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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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Orientals 221


Muta Poesis: The Chorus 221 central figures of Christ and His tormentors are framed through a rhythmic network of pilasters, columns and arches, creating a stage for the tragic events to take place. In both pictures, Tiepolo de- picts the body of Christ leaning inwards in the direction of the high altar; the movements of His executioners follow this inclina- tion. Through this figural structure Tiepolo also maneuvers the column to which Christ is tied, the slab on which he sits, and the Crown of Thorns in direction of the high altar. This is by no means accidental, for precisely pieces from these elements – frag- ments of the column, the stone, the mantle, and two thorns from the Crown of Thorns – were the most precious and revered relics in the church of Sant’Alvise. Orientals Tintoretto, Titian and Rubens have often been cited as sources of inspiration in the conception of the Sant’Alvise pictures. 39 Tintor- etto’s powerful orchestration of religious drama in the Passion scenes in the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco certainly resonates in Tiepolo’s works, particularly in the Way to Calvary. For the Crowning with Thorns, on the other hand, scholars have proposed Titian’s visualization of the same subject as a pos- sible model, painted about 1541 for the Confraternity of the Holy Crown at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and now in the Louvre (fig. 25).40 Like the church of Sant’Alvise the Milanese confrater- nity treasured a relic from the Crown...

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