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Torsten Korte: Tiepolo und das Kostüm. Konstruktion von Geschichte im Historienbild, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag 2023, 332 S., 116 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-3-7861-2892-2, EUR 79,00
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Rezension von:
Laura Ammann
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Hubertus Kohle
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Laura Ammann: Rezension von: Torsten Korte: Tiepolo und das Kostüm. Konstruktion von Geschichte im Historienbild, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3 [15.03.2024], URL:

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Torsten Korte: Tiepolo und das Kostüm

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Rarely a book outlines with such clarity what lays ahead. In his published doctoral dissertation, Torsten Korte researches the central role of vesture in shaping notions of time and place in Giambattista Tiepolo's history painting.

In the first chapter, Korte distinguishes Tiepolo's attire use in two groups, signaling either a geographical or a historical alienation from the viewer's reality. While the 'historical' Other is seen as part of the observer's contemporary culture, the 'geographical' Other is not. To understand the content implications of Tiepolo's representation of clothing, the art historian relies on multiple methods and combines the histories of painting and costume with a keen sensibility to the mechanisms of historical reception.

The second chapter is dedicated to Tiepolo's "Orientalism" (29), characterized mainly by the stereotypical use of turbans and caftans. Following an unavoidable yet short reference to Edward Said, Korte defends that Tiepolo had an ambivalent view of the East, which was influenced, on the one hand, by Venice's hostile relationship with the Ottoman Empire and, on the other, its byzantine heritage. A rather negative view of the Orient is displayed in the ceiling fresco depicting the four continents in the Würzburg Residence. The author's thorough dissection of each fresco reveals a hierarchal Eurocentric worldview, which is conveyed mainly by the choice of garments. A scale of nudity, for instance, indicates each continent's supposed developmental step, placing America at the lowest civilizational point. Most importantly, turbans appear not only in Asia and Africa, but also in America, becoming the official "non-European headgear" (53), not just designating oriental lands but multiple non-European territories. Similarly, in further paintings discussed in the chapter orientalized costumes are reserved to Jewish and pagan figures alike. In disregard of historical realities, orientalized garments distinguish all non-Christian, non-European characters - across the globe and throughout the times.

The civilizational superiority of Europe is thus reflected in the idea that only Europe shows a historical development - that is, only Europe is a 'historical space', in the sense Panofsky described in his Reflections on Historical Time. While Asia is somewhat recognized as a place with history due to its hosting of the biblical stories, there are no narrative developments depicted in the Africa and America frescos. These two continents are shown in a state of "prehistoric-ahistorical standstill" (56), which is reinforced by timeless, atemporal clothing. Meanwhile, the historical development of Europe is illustrated by overlaying multiple historical times, identifiable precisely in the corresponding fashion habits. To the author, the idea that historical development was a European monopoly is essential to the Orientalism communicated in Würzburg. This Orientalism, in turn, is in no way separated from the colonial enterprise, embodied in the fresco by the fact that the Europeans are "the only ones present not only in their own part of the world, but also on the other continents". (64) Since Orientalism and colonialism go hand in hand, and given the increasing popularity of these ideas in the following century - Hegel, Goethe, Napoleon, for instance, saw America as a land of no history - perhaps Edward Said's paramount reflexions in the field could have been better explored.

Moving on to less negative representations of the East, Korte deals with biblical paintings where oriental stereotypes are softened by piety, as happens in the luxurious depictions of the three Magi. Most of the attention, however, goes to the stories of Cleopatra that occupied Tiepolo during the 1740s. For one, profane subjects enable positive connotations toward the East as they appear as classic themes of history painting. Moreover, in works such as The Banquet of Cleopatra (1744), discussed at length throughout the book, Tiepolo incorporated the Other into the "Venetian self-understanding" (102), as opposed to making use of orientalizations to denote a clear opposition, like in Würzburg.

The third chapter concentrates on the depiction of clothes that designate a time in history. As opposed to the timeless, orientalized attire, whose essential purpose is to reference a foreign place, the garments discussed in this chapter depend on the assumption that fashion "can precisely indicate historical times and evoke the respective associated ideas" (115), turning them into one of the main means of depicting the past. Korte demonstrates that the use of historical costume in Tiepolo's painting is connected to the Renaissance-Revival, when European culture of the Settecento looked back to around 1600 with historical interest. With the historicization of the Renaissance, Antiquity lost its monopole as the reference point, which was particularly relevant for the Venetian context since, as opposed to Roman Antiquity, the Renaissance was a glorious period to which the city actually had contributed significantly. Korte convincingly shows how Tiepolo used Renaissance clothing also for classic and medieval figures, conveying to the Renaissance a universalism previously restricted to antiqued characters.

An essential part of this historicization process, the author stresses, was shaped by the reception of images. In the depiction of Antiquity, for instance, Tiepolo was backed up not only by contemporary archeological knowledge of the period, but was intentionally borrowing from image conventions established since the Renaissance. Images come from images, as one remembers from Gombrich's Art and Illusion. Still, this reception allows for a share of invention, where the artist is at liberty to fantasize over pre-existing models. Especially in the depiction of clothing, Korte defends, Tiepolo was free to create costumes that conjugated multiple fashion elements and historical references. However, an excursus into historicized portraiture toward the end of the chapter may seem to call this into question. The author explains that the historicized vesture of the sitters was not only depicted in paintings, but generally worn in courtly festive culture. While Korte argues for a "mutual influence between art history and costume history" (268), the discussion of the intertwining relationship between fashion in reality and its depiction in paintings may seem brief. To what extent did court society know they were dressing historically? Were they aware of the historical implications of the adopted fashion trend? And perhaps more importantly, since portraits allow for a lesser share of invenzione than history painting (as alluded earlier, on page 213), how does this discussion relate to the overall argument for Tiepolo's agency in the choice of garments?

The investigation of the mechanisms involved in creating historical images is deepened in chapter four, where Korte suggests a theoretical system. Diagrams help visualize the complex relationships that govern not only Tiepolo's costume historicism but also - the cherry on top of the cake - the different versions of The Great Gatsby movies. These illustrate how past times are perceived according to multiple layers of reception and in close connection to the present reality. Instead of capturing the 1920s directly, each film was based on the previous ones, just like Tiepolo accessed Antiquity via the Renaissance and the Renaissance via its own time.

This seems to be a book only about costumes - yet, more than that, it is a book about historical imagination. Torsten Korte's publication, written with professorial clarity, is extremely exciting not only to researchers interested in the depiction of garments but also to anyone curious about how history actually works.

Laura Ammann