Notebook, 1993-

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

Ut Pictura Poesis

Appendix I --- On the Lack of Ancient Criticism of Painting

De Piles says in effect that in ancient times rules were given for painting and poetry, but that both arts after the fall of Rome fell into neglect until later times when Raphael and Titian, Corneille and Racine, tried to restore them to their original perfection. There is, however, this difference between them, that in the case of poetry the works of ancient poets and the rules of Aristotle and Horace are preserved, so that the true idea of poetry has remained as a guide for later poets; whereas in the case of painting, the great works of ancient painters and many critical writings of the Greeks are forever lost, so that, with nothing left to give a just idea of painting as practiced by the ancients in its period of greatest perfection, painting in modern times has not yet been recovered in its fullest extent. But these deficiencies are, he believes, in good part supplied by the works of the best painters who have revived the art, and "by what we gather from those who have laid down the rules of Poesy, as Aristotle and Horace," whereupon he quotes passages form the Ars poetica [see notes 14, 15] and the Poetics [IV] that indicate a favorable opinion of painting in antiquity. De Piles was thus glad to cite remarks of ancient critics that sustained him in his praise of painting [he remembers with disapprobation another opinion of Aristotle that the arts which require manual performance are less noble on that account], but, as a progressive critic who admired color and the painting of Rubens, he was unwilling to pay any lip-service to the remains of ancient painting that had come to light in Rome; for in the course of his remarks on the disappearance of the ancient masterpieces of painting, he says bluntly that he holds the Roman remains of little account. No Poussinist would have said so much, no matter how inconsequential the painting.

At the end of the sixteenth century Armenini had held a like opinion of the remains of the ancient painting. After declaring that his book with its compendium of directions for painters may save them the difficulty and discouragement of long research on their own account, and may even implant in the minds of men a sense of the value of old masterpieces and new that for want of an appreciation of their great worth are falling into decay [rich men in his degenerate age may, he opines, learn from his treatise to become better patrons of the arts], he remarks that painting has suffered for lack of a Vitruvius, and all the more because of its material fragility needs the prescribed word, "perciocchè col mezzo delle scritture, le quali si possono sporgere per tutto il mondo, non solo si rendon facili le arti, e men faticose, ma si conservano ancora più salde, e vive nelle memorie de' posteri, che non si fa quando elle rimangono solamente [p. 70] nelle opere e nelle lingue di color che le esercitano. E se cosa alcuna in questo proposito fu lasciata dagli antichi, venne ad annichilarsi ed a risolversi in fumo, fuorchè alcune poche pitture ritrovate in luoghi orridi e inabitabili, da noi dette grottesche, e secondo il vocabolo degli antichi, chimere, delle quali, siccome da piccoli splendori, si tiene che i moderni pigliassero il modo e la via vera del dipingere. Donde finqui è manifesto in quanta oscurità di prima si ritrovasse, e in quanti pericoli gli sia a' di nostri il sentier precedente" [De'veri precetti della pittura, I, I, p. 25]. Armenini was thus no more inclined to worship the ancient remains of painting than De Piles, and for less satisfactory reasons.

In the early eighteenth century the scholarly Abbé du Bos was somewhat more charitably disposed toward the ancient remains, finding them, so far as he could tell, equal to the work of the moderns in design, light and shade, expression, and "composition poétique," by which he means composition that is functional to dramatic expression; it is impossible, he says, to judge their color, but it is evident that the ancients have not succeeded in "composition pittoresque" so well as Raphael, Rubens, Veronese, and others. By "composition pittoresque" Du Bos means for the most part an harmonious pictorial effect--good composition for its own sake in the modern sense of the term. These distinctions are interesting as pointing to the dissolution of the humanistic point of view and the beginning of modern aesthetic ideas [c.f. note 79]. But Du Bos was a realist and was disinclined to make much of the comparison between ancient and modern painting, so fragmentary were the ancient remains. And he takes a fling at modern writers on ancient painting who, he says, make us more learned, but no more capable of judging the superiority of ancient to modern painting [the most famous of such writers would be Franciscus Junius, the author of De Pictura veterum, Amsterdam, 1637]. "Ces écrivains," he adds pointedly, "se sont contentés de ramasser les passages des auteurs anciens qui parlent de la peinture, et de les commenter en philologues, sans les expliquer par l"examen de ce que nos peintres font tous les jours, et mê mes sans appliquer ces passages aux morceaux de la peinture antique qui subsistent encore." See his Réflexions critiques, I, 38, pp. 370-409. [pp. 69-70]

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



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