Notebook, 1993-

Ut Pictura Poesis - Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967 - Notes

I. Imitation

This essay will first attempt to sketch the development of the humanistic theory of painting in European criticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, noting how it is everywhere pervaded and molded by the direct or implied comparison of paintings with poetry; it will then test one aspect of the theory by applying it to a capital example in the Baroque period of the impact of poetry on the sister art--the illustration of a famous episode of Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata among the painters of the seventeenth century. Inasmuch as the doctrine of imitation was the corner-stone of Renaissance as it had been of ancient aesthetic, one may reasonably begin a discussion entitled ut pictura poesis with a consideration of the manner in which the Italian critics of the sixteenth century applied to the art of painting a doctrine which the ancients had developed chiefly as it concerned the art of literature.

First of all, the critics observed in language unmistakably Aristotelian that painting like poetry was an imitation of nature, by which they meant human nature, and human nature not as it is, but, in Aristotle's phrase, as it ought to be,[1] "raised," as a modern writer has well expressed it, "above all that is local and accidental, purged of all that is abnormal and eccentric, so as to be in the highest sense representative."[2] In the sixteenth century the doctrine of ideal imitation had not yet entirely supplanted the older and scarcely compatible notion that art is an exact imitation of nature, and it is not unusual, at least until past the middle of the century, to find them disconcertingly side by side--a fact which, the reader will agree, does not argue for the philosophical capacities of these writers. The concept of literal imitation had occurred already in the Trecento,[3] and was the natural accompaniment during the Quattrocento of a realistic point of view and practice among those artists who were striving strenuously to capture the perfect illusion of visible [p. 9] nature.[4] Furthermore, it had recieved a kind of blessing from antiquity in Pliny's account of those ancient painters who created so convincing an illusion of life that animals and men, nay artists themselves, mistook their art for reality.[5] Leonardo at the crossroads between the early and high Renaissance knew, for all his intense interest in the particular, that painting is a great deal more than literal representation,[6] yet he could also remark that a picture is more praiseworthy when it conforms most to the thing imitated,[7] and although Vasari in his attempt at a theoretical introduction to the art of painting shows that he is aware of the universalizing function of art,[8] the Lives are filled, as everyone knows, with an admiration of literal imitation that sometimes rivals Pliny; and he even praises Raphael, purest type of the high Renaissance style, for his unsurpassed naturalism. No one can doubt than that as late as the mid-sixteenth century cultivated men, with a genial inconsistency that would give pause to any thoroughgoing theoretician, could adopt the current idea of art as a generalizing and embellishing the painter's ability to be the ape of nature--the scimmia della natura --his foremost accomplishment. Greater consistency, indeed, might be expected of the critic Dolce, author of the first notable humanistic treatise on painting in the Cinquecento, for he was steeped in the ancient theoreticians as Leonardo and Vasari who had more compelling interests were not, and had published in his youth a translation of Horace's Ars poetica. Yet even Dolce, after defining art as the imitation of nature, and adding that the painter whose works most nearly approach her is the most perfect master,[9] can in a later passage redefine the goal of art by remarking that "the painter must labor hard not only to imitate but also to surpass nature."[10] Dolce was probably aware of inconsistency, for he tries to square the first definition with the second by insisting that it is only in creating the h man figure that the painter [p. 10] may improve upon nature; in all other respects he is hopelessly outclassed. The old notion of exact imitation Dolce can still accept with some enthusiasm for nature in general, but for the all important human figure to which in Italian painting the rest of nature had always been subsidiary, it will no longer do. And it is apropos of the human figure in action that Dolce, following the method of literary critics of his day who were prescribing rules for poetry based on Aristotle and Horace,[11] developed his own doctrine of ideal imitation. It will be worthwhile briefly to examine his treatment of the doctrine, for it contains, though in attenuated and undeveloped form, most of the fundamentals of an aesthetic theory that will persist for two centuries.

Dolce discusses two ways whereby the painter may, to repeat Aristotle's phrase, represent life not as it is, but as it ought to be. By a method which Aristotle would have approved, he may go direct to nature, and selecting the fairest parts from a number of individuals, produce a composite figure more perfect than commonly exists. This was the celebrated method of Zeuxis in painting the divine beauty of Helen, and one that few writers on painting after Alberti ever forgot to extol.[12] Or he may use as perfect a single model as he can find, following the example of Apelles and Praxiteles who rendered their celebrated images of Aphrodite after Phryne, most beautiful of courtesans. Now in the golden age of antiquity an Apelles who had a Phryne for a model could succeed by this really unorthodox method. But a modern artist, Dolce insists, cannot find a standard of perfection in a single woman, for nature even under the best conditions is never without her defects. If then the artist, correcting her imperfections, would "surpass nature," would render her fairer than she is, he must be guided by a study of the faultless antique. For the antique is already that ideal nature for which the painter strives and "the ancient statues contain all the perfection of art."[13] [p. 11]

