Notebook, 1993-

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

VII. Rindaldo and Armida

In the last chapter an attempt was made to demonstrate how artificial is the doctrine of the learned painter. And it may be further put to the test and found wanting, if one considers the illustration of a celebrated episode from Tasso's famous epic, the Gerusalemme Liberata, that began to supply subjects for the painters some ten or fifteen years after its publication in 1581. It is hardly necessary to remark that the painter-illustrators of Tasso's poem of necessity fulfilled some of the more important tenets of the doctrine ut pictura poesis. In choosing subjects from an epic poem of high seriousness in which heroic history was mingled with the marvelous, they shared the poet's great invention, and like him were imitators of human action of more than common interest and significance. Expression, in which, according to Lomazzo, painting chiefly resembles poetry, would depend on the genius of the painter and on his interest in the human emotion portrayed in the poem. Decorum, a formalistic notion that was not likely, as we have seen, to make for freshness and originality, he would do well to leave to the critics, as indeed he generally did. He was equally unaware, it would seem, of the precept that painting like poetry should instruct as well as delight, for he resolutely eschewed the serious main action of the poem that had to do with the siege and capture of Jerusalem under the crusader Godfrey of Boulogne, and chose for the most part only those amorous and idyllic episodes wherein the lyric element is strong, and Tasso's idiosyncratic vein of tender melancholy finds unfettered expression. And his treatment of these could scarcely be said to disclose didactic intent. Such are the episodes of Erminia, the pagan princess, taking up her abode with the shepherds amid the simple pleasures of the country far from the iniquity of courts, and of Rinaldo's enchantment in the Fortunate Isles by the beautiful witch Armida, famous for its langorous voluptuousness. These subjects were immediately popular not only for their intrinsic beauty and human interest, but also because they had behind them a long tradition of pastoral art and literature extending back into antiquity, with its images of the country, its implications of escape from the weary, complex life of cities, and its haunting references to the Golden Age when an idly happy life prevailed. And such current erotic mythologies among the Renaissance painters as Venus and Adonis, Aurora and Cephalus, or Diana and Endymion, and the general popularity of Ovid, helped to prepare particularly for the enthusiastic reception accorded the story of Rinaldo and Armida. [p. 48]

We shall now consider briefly some aspects of the pictorial treatment of this episode.^ And it should be very clearly stated at the beginning that the painters who illustrated Tasso's story were not the conscientious scholars that the critics from the sake of decorum or verisimilitude would have them be. For they not only took liberties with the text when pictorial exigency required it, as they were generally forbidden to do by the critics, but also employed traditional forms of composition or iconography that had served the painters and sculptors of antiquity or their own Renaissance predecessors for illustration of fables that, more often than not, bore some similarity to various episodes in Tasso's poem. Here was the use of another kind of knowledge that the critics even while urging a thorough knowledge of the antique, and of the best art of the moderns, with their strong literary predilections scarcely took into account: a knowledge that the painter does not acquire from books, but from association with the traditional language of the arts of representation that his genius is forever evoking into new possibilities of composition and of interpretation.

The first scene in the episode, as it appears in Poussin's version in Moscow, represents Armida falling in love with Rinaldo as he lies asleep on the bank of the river Orontes [Fig. 2]. As she bends over to kill the Christian warrior who is her mortal enemy, her hate is suddenly transformed into love.^

Now Poussin, who was in conscious sympathy with the humanistic doctrine ut pictura poesis, could be expected in his pictorial rendering of such an episode to be reasonably faithful to the spirit of his text, and he has even been careful, in addition to rendering Rinaldo in armor which would distinguish him from an Adonis or Endymion in a similar grouping,^ to display at the right, as unmistakable means of identifying the subject, the column that bore the legend enjoining Rinaldo to discover the hidden marvels of the island in the midst of the river.^ Poussin might indeed have pleased some of the critics by including as other painters did the nymphs whose song enchanted Rinaldo into slumber;^ but these from considerations of formal composition and dramatic effectiveness he evidently rejected as superfluous to his composition. He might have satisfied an extreme purist among the critics by indicating that he had studied the geography and dress of Syria after the manner of the nineteenth-century romantic painters. But this would have been to call attention to adventitious and local detail at the expense of universal truth. Poussin's naturally abstemious genius, fortified by the teaching of antiquity, necessarily rejected any such conformity with pedantic theorizing; and for the student of ut pictura poesis, the influence of antiquity on this painting is particularly illuminating.

