Sunday, August 20, 2017

Anthony Blunt on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
published by Aldus Manutius in Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"Certain other works produced during the Quattrocento are relevant to the development of theory in Italy.  The most important is the curious and celebrated romance attributed to Fra Francesco Colonna, entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, first published by Aldus Manutius in 1499 in an edition principally famous for its woodcuts.  Colonna, who was born in 1433, was a monk in the monastery of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice and also for a time at his native Treviso.  The Hypnerotomachia is dated 1467, but the author probably went on working at it till the date of its publication.  This romance is of interest because it is the only work dealing with the Fine Arts produced in Venice during the Quattrocento, and therefore the only direct clue to the views which the Venetians held about aesthetics at that time.

A very large element of Gothic survives in the painting and architecture of Venice in the late fifteenth century; for the Gothic tradition was too deeply established to be completely dislodged by the cult of antiquity which spread to Venice from Florence and Rome.  The classical style was taken up, but it was treated in a romantic and irrational spirit.  Painters like Mantegna imitated ancient statues with enthusiasm, but they combined what they derived from them with a Gothic emotionalism.  Architects such as the Lombardi used the classical orders, but in combination with Gothic structure and with an almost oriental uses of rich marbles.

The same mixture of medieval and classical elements appears in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.  In form it is a Gothic romance, of the type of the Roman de la Rose, but taken more directly from the Amorosa Visione of Boccaccio.  The wanderings of the unhappy lover Poliphilus in search of his Polia are accompanied by all the adventures and allegories traditional in the romances of the Middle Ages.  But the author has used this medieval form to express above all his overwhelming passion for antiquity.  Every episode, every allegory is dressed up in classical phraseology.  The language and names are a bastard mixture of Italian, Latin, and Greek; the buildings described are in the ancient manner; the monuments are covered with Latin or Greek inscriptions, or with hieroglyphics which the author painstakingly transcribes and explains; every ceremony is dedicated to a classical god or goddess.

The author evidently set himself to recreate an atmosphere which he believed to be ancient.  But his method and, indeed, his whole attitude to antiquity are fundamentally different from that of a Florentine Humanist like Alberti.  Whereas the latter is rational and severely archaeological, Colonna interprets his knowledge of antiquity imaginatively, with no great regard for accuracy of detail.  He is not interested in the philosophical and moral ideas of the ancients; he wishes only to take from antiquity those elements which will help him build up a dream; and this dream, one feels, became for him more important than the ordinary conduct of life.  His view is summed up in the sub-title of the book: Ubi humana omnia non nisi somnium esse ostendit [in which it is shown that all human things are but a dream].

But the dream which he spun was a very sweet one, in which he could enjoy all those things which were unattainable to him in real life.  Among these is the ideal of perfect love, which is expressed in a very strong erotic element throughout the book.  This is usually discreetly clothed in allegory, but the covering is sometimes of the thinnest and the symbolism of the most direct kind.

The author's imaginative attitude also extends to matters of pure archaeology, in which he seems not to bother about either accuracy or consistency.  When he describes the ritual which is performed in the various temples which Poliphilus visits, there is often a strong tinge of Christian usage; so that, for instance, the attendants in the temple of Venus say 'So be it' at the end of each prayer.  The architectural descriptions, which are the most important part of the book from the present point of view, do not contain the same mixture of non-classical elements, but, compared with Alberti's business-like analyses, they are fantastic and irrational.  At first sight the author seems to be very precise in the giving of dimensions, which he piles up for every building that he describes.  But these are apparently not supplied for the benefit of an architect who might wish to carry out the schemes, but merely to give the reader an impression of vast size and elaboration.  The buildings are so fantastic that few have attempted to put Colonna's ideas into execution.

One of the most remarkable of the buildings which he describes is the great monument crowned with an obelisk [directly below].  Colonna's description is evidently a free imaginative version of ancient accounts of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, but with many elements of his own invention.  The base of the building was a block forty paces high on a square of 1,200 paces.  On this was built a pyramid of 1,400 steps, crowned by a cube of stone on a side of four paces, which supported a huge obelisk, in a single shaft fourteen paces high.  Finally the whole monument was topped by a great statue of gilded bronze, representing Occasio, so arranged that it was turned on its axis by the wind, with a terrifying noise.  There is in this description something of the fear which men of the Middle Ages felt before the vast ruins of Roman times; but it is combined with an intense desire to recreate their glories, though only in the imagination."

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - The Pyramid

published by Aldus Manutius in Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"In many cases, however, Colonna shows a different view about the remains of antiquity.  Many of the buildings which he describes are in a state of ruin, and in talking of them he betrays a romantic feeling quite unlike the serious archaeological approach of the early Quattrocento Florentines.  Brunelleschi and Alberti, for instance, spent much time on the study of the remains of ancient Rome, but only in order to find out what they had been like when they were complete.  For them the ruins were a school for the modern builder.  Colonna takes an actual delight in the fact that they are ruins and not complete buildings.  He describes their decay with real feeling, and makes them an excuse for reflections on the frailty of human life and love, and on the destructive passage of time.  When Poliphilus comes upon the ruins of Polyandrion [directly below], the ancient temple of Pluto, Polia says to him: 'Look a while at this noble relic of things great in the eyes of posterity, and see how it now lies in ruins and has become a heap of fragments of rough and humpy stones.  In the first age of man it was a splendid and magnificent temple . . .'  Colonna is in fact here indulging in that sentimental and melancholy delight in ruins as symbols of the impermanence of things which became so fashionable  at a later date, particularly in the eighteenth century." 