It is noteworthy that when Dolce counsels the painter to imitate "le belle figure di marmo o di bronzo de' Mestieri antichi," he does not think of such imitation as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. And if, we may surmise, the painter did not fall into the aesthetic quagmire of merely copying the antique statues, but used them discreetly as a criterion of ideal attainment, he might as successfully achieve that higher beauty for which he strove as if he had followed the first and less precarious method for the creative artist of "improving upon nature with means drawn from nature herself" without having dangerous recourse to the perfect standards of ancient art. Dolce does not say that one method is better than the other, and he would probably have agreed that a good artist could successfully combine the selective imitation of nature with intelligent adaptations from the antique. But any student of Renaissance theory knows into what a cul-de-sac of criticism the literary theorists often strayed in their exaggerated admiration of antiquity, and how the deeper implications of Aristotle's doctrine were often lost in the constant admonition to the poets to imitate ancient models.[14] Now Horace, whose authority in the sixteenth century was enormous, had pointed out the way to this modification of the Aristotelian doctrine in urging his dramatic poet to be chary of new invention and follow, instead, the exemplaria Graeca --to find a model, that is, in the great poetry of the past.[15] And without this hint from Horace or some other Latin admirer of Greek forbears, ancient art and literature in the sixteenth century commanded sufficient admiration to have generated of themselves the pseudo-Aristotelian doctrine of the imitation of perfect models. Fortunately throughout the tradition of classicism in Renaissance and Baroque criticism the critics of painting generally succeeded, as Dolce did, in preserving more of Aristotle's meaning than the literary theorists,[16] but the pseudo-Aristotelian doctrine of imitation was always potentially dangerous, and among the French Academicians of the seventeenth century was strong enough to encourage the production of a kind of art that only the deeper understanding of a Poussin could save from empty formalism.[17] For the advice to follow the antique, or perhaps an exemplary modern like Raphael who had shown the way to its successful imitation, always tended to become a dogmatic counsel to abide by an artificial and forever invariable canon of beauty. And, if accepted in any sense literally, such counsel would only result in that uninspired traditionalism against which the Romantic Movement in the name of individual expression and a fresh interest in particular nature would finally revolt. [p. 12]

The cult of the antique produced than in the sixteenth century an important modification of Aristotle's theory of imitation that had far-reaching results. For Aristotle himself had not counseled the imitation of models, but clearly believed that significant imitation of nature is a function of the selective imagination and does not fundamentally depend on any external norm of perfection like the antique. Nor did Aristotle in his profound doctrine of the imitation of a superior nature mean that the artist should turn from nature herself, who must always provide fresh materials for selective imitation, to an a priori Idea of perfection in his own mind. But near the end of the century a Neo-Platonic critic like Lomazzo could temporarily divert the theory of imitation entirely from Aristotelian channels by declaring that ideal beauty, the image of which one sees reflected in the mirror of his own mind, has its source in God rather than in nature--a quasi-religious and mystical doctrine in harmony with the serious temper of the Counter-Reform, and one that did not empirically find a standard of excellence in selecting the best from concrete and external nature, but discovered it in Platonic fashion in the subjective contemplation of an inward, immaterial Idea.[18] But in 1664, in the secularizing age of the high Baroque, Giovanni Pietro Bellori resumed and brought to fruition what had been until the late sixteenth century the normal Italian mode of thinking about the arts.[19] Before Bellori wrote, this habit of mind, by nature empirical yet possessing a deep, qualifying strain of idealism, had found in the realm of aesthetic philosophy only hesitation and tentative expression. Alberti and Vasari, and one may include Raphael in a famous letter to Castiglione, had all associated the Idea that raises art above the mere imitation of things with direct experience of nature,[20] but their utterances on the subject are naive or fragmentary, and are valuable less as contributions to aesthetic than as interesting reactions of a receptive and sensitive artist and of two distinguished writers on art [who were also artists in their own right] to philosophical ideas of their age--ideas of which they were sympathetically aware, but which they had considered in none too philosophical a manner. And although Dolce, who does [p. 13] not use the term "Idea," clearly anticipates a theory that Bellori a century later was to clothe in more philosophical language, his remarks on imitation lack any really considered rhetorical basis.[21] Bellori was then the first to combine the two tendencies of the Italian mind into what, despite its own philosophical inconsistencies, may reasonably be called a theory of art.[22] Moreover, in proclaiming external nature to be the source of those ideal conceptions that are the objects of artistic imitation, he redirected the theory of painting, after its platonic interlude during the age of Mannerism, into the Aristotelian tradition where it was to abide as long as classicism prevailed. And in so doing he once and for all validated Aristotle's Poetics already enthroned in literary theory, as a capital document for the theory of painting as well.

