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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 Worshipper: The silenziosa orazione mentale 259


Muta Poesis: The Chorus 259 quisition of knowledge is a highly individual process due to the indefinite nature of the human mind that Vico proposes. There is no a priori essence for the self: one is what one makes of oneself, and one makes of oneself what one knows – so that being, knowl- edge, and making are ceaselessly interwoven in an endless circula- tion. Whereas the epistemological universe of Descartes assumes that thought is an enduring, stable state, Vico’s idea of the human mind is that it continuously experiences modifications, or alteratio- nes. The mind is not an isolated, non-dialectical structure discon- tinuous with respect to material reality, but, rather, retrieves a complete physical and mental dictionary. It is susceptible to sense impressions, bodily reactions, the recollection of stored memories, and the creative work of the imagination to give form to disparate acts: For when we wish to give utterance to our understanding of spiritual things, we must seek and from our imagination explain them and, like painters, form human images of them.110 The Worshipper: The Silenziosa Orazione Mentale Tiepolo’s silent bystanders force the beholder to shift to a creative act of viewing. Just how poetic beholding is related to devotion be- comes clear by considering a specific devotion, the silenziosa orazione mentale, which was also practiced in Sant’Alvise. Although both the Flagellation and the Crowning of Thorns were never placed on a particu- lar altar in the church, they participated in a very specific devotional life, which may have...

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