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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 Eye of the Imagination: The Vision of Saint John Nepomuk 277


Metalanguage: Visions 277 ever, is that the Virgin and Child actually appear behind Ne- pomuk’s back, thereby complicating their relationship. From a phenomenological point of view he does not encounter Mary and Christ in front of him, but rather experiences them in a form of inner sight, with the eye of the imagination. This type of vision is comparable to the “imaginary visions” that Fialetta describes, which are different “because the interior eye is not very material.” The notion of an internal eye connects both visionary experience and devotion to Giambattista Vico’s idea of the eye of ingenium. The theory represents an epistemological counter-current to the Cartesian notion of vision, for it puts the imaginative and con- structive activity of the subject at the root of perception. Rather than being receptive and disembodied, seeing is considered a crea- tive or, in other words, poetic activity. The Eye of the Imagination: The Vision of Saint John Nepomuk The Vision of Saint John Nepomuk was the first altarpiece Tiepolo unveiled upon return from Würzburg.9 It was shown on 8 May 1754 in San Polo, and still is to be found in the Venetian church.10 9 ZANETTI 1771, p. 467; MOLMENTI 1909, p. 50; SACK 1910, p. 168; MO- RASSI 1955a, p. 57; PALLUCCHINI 1968, no. 214, p. 110; LEVEY 1988, pp. 214–15; BARCHAM 1989, pp. 222–224; BARCHAM 1992, no. 34; GEMIN and PEDROCCO 1993 no. 424; ALPERS and BAXANDALL 1994, p. 173; CHRISTIANSEN 1996a, p. 33; Restituzioni 1999: Capolavori...

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