The picture dates between 1635 and 1640^ and may be the earliest example of a scene never popular among Italian painters. It shows Poussin using various features of the story of Endymion which he could have seen represented on several antique sarcophagi in Rome during the years of his life there. A drawing by Poussin in Chantilly of a sarcophagus [p. 49] already known in the second decade of he seventeenth century [Fig. 3] ^ illustrates the nightly visit of Selene to the Latinian shepherd who slumbers supported by the figure of Somnus. Here are already several elements of the Moscow composition: the sleeping figure with the left arm raised and bent as the hand supports the head; the left leg drawn up to repeat the angle of the bent arm; the chariot and horses with the female figure of Aura holding the bridle; and the attendant putti. The figure of Selene stepping from her chariot advances towards the sleeping Endymion, while in the Moscow picture Poussin, respecting Tasso's fable and sentiment, represents Armida bending over Rinaldo, her gaze fixed on his sleeping face. Another Endymion sarcophagus,^ represented here by a drawing from the Dal Pozzo collection [Fig. 5], shows the horses rearing and the figure of Aura dynamically posed as in Poussin's painting, while a third example [Fig. 6] shows a like variety of comparable elements;^ There is no reason to suppose that it was not there in Poussin's time. Selene at the right supported by a female figure about to bend over the sleeping Endymion; the chariot in the center, in this case with the unusual substitution of bulls for horses; the seated female figure behind--Robert calls her Venus--who, with her flying garment, and in the counterpoise of her figure as she swings her head in the direction of the central event, resembles the figure seated on the horse in Poussin's picture; and finally the reclining figure of Oceanus at the feet of Aura who may be compared with Poussin's personification of the river Orontes. This last sarcophagus not only displays all of the figure elements employed by Poussin in comparable poses, but the central triangle dominated by the figure of Venus, with the two reclining figures that balance one another at its base, also resembles Poussin's triangular composition. Now it is of course possible that Poussin could have found individual figures with poses similar to those in his picture on a variety of antique monuments, but he found practically all that he needed on the Endymion sarcophagi alone which illustrated, moreover, a love story in which the incident of the woman leaving her chariot to approach her sleeping lover is similar to the episode from Tasso's poem. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Poussin, sensitive to content, and learned not only in the fables of the poets but also--and this was of equal significance for his art--in the iconographic tradition of the visual arts, found in antique representations of the story of Endymion precisely the materials that he needed for his pictorial treatment of a new literary subject. Thus as often in his work, the imaginative use of ancient imagery for new pictorial purposes carries with it, in subtly evoking the ancient myth, a poetic richness of overtone; and the antique language of form, unobtrusively adapted to new expressive uses, maintains a palpable and eloquent continuity. And it is interesting to observe that although the antique components of the depiction of the myth of Endymion served Poussin for the episode of Rinaldo and Armida, when he came to represent the myth itself, as in the beautiful Detroit picture Fig. 7], he abandoned, as if unwilling to plagiarize, the elements on the Endymion sarcophagi; and in his highly original representation of Selene's departure from Endymion who kneels at her feet as the horses of the sun bring up the dawn--a scene so far as I know never appearing in ancient art--he combines in a spirit of free invention other plastic elements from the art of the distant past.^ Nothing perhaps could better [p. 50] illustrate Poussin's profound and subtle originality than a comparison of the methods employed in composing these two paintings.

If we consider the succeeding episodes of the story of Rinaldo and Armida as interpreted by the painters, more and more material comes to hand to show that the traditional forms of sculpture and painting condition pictorial versions of the subject more than does any over-conscientious reading of the text, or other learned preoccupation. For the next scene [Fig. 8] the text is unusually laconic, merely stating that Armida had Rinaldo placed in her chariot,^ so that here, as was not generally the case, it imposed no conditions on the painter, who had carte blanche to do as he pleased. The composition chosen by the French artist Simon Vouet for a painting that is one of a series of twelve devoted to the story of Rinaldo and Armida, was executed in 1630, a few years after his return to Paris from a long Italian sojourn.^ In the manner in which the female figure at the left leans backward as she supports the sleeping Rinaldo, and in the relation of Rinaldo's head to the upthrust right shoulder with its drooping arm, it recalls the similarly disposed figures in Raphael's Entombment [Fig. 9]; and it may have been equally suggested to Vouet by some Italian illustration of Tasso's subject like the animated version in Stockholm attributed to Pietro da Cortona [Fig. 10],^ where Armida appears aboard her chariot which is equipped with an extra pair of horses. It will be noted, however, that supporting Rinaldo's legs in the picture by Vouet are two putti not present in the Da Cortona; and one may compare with the Vouet in this regard an engraving of a painting by Poussin [Fig. 11] which displays in the center the sleeping Rinaldo supported now by one female figure instead of two, and by a considerable group of putti.^ And this interesting version of Poussin may be compared in turn with a fragment of an antique sarcophagus [Fig. 4] visible in Rome in the seventeenth century, representing a parody perhaps, with putti for actors, of the pathetic theme of the dying Meleager's last homecoming,^ where one will observe a putto supporting the legs of the dying figure in a manner similar to that employed by the putti in the paintings of Poussin and Vouet. It may also be compared with the central part of a drawing of Michelangelo [Fig. 12] where a group of putti, several in attitudes not dissimilar to those in Poussin's picture, are carrying the carcass of a dead dear.^ It is quite obvious then, that the composition employed by Vouet and Poussin for this episode from the Gerusalemme liberata is an entombment composition that has its origins in antiquity. It was available to these artists in several versions besides the parody noted above, as it had been in the sixteenth century to Raphael and to Michelangelo, who in turn may have given suggestions to the seventeenth-century painters.^ As for Poussin's picture, it is further interesting to observe that the left-hand group of the river god and attendant nymphs was certainly suggested by the group at the right in Marcantonio's engraving after Raphael's drawing of the Judgment of Paris [Fig. 13.]^

