Notebook, 1993-

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

IV. Instruction and Delight

Directly adapted from Horace who as a satirist had held up the mirror of his art to human foibles, and had a serious, if urbane and detached, concern for the improvement of human life, came the admonition that painting like poetry [Horace had been thinking of the effect of dramatic art on the audience] should instruct as well as delight.^ This [p. 34] half-moralistic definition of the purpose of art might not be consistent with the Aristotelian position that art as ideal imitation is founded on its own principles of structure and has no conscious didactic intent; but it was accepted axiomatically, if uncritically, by most Renaissance and Baroque critics both of poetry and painting.^ for the excellent reason that it provided an ethical sanction, fortunately in the words of an ancient critic, for those arts which, if the subject matter were profane, the Middle Ages had accepted only with the aid of allegorical or moral interpretation, and which the divine Plato had excoriated, in a way frequently embarrassing to the Renaissance, as feeding and watering the passions.^ And in modern Italy, almost within the memory of those mid-sixteenth-century critics who were shaping the new theories of painting and of poetry, Savonarola with the energy and conviction of a St. Bernard had denouncd the arts as hostile to the Christian way of life.^

Poussin had written Fréart de Chambray that the end of art is delectation,^ but in this case the Academicians preferred the opinion of Horace and of those Italian critics both of [p. 33] poetry and painting who found in the arts an incitement to virtuous conduct and even, as Lomazzo had maintained, a guide in this vale of tears to righteous living in the Christian faith.^ Now the ideal representation of human life as Aristotle conceived it does not make the artist in any sense a conscious moralist; nevertheless the spectacle in a great tragedy of one of high station and of superior human capacities brought to inevitable ruin, yet made wise through suffering that is out of all proportion to his fault, and maintaining his moral dignity even in the extremes of fortune, results, no once can deny, in an elevation and purification of the spirit, in that "calm of mind, all passion spent"of which Milton, remembering the Aristotelian catharsis, wrote at the close of Samson Agonistes. And the Academicians, for whom the higher achievement in painting lay in the incorporation of the [Greek text] of the antique within the dramatic delineation of a noble subject that would, in a Christian or a Stoic sense, proclaim the dignity of man, were profoundly conscious that the rules were the vessels of moral instruction, and that painting like poetry should as Horace and Boileau enjoined:

And they would have added that the wise beholder of a painting like Boileau's "lecteur sage":

The didactic theory of art had among the writers and critics of literature an important corollary. When Sir Philip Sidney gave a moral interpretation to Aristotle's famous dictum that poetry is more philosophical than history by declaring that poetry is a popular philosophy, teaching by example rather than by precept,^ he had behind him not only the influential opinion of Horace but also, it must be remembered, the medieval view expressed by Dante^ and others that poetry is a guide and teacher of men. And at closer range he had been anticipated in the mid-sixteenth century by the Italian critic Fracastoro who had written that if the poet "imitates those things which pertain to the will, since they can produce wisdom and other virtues, surely the usefulness of this imitation and representation is incomparable. For those examples which we see in life make us much more wise and experienced than precepts.^ A half century after Sidney, Milton writing in the same vein was to pay the highest tribute of all to what the critics believed to be the didactic power of the arts, when he declared that the poet Edmund Spenser, in his graphic description of the dangers of lust in the bower of the enchantress Acrasia,^ had proved himself a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.^ No one had ever paid the art of painting so lofty and perhaps so doubtful a compliment, though since the time of Alberti the beneficial effects of painting on mankind had been pretty assiduously catalogued.

[pp. 32-34]

* 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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