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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 Viewer: The Poesis of Reception 254


Sacred Eloquence 254 The Viewer: The Poesis of Reception Tiepolo thus departs from the traditional canon of the pictorial spectator. None of the bystanders in the Crowning with Thorns solic- its our attention; nor does any of them point to any notable fea- ture. They display no emotional reaction to what happens before their eyes; they show no response at all. And yet, within their eighteenth-century framework they are completely cogent. The figures have a strong physical presence, but at the same time are also withdrawn. This disparity invokes a situation that is not strictly perceptual, but involves the imagination. The spectators, through their lack of expressive, ethnographic or geographic ra- tionale, acquire a certain openness and mobility that can only be resolved through the work of the beholder. In this respect Tiepolo might be said to look forward to the nineteenth century, anticipat- ing some of Edouard Manet’s figures. It is indeed in the nineteenth century, when the paradox and significance of Tiepolo’s emo- tionless faces are fully recognized. In her autobiography, Alma Mahler compares Tiepolo to the genius of Richard Strauss and cites the mute face in order to explain the extraordinary quality of Tiepolo’s extravagance: ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten.’ What a master is Richard Strauss! But how tie- polesque with his spiritless melody faces. Strauss’s genius is often larger than his frivolity. Without wanting, he becomes large, because it wants. The fiery colors of Tiepolo he possesses, but the greatness of this great painter he lacks. Completely...

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