Myth and the New Science: Vico, Tiepolo, and the language of the optimates.

Author:Armstrong, Christopher Drew
Position:Giovanni Battista Vico/Giovani Battista Tiepolo - The Enlightenment - Critical Essay

Although the work of the Neapolitan philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) has been the object of considerable attention since the nineteenth century, his writings had virtually no impact on the main currents of Enlightenment thought. That Vico's work failed to gain an international audience during his lifetime is perhaps the result of both his cryptic style and his striking originality. Isaiah Berlin described Vico's work as "a half-abandoned quarry of fascinating, if ill-developed, ideas," yet acknowledged that in the context of early-eighteenth-century philosophy, those ideas were of "an arresting novelty." (1) Despite the prolix and somewhat confusing nature of Vico's writings, Berlin asserted that "Vico virtually invented a new field of social knowledge, which embraces social anthropology, the comparative and historical studies of philology, linguistics, ethnology, jurisprudence, literature, mythology, in effect the history of civilization in the broadest sense." (2)

Vico's work confronted the fundamental assumptions of early modern science and political theory, calling into question the notion that reason and disinterested observation were the only reliable sources of knowledge. (3) Vico endeavored to elevate the study of humanity above the physical and natural sciences, believing that the mind could know only the things that it has made. Thus, while we can have no insight into the motives behind the creation of the natural world, we may come to understand the essence of historical processes because they are shaped by human desires and ideals. Through the study of mythology, languages, laws, and institutions, Vico believed it was possible to discern the mentality that shaped a given culture and gave rise to its particular forms of self-expression. The key to comprehending the origins of human languages and institutions was "to enter, through the force of our understanding, the nature of the first men." (4) Myths and poetic images, the earliest forms expressing human experience and social relations, sprang from the imagination rather than reason and could only be apprehended on their own terms by stripping away the acquired mental habits of logic and abstraction. (5)

Vico's work did not pass completely unremarked by eighteenth-century thinkers; both Montesquieu and Goethe perused his New Science, but neither seems to have borrowed from it. One exceptional moment in the reception of Vico's ideas, however, occurred in Venice in the 1720s. (6) While it is known that Vico's writings found eager admirers among Venetian intellectuals, the full extent of this admiration has yet to be explored. What this essay brings to the discussion of Vico's reception in early-eighteenth-century Venice is a demonstration that his ideas about mythology and natural law formed the basis of one of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's most important and enigmatic early works, his fresco conventionally referred to as an Allegory of the Power of Eloquence in the still privately owned Palazzo Sandi (Fig. 1).

Tiepolo's Allegory of the Power of Eloquence--representing the gods Minerva and Mercury and the heroes Amphion, Bellerophon, Orpheus, and the Gallic Hercules--has been described as a "heroic poem" (7) and recognized as "a manifesto of his art at the moment that it assumed its defining traits." (8) Every Tiepolo scholar acknowledges that the combination of subjects represented in the fresco is unprecedented and exceptional within Tiepolo's oeuvre. Attempts to decode the Allegory of the Power of Eloquence have sought meaning in emblem books, but no single source has been identified as the patron's guide in choosing the subject matter. It will be argued here that the Sandi fresco was a manifesto of Vico's political philosophy applied to that great Renaissance topos, the myth of Venice, a political fiction in which the Sandi were deeply invested. (9)

Vico's Reception in Early-Eighteenth-Century Venice

Vico's work was brought to the attention of Venetian intellectuals as early as 1711, following the publication of a critical review of his On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (De antiquissima italorum sapientia) in the Giornale de' Letterati d'Italia. By the early 1720s, Vico's reputation in Venice had risen to the point that Carlo Lodoli solicited his autobiography on behalf of Count Giovanni Artico di Porcia, who planned to publish a collection of "scientific" autobiographies of prominent Italian intellectuals. Among those who endorsed this project were such luminaries as Scipione Maffei, Lodovico Antonio Muratori, Antonio Vallisnieri, and Apostolo Zeno. (10) Vico sent the first part of his autobiography to Porcia by the end of 1723, and it was ultimately published by Angelo Calogera in the Raccolta d'opusculi scientifici e filologici in 1728. (11)

