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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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Excursus: The Transformation of the Ottoman 234


Sacred Eloquence 234 ognition of the figures from the Christian martyrdoms transforms a mythological image, such as the Death of Hyacinth, into a kind of secular altarpiece. What is most striking, however, is the affective potential of this group. Although placed as spectators before a tragic scene of slaying and torment, the figures’ faces remain mute. Excursus: The Transformation of the Ottoman By the time Tiepolo painted his Oriental chorus, the play with ex- otically dressed figures had a longstanding tradition. Following the fanciful “eye-witness” painters of the late Quattrocento, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese freely included Orientals in their reli- gious works, often without historical accuracy.56 In Veronese’s pic- tures, Germans were sharply individualized, whereas Moslems, Jews, and Eastern Christians are often difficult to distinguish. The latter group was part of that Levantine world in which Venice had a major commercial and political interest. Although Veronese was hardly an ethnologist and could often be vague in his depiction of his non-Venetians, foreigners do not simply function as extravagant accessories. In his Martyrdom of Santa Giustina, painted in 1573, the executioner of the saint is a black Moslem;57 his visualization of the Last Communion of Saint Lucy, executed around 1585 for the church of Santa Croce in Bel- luno, features a single Islamic figure standing directly behind the Catholic priest, a position that most likely indicates the dividing line between Christian and Muslim faith.58 The most impressive 56 On the “eye-witness” painters, see FORTINI BROWN 1994. For discussions of the...

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