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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 Ingenium: Giants and Philosophers 313


Metalanguage: Visions 313 tion in the construction of the vision, similarly to what Fialetta de- scribes in her accounts. Picturing the spiritual is problematic; ac- cording to Alberti, what is not real or cannot be seen, should not be painted.81 The issue of the connecting point between physical seeing and interior vision is of particular importance, for a mystic vision always involves both levels of perception, the phenomenol- ogical and the visionary, the outer and the inner.82 The Eye of Ingenium: Giants and Philosophers Seeing is a process that is both individual and cultural. During the act of viewing, an object reflects a pattern of light onto the eye; light enters the eye through the pupil, is gathered by the lens and thrown onto the screen at the back of the eye, the retina; on the retina is a network of fibers, which pass the light through a system of cells to several millions of receptors, the cones; the cones are sensitive to both light and color, and they respond by carrying in- formation about light and color to the brain; the brain interprets the raw data about light and color received from the cones by means of both innate skills and those developed out of experience and memory. The brain is where the process of vision becomes culturally conditioned, for cognition is not only a physiological, but also a cultural operation. The interpretation of the visual data is shaped by a culture’s intellectual conventions and assumptions. Neither mystics nor...

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