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Sacred Eloquence

Giambattista Tiepolo and the Rhetoric of the Altarpiece

Series:

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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CONCLUSION

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: Vision as Poesis In the previous chapters, I attempted to demonstrate that Tie- polo’s images are not straightforward narratives but operate under what I called “rhetoric of absence.” They present us with questions rather than answers, for often their key elements are missing or the painted signs are open and mobile. Tiepolo neither gives us un- equivocal propositions that can be read in rational terms, nor does he exemplify an affective response. From the beholder’s point of view this type of rhetoric comes with a creative demand. There is no internal figure or formal construction that assigns him a clearly circumscribed position or response; he is forced into self-reflection in order to react to the image creatively. Without the beholder, the image remains a constellation of visual propositions, of flashes of references, sparks of knowledge, and individually symbolic im- pulses. It is only concluded and fully created in the act of behold- ing, thus importing a poetic dimension to seeing. Taking a thorough look at some of Tiepolo’s most moving al- tarpieces showed that the beholder’s creative engagement is solic- ited in different variations, provoked by the various types of Tie- polo’s lacunae. In the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the frontality of the Christ Child directly solicits the beholder’s engagement. The abbreviation of the key identifier of the picture’s iconography, however, forces him to pause, since its content is not immediately visible. The opaque ground of the night scene acts like a screen, against which the beholder’s thoughts...

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