Although the Neo-Platonic beginning of his treatise and the terminology throughout have led certain critics to consider him a "Platonist,"[23] Bellori's theory was in a fundamental sense, as Panofsky has demonstrated, opposed to that of the Neo-Platonic critics of the preceding century. For Bellori redefined the Idea that an artist should imitate, in terms that a thorough going Platonist would commend, but as an image of selected and embellished nature[24] which the painter forms in his imagination after the empirical method of Zeuxis who, being without benefit of the a priori presence of the Platonic idea in his mind's eye, before he painted the ideal beauty of Helen fashioned for himself in a business-like way a composite mental image of the chief perfections of his five handsome models.[25] [p. 14] Aristotle had associated the nature and the excellence of artistic production with the knowledge of universals derived from particular experiences,[26] and in a passage that hints at the idealizing function of art and anticipates the story of Zeuxis in later writers, he had remarked that the superiority of the painter's art over real objects lay in his having collected scattered excellences into one composite example of them all.[27] And when Bellori asserted that the Idea--the fair object of the painter's imitation--was derived from nature by a process of selecting the best, despite his use of Platonic terminology he was well aware, as were the French theorists of the age of classicism, that a similar concept underlay the theory of imitation in the Poetics. For the imitation of men better than ourselves, of life as it ought to be, in the pattern of an ideal tragedy, implies a highly discriminating selection of materials from the world of human character in action. It should be remembered, however, that at the beginning of his discourse Bellori in Platonic language that recalls the writing of his Mannerist predecessors had described the Idea as an "esempio de bellezza superiore" in the artist's mind, comparing it with the ideal pattern in the mind of God that had been the divine exemplar of the created world; and Bellori had further recalled the opinion of the greatest philosophers that the "cause esemplari,"[28] or ideal types after which works of art are fashioned, abide in the minds of artists [like the divine ideas in the heaven of Plato's Phaedrus ] in the perfection of imperishable beauty. But while in his lofty preamble he is investing the Idea with this Platonic dignity, Bellori with a philosophical inconsistency of which he was certainly unawareSee Friedlaender[29] can simultaneously proclaim its origin in nature [originata della natura ] and define it as the perfection of natural beauty [il perfetto della bellezza naturale ]. And during the remainder of his discourse[30] he leaves no doubt in the reader's mind that he thought of the Idea not primarily as an archetype of beauty existing a priori in metaphysical independence, but as derived a posteriori by a selective process from the artist's actual experience of nature. Furthermore, it is through the selected truth of art that the Idea manifests its superiority to the factual truth of nature from which, however, it takes its origin [originata della natura, supera l'origine, e fassi originale dell'Arte ]. Thus a renewed interest in nature as the source of ideal conceptions is central to Bellori's thought which reflects, at least to this extent, an empirico-idealistic, or generally Aristotelian, point of view as thoroughly characteristic of the Baroque seventeenth century as the mystical and Platonic point of view had been characteristic of the preceding period of Mannerism. And although he is still strongly aware of the absolute beauty of Plato that had haunted the imagination of the Renaissance--indeed he praises the Idea with the perfervid language of the Platonic enthusiast[31] --Bellori in giving the [p. 15] theory of painting an Aristotelian orientation was the first writer in the seventeenth century to formulate what became the cardinal doctrine of French classicism--the doctrine of "la belle nature."[32]

It is worth observing in this connection that Bellori's attitude towards the antique is entirely reasonable, if one makes allowance for his century's excessive admiration of it. For Bellori no more than Dolce considered the ancient statues objects of imitation in themselves, but found them significant only as glorious examples of the work of artists whose claim to the admiration of posterity is precisely that, selecting the best from nature, they imitated the Idea of the beautiful. The example of the antique thus teaches the modern artist that if he too will contemplate the fair Idea of that which he will represent--for the Idea of the beautiful divides itself into various forms: "the brave, and magnanimous, and jocund, and delicate of every age and of both sexes" --he will in some measure, at least, succeed as antiquity succeeded.[33]

After Bellori, despite his residual Platonism, has effectively restated the theory of imitation in Aristotelian fashion by re-affirming the source of the Idea in nature, he recalls Aristotle's advice to the tragedians to follow the good painters in imitating life as it ought to be, adding in a curious juxtaposition of the Aristotelian and the Platonic that "to make men fairer than they commonly are and to choose the perfect belongs to Idea."[34] And then in precise Aristotelian language he defines painting as the representation of human action.[35] Thus he states what earlier critics hinted or took for granted, that painting like poetry is an imitation of human action of more than common beauty or significance. And in this connection one may recall the thoroughly humanistic and Aristotelian observation of Poussin, who more profoundly perhaps than any critic understood the significance of ut pictura poesis for the painter's art, that without action drawing and color in painting are of no avail.[36]

[pp. 9-15]

* Symbol for the phonetic accent in this word not available on the computer.

[Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967.]



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