The following moment in the story is the transportation of Rinaldo through the air to [p. 51] Armida's miraculous pleasure dome in the Fortunate Isles.^ This occurs very rarely in painting and like the preceding scene was never prominent in the Italian illustrated editions. Now in the preceding scene, as we have observed, Armida and a female attendant convey Rinaldo to a chariot drawn by horses, and where the scene occurs in the illustrated editions it is horses that draw the chariot through the air.^ But in Guercino's fresco in the Palazzo Constaguti at Rome [Fig. 14] one is surprised to find the chariot no longer drawn by horses but by dragons, which nowhere appear in the text of the Gerusalemme liberata. Their presence is, however, easily explained by the fact that the painter, casting about in his repertory of pictorial motives for one that would assist him in depicting the event in the story of Rinaldo and Armida, found the appropriate model in some antique representation of the final event in the Medea of Euripides, where Medea transports through the air the dead bodies of her children, whom she has slain to be avenged on Jason, in a chariot drawn by winged dragons. One may see this moment represented in a drawing of a lost fragment of an antique sarcophagus [Fig. 15].^ It is equally if not more probable, however, that Guercino saw a woodcut of the event as described by Ovid, where Medea after setting fire to Jason's palace and slaying their children, who lie dismembered upon the ground, escapes through the air alone. Such an illustration of the scene [Fig. 16] appears in an abbreviated edition of the Metamorphoses containing many woodcuts that was first published at Lyons in 1557,^ and in general established the type of illustration in other editions in many parts of Europe. Thus just as the witch Armida driving her chariot through the air had her antique forbear in Tasso's mind in the witch Medea driving her chariot of dragons, so Guercino found in some antique or modern illustration of the Medea story the appropriate pictorial material that he required.

The fifteenth canto tells of the voyage of the Christian warriors Carlo and Ubaldo to seek Rinaldo in the Fortunate Isles. Having arrived in the domain of Armida, they ascend the hill that is crowned by her palace, making their way with difficulty through various perils. And the lst of these is the grave temptation to love and loiter prepared for them in the song of the nymphs who disport themselves in a pool, while a banquet sumptuously spread on a nearby table invites them to dine.^

I have discovered no example of this scene among Italian painters, but the Italianate Vouet of necessity included it in his extensive illustration, already mentioned, of the story of Rinaldo and Armida [Fig. 17]. The moment is that when the warriors state their emphatic refusal to be tempted by the blandishments of the nymphs, whom they treat as ungallantly and as firmly as Odysseus treated Circe on a similar occasion. Now the composition of Vouet's picture shows scant respect for the poetic text, which describes the bathing place of the nymphs as a lake formed by the sudden widening of a small river that ran through Armida's verdant meadows.^ And had Vouet consulted the handsome edition of the Gerusalemme liberata published in 1617 with engravings [p. 52] by the Genoese Bernardo Castello, he might have seen a composition reasonably close to Tasso's description [Fig. 19]. For in the illustration to the fifteenth canto we actually see the nymphs disporting themselves in what one might call a small lake beside which stand the warriors in manneristic attitudes typical of Castello's style, while behind is the "tondo edificio" of Armida's palace, and in the extreme foreground the Goddess Fortuna who awaits the outcome of the adventure. But Vouet's composition is, I think, definitely related to that of the Actaeon myth as the latter had been developed by the painters and engravers of the Renaissance. This will be seen if one compares it with an engraving from a French translation of Ovid's Metamophoses published in Paris in 1619 [Fig. 20]^ In both we have the same essential theme of the discovery of naked loveliness, though with widely different results for the discoverer. And one may note the close compositional similarities that scarcely need enumeration of the bathers in a shallow pool at the right with a buttress or grotto of rock behind from which water pours into the pool either from an opening in the rock or manipulated by a putto, while the protagonist is seen at the left with an opening of space behind him. Vouet might also have seen when he was in Italy Annibale Carracci's version of the subject [Fig. 18], or some other with essentially the same composition; and it is worth noting here again that the earliest prototype of these Baroque compositions is to be found in antiquity. Thus a painting in the House of Sallust in Pompeii [Fig. 21]^ shows, like Vouet's picture [Fig. 17], the pool and rocky grotto at one side with the water descending on Diana from above--a tradition resurrected in the High Renaissance, to the discredit of the marble basins of the Quattrocento cassoni which served as decorative but crowded bathing quarters for Diana and her company.^