In September and October 1725, the first edition of Vico's Principles of a New Science of the Nature of Nations through which the Principles of a New System of the Natural Law of the Gentes Are Discovered (Principi di una scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni per la quale si ritruovano i principi di altro sistema del diritto naturale delle genti) was printed at the author's expense in Naples. Antonio Conti, Lodoli, and Porcia subsequently worked to convince Vico to republish the New Science in Venice. In a letter written to Vico on January 15, 1728, Lodoli claimed, "Here in Venice your profound book on the Principles of a New Science concerning the Nature of Nations is circulating among men of distinction and winning unmeasured applause." (12) Vico noted at the same time that "the New Science had already become famous in Italy and especially in Venice. The Venetian Resident in Naples had acquired all the copies left...." (13) Consequently, Vico produced a 600-page manuscript for the new edition of his New Science, which he sent to Lodoli in October 1729. After that, the situation quickly degenerated: Vico was "affronted" by the printer's "unkindness" and angered by Calogera's use of his autobiography as a model for other scholars, prompting him to break off relations with his Venetian publisher in 1730. (14)


The work that seems to have precipitated the request for Vico's autobiography was not the New Science but a little-known Latin treatise on the principles of natural law grandly titled Universal Law (Il diritto universale), published in Naples between 1720 and 1722. (15) Vico wrote the book to enhance his candidature for the chair in civil law at the University of Naples. Although Vico's bid for academic advancement failed, the book received a favorable review in Jean Le Clerc's Bibliotheque ancienne et moderne in 1722. (16) The Universal Law then seems to have fallen into obscurity; it is the least studied of Vico's philosophical texts and was not translated into English until 2000. The Universal Law, however, contained in embryonic form many of the ideas about the origins of languages and institutions that Vico subsequently developed between 1725 and 1744 in the three editions of his New Science.

The Sandi and the Myth of Venice

Among Vico's Venetian admirers, the Sandi were well positioned to appreciate the full significance of his work as it applied to contemporary debates about the nature of the Venetian government: they were deeply learned and highly respected specialists in Venetian history and law. Tommaso Sandi, who commissioned Tiepolo to paint the Allegory of the Power of Eloquence in the salone of his newly completed palazzo, was the descendant of a prominent family of lawyers. In 1685, his father purchased an aristocratic title, a move attesting to a successful and lucrative career. (17) Tommaso Sandi's own career was remarkable in that he held important offices in the Venetian administration that had never before been exercised by a person of recent nobility. As avvogadore di comun from 1733 to 1743, Tommaso Sandi was one of three officials responsible for ensuring that the decisions of the principal legislative and judicial bodies of the republic were consistent with the Venetian constitution. (18) The avvogadori also maintained the Libro d'oro, in which the births and marriages of the aristocracy were recorded. The Libro d'oro represented the legitimacy of the aristocracy as a governing body and was by extension the foundation on which all Venetian institutions rested.


At the time that Tiepolo executed the Allegory of the Power of Eloquence, Tommaso Sandi's son Vettor (1703-1784) was finishing his legal education. Shortly after the fresco was completed, Tommaso Sandi became avvocato fiscale della Serenissima Signori, an office responsible for the regulation of the legal profession. (19) At the same time, Vettor Sandi succeeded his father as avvocato ordinario per le Corti di San Marco, a position that he held from 1726 until 1769. Vettor Sandi was also one of the more innovative historians of the Venetian Republic, publishing a monumental nine-volume Principi di storia civile della Repubblica di Venezia in two parts between 1755 and 1772. Research for the Principi was probably begun in the 1730s. The book is the only written source that provides a sense of the intellectual orientation of the mind(s) behind the Allegory of the Power of Eloquence, demonstrating that Vettor Sandi's education was thoroughly grounded in the works of Greek and Latin authors and that he kept abreast of both Italian and foreign works on the history of Venice and the theory of law throughout his career. (20)


Vettor Sandi's thought evolved in relation to both Venetian constitutional debates and the larger context of Enlightenment philosophy. Although Sandi read widely, he was utterly closed to the radical ideas espoused by contemporary political thinkers. He explicitly condemned the irreligion or materialism of an array of authors, including Pierre Bayle, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, Thomas Hobbes, Gottfried...

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