies for those who talk too much while knowing too little. In the course of his argument, the art of silence takes on many guises, from talking less while knowing more to remaining entirely mute. He refers to the Old Testament and King David, who prayed to 1 “Mai l’uomo è padrone di se stesso come nel momento in cui è in silenzio: al di là di questo momento, egli sembra effondersi, per così dire, fuori di sé e dissiparsi nel discorso, al punto che sembra appartenere agli altri più che a se stesso” (DINOUART 1771, p. 4; see also the original French text, DINOUART 1987). 2 “Il furore di parlare, e di scrivere sulla Religione, e sul Governo, è, come un male epidemico, di cui è tra noi al presente infetto un gran numero di persone. Gli sciocchi, e gli ignoranti, ugualmente che i Filosofi più illumi- nati...

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