Having escaped the temptation of Armida's nymphs, the warriors press on through the palace to the enchanted garden modeled after the eternal spring of the gardens of Alcinous in the Odyssey with their imperishable fruits and blooms, where from behind thick bushes they descry the Christian Achilles, whose return is essential to the success of the Crusaders, in the lap of his mistress. The passage in the sixteenth canto which describes the beauty of the garden and the langorous passion of the lovers, is one of the most famous in Italian literature, combining as it does in stanzas of superbly musical utterance Tasso's intense sensitiveness to earthly beauty, and his melancholy preoccupation with its untimely decay.^ That it should be the all-popular subject from Tasso among the Italian and French painters for more than two centuries is easily understood. And here, if anywhere, since the scene was described with elaborate detail, one might expect the painter to follow the admonition of the critics accurately to follow the text. Now in point of fact, Annibale Carracci who probably was the first to paint this subject, and one of two close imitators, were scrupulously accurate. In Carracci's intolerable picture [Fig. 22], which does as much [p. 53] violence to the sentiment of the poem as it faithfully reproduces its detail, one can discover the flowers, birds, grapes and the like that Tasso describes, and can note as well the accurate manner in which Rinaldo holds the mirror into which Armida gazes as she braids her tresses, while he himself gazing upward finds his own mirror in her eyes.^ The positions of the two figures are also suggested by the text, although it is worth noting that the group very closely resembles the Venus and Adonis in the illustrated Ovid, already mentioned, of 1557 [Fig. 23],^ and in subsequent editions deriving therefrom. The arrangement of figures in the two groups is, in fact, almost identical, closer indeed than are Carracci's Rinaldo and Armida to the lovers as Castello represented them in his uninspired engraving for the sixteenth canto in the first illustrated edition of the Gerusalemme published in Genoa in 1590, where, however, the grouping is not essentially different [Fig. 24]. But CarracciÍs dull accuracy of rendering was soon dispensed with in the interest of a more significant interpretation of the episode. Not long after 1630 the Neapolitan artist Paolo Finoglio painted a brilliantly decorative series of pictures illustrating the Gerusalemme liberata, four of which were devoted to the story of Rinaldo and Armida.^ In the painting of the garden episode [Fig. 25] one observes a dramatically pictorial treatment in light and shade that is appropriate to the moment of discovery and to the expression of the lovers' dreamy yet intense passion which the artist has been at paints to suggest in their facial expression. Paolo Finoglio evidently read the Gerusalemme "con amore," and more than any other artist has preserved in his illustrations the spirit of its romantic sentiment. He has preserved a great deal more of it, for instance, than did Tiepolo, when something over a century later he painted his version of the enchanted garden [Fig. 26],^ an infinitely finer picture in the large clarity and elegance of its design and in the plastic realization of the figures, but in which the intense sentiment of the Baroque has given way to the arch tenderness of the Rococo. But both artists treat the text of the poem freely in the interest of expressive emphasis or pictorial effect, and although a sixteenth-century critic like Lomazzo or Borghini would have praised Finoglio for his expression of human emotion, he might have taken him to task for placing Rinaldo and Armida in the open country instead of in the garden enclosed by the circular palace as Tasso specified, just as he might have objected to Tiepolo's drastic rearrangement of Tasso's architecture and landscape. Certainly the stickler for literary accuracy would have commented on the manner in which Paolo Finoglio in the following scene representing Rinaldo's departure from Armida [Fig. 27], has introduced two figures who have no part in Tasso's narrative: the figure in the left foreground who is helping to launch the boat and the boatman with the oar, both of whom however--and this is the point--are essential elements of this stirring Baroque composition. [p. 54]

