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


Treatises on art and literature written between the middle of the sixteenth and middle of the eighteenth century nearly always remark on the close relationship between painting and poetry.[1] The sister arts as they were generally called--and Lomazzo observes that they arrived at a single birth[2]--differed, it was acknowledged, in means and manner of expression, but were considered almost identical in fundamental nature, in content, and in purpose.[3] The saying attributed by Plutarch to Simonides that painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture, was quoted frequently and with enthusiasm; and Horace's famous simile ut pictura poesis--as is painting so is poetry[4]--which the writers on art expected one to read "as is poetry so is painting,"[5] was invoked more and more as final sanction for a much closer relationship between the sister arts than Horace himself would probably have approved. So deeply rooted, in fact, was the association of painting with poetry that it is not unusual to find the critics referring in a way that startles the modern reader to poets as painters; and if they do not with equal bluntness call painters poets, at least they are almost unanimous in asserting that painting merits serious consideration as a liberal art only by virtue of its likeness to poetry. In the middle of the sixteenth century Ludovico Dolce is rather more inclusive than the average when he declares that not only poets, but all writers, are painters; that poetry, history, and in short, every composition of learned men [qualunque componimento de'dotti ] is painting.[6] [p. 3] Lomazzo not many years later, with an enthusiasm that even the sympathetic humanist will allow to be disproportionate to the truth, maintains the complementary view that there is no such thing as a painter [Lomazzo means a painter worthy of the name] who is not imbued with something of the poetic spirit.[7] And at the end of the critical tradition of the Renaissance Sir Joshua Reynolds can still refer quite naturally to Shakespeare as "that faithful and accurate painter of nature" or remark that "Michelangelo possessed the poetical part of our art in a most eminent degree."[8]

The habit of associating writers whose imagery is vivid or full of colors with painters was known to antiquity.[9] Furthermore the critics of the sixteenth century had before their eyes in the unrivaled painting of the Renaissance an open book, so to speak, of brilliant pictorial imagery; and this fact, even without the encouragement of antiquity, might have made their references to certain poets as painters at once quite natural and a handsome compliment to the word painting of the poets concerned. In any event, critics for two centuries believed that it was in pictorial vividness of representation, or, more accurately, of description--in the power to paint clear images of the external world in the mind's eye as a painter would record them on canvas--that the poet chiefly resembled the painter. Ariosto "when he marvelously describes the beauties of the fay Alcina" is for Dolce a painter who has provided those who paint on canvas with a perfect image of feminine beauty,[10] an opinion that finally in the mid-eighteenth century Lessing was not to share. For Lessing found in Ariosto's stanzas an excess of descriptive detail that resulted in no distinct image of a living woman and therefore overstepped the limits of the poet's art.[11] And the ]Laokoön ] was directed against those artistic transgressions, whether of poetry or the figure arts, that Horace's ut pictura poesis] might encourage, or might be invoked to justify. With no more than this passing glance at the character and critical fortunes of poetry as the sister art of painting, and remembering Dolce's ominous qualification of painting as a learned art, [p. 4] we may proceed to ask why the critics who named poets painters, also virtually identified the art of painting with the art of poetry.

Chiefly responsible without question was the authority of two ancient treatises on literature: Aristotle's Poetics,] and Horace's Ars poetica]. Both Aristotle and Horace had suggested interesting analogies between poetry and painting, though they had by no means tended to identify them as did the Renaissance and Baroque critics. Aristotle had said for instance that human nature in action is the subject of imitation among painters as well as poets[12] --an analogy that was as true of Italian painting of the Renaissance as it had been of ancient painting; and in arguing that poetry was the most essential element in tragedy he had remarked that a canvas smeared at random with the loveliest colors will not give as much pleasure as a portrait done in outline.[13] Thus plot in tragedy in a general way resembles design in painting, and the comparison is, it appears, innocent enough. But comparisons which to Aristotle were certainly no more than a means of clarifying his discourse of the drama served the critics as a point of departure for developing their often questionable doctrine of the sister arts. The Ars poetica ] provided two particularly potent texts for this doctrine. One was a passage in which Horace after describing a painting of grotesque hybrids and comparing it to a book whose vain imaginings are fashioned like a sick man's dreams, admits the equal right of painters and poets to liberty of imagination, provided this potentially dangerous Pegasus be tethered to the stall of the probable and congruous.[14] The other was the famous passage containing the simile ut pictura poesis in which the poet, after remarking that the sensible critic will know how to excuse the faults that must occur even in great literature, pleads for further flexibility in critical judgment by declaring in effect that poetry should be compared to painting which exhibits not merely a detailed style that requires close scrutiny, but also a broad, impressionistic style that will not please unless viewed from a distance.[15] Again these comparisons were in their place [p. 5] legitimate and illuminating, but when they were appropriated by the Renaissance enthusiasts who sought for painting the honors long accorded poetry, their original context was not always remembered.