For this last scene of Rinaldo's departure, there were also versions more faithful to the text; and in the case of Poussin's fine drawing in the Louvre [Fig. 28] this might seem at first to be sufficiently explained by the artist's respect for the dramatic and scenic essentials of the story and his unwillingness to introduce foreign material that might, like Finoglio's boatman, make for an effective composition per se, but not for one that could be said to emphasize the dramatic relationship between Rinaldo and Armida. But here, as in his illustration of the first episode of the story [Fig. 1] where Poussin, as we have seen, adopted motives from the Endymion sarcophagi for a scene similar in content, antiquity lent a strong guiding hand. For in antique representations of Theseus abandoning the sleeping Ariadne on the island of Naxos--in the fine example, for instance, in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii [Fig. 29]^--a subject that had in common with Tasso's the half-reluctant desertion of a former mistress who lies unconscious on the seashore [Armida in contrast to Ariadne is not sleeping, but was swooned], Poussin found a composition that was almost made to order for his illustration of Tasso.

If we compare his drawing with the ancient painting we see in the left foreground of both the unconscious female figure in the classical attitude of sleep with a rocky eminence behind; and at the right the sea with the departing lover who turns to his mistress with a look of sorrowful farewell as he is helped or hurried, as the case may be, into the waiting boat. Tasso's text required the mountain in the background which, in a general way, parallels the rocky hill in the Pompein painting; it also required the two warriors with whom we are already familiar who urge Rinaldo into the boat. The curve of the boat resembling the curve in the ancient fresco may be seen barely indicated at the extreme right, while the Goddess Fortuna, whose body is half cut off by the frame, sits in the boat [as she actually does in a number of book illustrations that Poussin certainly knew] stretching out an arm to the three who are about to disembark. It will be noted that Poussin's alteration, such as it is , of the antique composition is characteristically in the interest of greater pictorial unity that makes for dramatic concentration. The mountain's powerful pyramid almost encloses both groups of figures within its contours, enforcing their dramatic relationship, and the boat at the right in contrast to its more complete depiction in the ancient painting [including the realistic detail of unfurling the 'perjured sails'] is barely suggested, as if Poussin, though willing in the interest of clear illustration to indicate the means of departure, had refused to permit any picturesque intrusion on the concentrated human drama of farewell.

It is probably that Tasso had the abandonment of Ariadne in mind when he wrote the conclusion to Rinaldo's infatuation for Armida; it is certain that he had in mind another famous desertion of antiquity--Aeneas' desertion of Dido in Cartharge; for Armida, before she swoons, curses Rinaldo in the identical language of Dido's famous curse uttered during her final moments with Aeneas. In any event for this episode the ancient world provided both painter and poet with absolutely parallel source material which they recreated to produce forms that were strikingly analogous to their prototypes, the antique language suffering less alteration there than in any scene hitherto considered.

Poussin, of course, never saw the painting in Pompeii, but it would seem virtually certain that he had seen in Rome a similar pictorial rendering of what was long a popular subject in Roman art. Or he could certainly have seen a relief like that reported to have been excavated at Hadrian's villa in the sixteenth century [Fig. 30],^ which itself contains most [p. 55] of the chief elements in his composition, and could in the absence of a painting have served as its prototype. An interesting variant on Poussin's drawing is found in Vouet's painting in Paris [Fig. 31] with its obvious shift of background elements to place the sea behind Ariadne and the boat before the rocky cliff. The entire boat appears here, though dominated as an element in the composition by the figures, just as it is in the panoramic engraving of Antonio Tempesta [Fig. 32] executed before 1630, and probably during the period of Vouet's Italian sojourn,^ which certainly provided the French painter with his immediate model. But probably for Tempesta, as certainly for Poussin, the immediate model was the antique.

It is hoped that enough evidence has been produced to show that the learned painter is in the sense in which the Renaissance and the Baroque critics frequently conceived him, something of a myth. This unreal conception, as inevitable accretion in the often pedantic criticism of the middle and late sixteenth century, of the theory of the sister arts--a theory which is significant only if unburdened of the supercargo of great erudition--must indeed share the responsibility for much unmemorable painting produced by the French and other academies in the course of their history. But fortunately it could have little or no serious influence on the significant practice and development of the art. What the critics in effect urged the painter to do was to read his text carefully, and then, in an accurate pictorial transcription, give a full account of his literary stewardship. What the painter actually did, has been the subject of this chapter.

[pp. 48-56]

* 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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