The Renaissance champions of painting who proclaimed its noble rank among the arts, and in the famous case of Leonardo da Vinci its superiority even to poetry,[16] were until the sixteenth century more generally concerned with the technical problems and scientific theory of their art than with the development of a fundamental aesthetic. Their foremost interest, and this reflected, of course, the realistic development of painting during the Quattrocento, was in how the painter might represent in its completeness the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. When, however, the progress of realistic experiment had ended for the time being, and after the brief glory of the high Renaissance in Florence and Rome, painting had settled into the uncreative formulas of Mannerism, criticism in a way that recalls its rise under not dissimilar conditions in fourth-century Greece, took a new lease on life. But towards the end of the sixteenth century the painter-theorists like Lomazzo and Armenini were no longer concerned, as Leonardo had been, with recording new technical or scientific knowledge based on actual experiment in painting.[17] Instead they were interested in organizing and codifying knowledge already at hand for the benefit of young painters who all the more, it was believed, because they lived in a degenerate age, needed categorical instruction based on the great invention and practice of the past[16] for the critics of painting no less than the nostalgic poets of the time looked backward wistfully to the golden age of ancient art, and with excellent reasons of their own to the recent triumphs of the Renaissance.[19] They had the professional point of view of an age of academicians, including the naive belief that prescription literally followed insures good practice.

The codifying of technical and scientific knowledge was, however, only one aspect of the new criticism and historically the least important. For after 1550 all critics whether painters or not--and here again theory intervened to assert ideal potentialities of the art that were no longer evident in its practice--were concerned with defining painting in fundamental terms; and this included, as was remarked above, a discussion of its essential nature, its content, and its end. In this philosophical province it was natural, even obligatory since the critics lived under the always lengthening shadow of Greece and Rome, that they should turn like the critics of literature to the authority of antiquity. But no theoretical treatise had survived that attempted, as the Poetics ] did for literature, to define the nature of the art of painting, and to discuss it in terms of formal aesthetic; nor had the Renaissance inherited any seasoned advice to the practicing painter concerning good taste or effective presentation that could compare with the shrewd good sense and practical wisdom of the Ars poetica. [20] Now the analogies between poetry and painting that these famous [p. 6] treatises contained could not fail in a humanistic age to impress critics who sought to invest painting with the dignity of a liberal art, for Aristotle and Horace, not to mention fragmentary utterances of other ancient writers,[21] had by implication already accorded her this dignity. And being in search of the doctrine that these ancient analogies seemed to imply, and finding it nowhere developed in antiquity,[22] the critics did not limit their borrowings from the Poetics ] and the Ars poetica ] to those passages, after all few in number, in which painting and poetry are compared. Far more important, they did not hesitate to appropriate as the foundation of their own theory many basic concepts of the two ancient treatises, making them apply in a more or less Procrustean manner to the art of painting for which they were never intended. The theory of painting that resulted could not fail under such conditions to show much that was pedantic and absurd if it was not absolutely false, for in imposing on painting what was merely a reconditioned theory of poetry, the enthusiastic critics did not stop to ask whether an art with a different medium could reasonably submit to a borrowed aesthetic. And it was when the critics were occasionally independent enough to stray from the beaten path of antique doctrine and, instead of harping on the obvious likenesses of painting and poetry , attempted to analyze their differences or engaged in lively apology for one art or the other, that their remarks were often the most illuminating. Nevertheless the new Ars pictoria ] for all its defects was the child of the humanistic Renaissance, and contained much that was reasonable and true--much, indeed, that is so obviously true that even the sympathetic reader of sixteenth-century treatises is both vexed and amazed at the repetitious verbosity which attended the humanistic investiture of the art of painting. And the core of the new as of the ancient theory--that painting like poetry fulfils its highest function in a representative imitation of human life, not in its average but in its superior forms--is, notwithstanding its virtual eclipse at the present time, important and central to any final estimate of the painter's art.

This humanistic doctrine had been more than implied, if never clearly defined, a century before the age of criticism began in Italy, in the writing of Leon Battista Alberti,[23] who, though unfamiliar with Aristotle's Poetics,] knew that the painting of a "history" --a significant human action--is the chief business of a serious painter, and had learned from Latin authors that the artists of antiquity had sought to bestow an ideal beauty upon their works. It appears later in the treatise of Leonardo,[24] for if the experimental painter-scientist was largely unconcerned with inherited theory, he still could not fail to absorb some of it in the intellectual air of Florence; and Leonardo further shows the inalienable humanism of his race in his famous and often repeated statement that the expression of human emotion [p. 7] through bodily movement is fundamental to the painter's art.[25] Most significant of all--and one will make due allowance for important differences in conception and expression between the art of antiquity and that of the Renaissance--the doctrine of ideal imitation had been essentially embodied in the greatest Italian painting from Cimabue to Michelangelo. It could not, then, fail to be axiomatic in a consciously critical age like the later sixteenth century that, despite its spiritual confusion and its pedantry, still nourished the flame of humanism, and that possessed so magnificent an inheritance, both distant and immediate, of mythopoetic art. The seventeenth century continued to cherish the humanistic theory of painting and developed it, moreover, in a way that the preceding century had never done. For the Italian critics, intent on the more important business of pointing out how painting resembled poetry in range and profundity of content, or in power of expression, had never fostered the notion, though it could be traced back to Aristotle, of purely formal correspondence between the sister arts: design equals plot, color equals words, and the like.[26] But the later French and English critics sometimes overworked these correspondences,[27] and by what amounted to a most unfortunate extension of the same kind of artificial parallel, they sometimes attempted to enclose the art of painting in an Aristotelian strait-jacket of dramatic theory.[28] The result for criticism and practice was a serious confusion of the arts that resulted, as every one knows, in Lessing's vigorous and timely attempt in the mid-eighteenth century to redefine poetry and painting and to assign to each its proper boundaries.[29] In the preceding century, in fact, La Fontaine neatly anticipating Lessing had already put his finger at the root of the trouble when he wrote:

[pp. 3-9]

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



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