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - The Ruins of Polyandrion
published by Aldus Manutius in Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"The Hypnerotomachia was not of great use to architects who wished to learn about the methods and structure of ancient buildings, but to the painters, sculptors, engravers, and maiolica painters it was an endless source of themes.  The hieroglyphics which Colonna describes were perhaps the most popular part of the book, and Aldus set the fashion by taking one representing a dolphin curled round an anchor as his printer's mark.  Other parts were also borrowed.  Some painters, for instance, copied the subjects on the reliefs which Poliphilus finds in his wanderings; others illustrated scenes from the story in paintings.  In these various ways the novel could be of use to all those who felt that antiquity was a sort of ideal existence which could be reconstructed in imagination.  For those whose approach was more sharply archaeological or more severely moralizing it was not of much service." 

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - Figure of Leda and the Swan on triumphal car drawn by elephants
published by Aldus Manutius, Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - Sacrifice to Bacchus
published by Aldus Manutius in Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

attributed to Francesco Colonna
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - Obelisk and Elephant
published by Aldus Manutius Venice
1499
woodcuts attributed to Benedetto Bordone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"Bernini seems to have had a description from the Hypnerotomachia in mind when he designed the fountain outside S. Maria sopra Minerva with the elephant carrying an obelisk on its back . . ."

Gianlorenzo Berninni
Study for Elephant with Obelisk
ca. 1632
wash drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

– quoted paragraphs on Francesco Colonna's mighty book are by Anthony Blunt, from Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Baxandall / O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe
From the Plains II
1954
oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

"Any language, not only humanist Latin, is a conspiracy against experience in the sense of being a collective attempt to simplify and arrange experience into manageable parcels.  The language has a limited number of categories, grouping phenomena in its own way, and a very limited number of conventions for setting these categories in relation to each other.  So as to communicate with other people we keep more or less to the rules; we contract to call this section of the spectrum orange and that other section yellow, and to use these categories only in certain acceptable relationships, such as nominal and adjectival, to others.  In our normal speech we struggle to compromise between the complexity and variety of experience on the one hand, and the relatively limited, regular, and simple system of our language on the other.  Because a degree of regularity and simplicity is necessary if we are to be understood, and because also the language itself has been deeply involved in our acquiring ways of discriminating at all, the system of the language is always pressing us to conform with it.  Yet, from the other side, we continually resist the formal pressure of this system by testing it against experience.  So that our speech may keep a usefully close relation to experience we insist on irregularities and awkwardness, resist the system's pull toward simplicity, force modifications and qualifications on its categories, rebuff its invitations to tidiness and pattern."

 Michael Baxandall, from Giotto and the Orators: Humanist observers of painting in Italy and the discovery of pictorial composition, 1350-1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)

Georgia O'Keeffe
Abstraction Blind I
1921
oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Georgia O'Keeffe
Shell and Old Shingle V
1926
oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Georgia O'Keeffe
New York Street with Moon
1925
oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Georgia O'Keeffe
White Iris no. 7
1957
oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

More from Michael Baxandall on the conflict between language and experience 

"Art criticism, making remarks about paintings, is usually epideictic rhetoric: that is, it discusses art in terms of value, praise or dispraise, and demonstrates the speaker's skill.  Its language is florid, not grand or plain.  One man disposes pigments on a ground, and another man seeing this tries to match words with the interest of the thing.  To do this much beyond the point of saying 'good' or 'bad' is difficult and eccentric, and does not often happen except in a culture which, like neo-classical cultures, sets this activity up as an institution and rewards it, as the phrase is, with approval.  It therefore very quickly develops a style and a domestic history within which the critic is expected to exercise his skill.  But terms used of the interest of painting tend not to be sharply delimited or readily checked against experience: 'beauty' is a less verifiable category than 'wealth'.  Further, there are in any case not many terms specific or proper to the interest of paintings, and above the level of 'big', 'smooth', 'yellow', 'square' our discourse must quickly become oblique.  In the case of representational arts like Renaissance painting, one can cheat by talking about the represented things as if they were real; one can also talk about how real or not they seem, though this only has a limited usefulness."

"Other approaches have to be found: we may characterize the quality of the painting by comparing it with something else, either by straight comparison or more commonly by metaphor, transferring to painting a word that has been defined by use in some other area; or we may characterize quality by imputing to it causes or effects: we may refer to the process or intention we suppose went to produce it, or to the response we claim it stimulated in us.  These are only the simplest of the linguistic tricks a critic must use.  At any time very little is said about paintings in direct descriptive terms.  It is a sort of linguistic activity specially exposed to pressure from the forms of the language in which the remarks are made."

"The ascendancy of language over experience inevitable in any critical discourse was compounded by the humanists' attitude to language in general.  We have seen that humanists shared a preoccupation with imitating the structures of classical Latin prose, itself a very elaborately patterned language; they were sufficiently linguistic determinists themselves to believe they must yield to the forms of the classical language before they could enter into the true classical consciousness and culture.  So, for more respectable reasons than one might think, the humanists were passive and compliant in their relationship to the forms of literary Latin; they let verba influence res to an extraordinary degree, and the forms of the Ciceronian period had an authority for them of a kind they could not have had for Cicero, however much better he did it.  The humanists decently disposed matter  matter naturally not in conflict with general experience  within the grand and delicately balanced forms of classical language; often, like Leonardo Bruni, they let themselves fill out the forms by generating inoffensive matter along classical lines from rather small kernels of sense.  Relatively little of their energy need be spent on brutalizing the beautiful patterns of language to make a workable fit with experience, relatively more could be spent on playing on these patterns correctly and stylishly, accurate et eleganter."

Friday, August 18, 2017

Design Drawings for Painted Sibyls (Italian)

Michelangelo
Drapery study for Erythraean Sibyl
ca. 1508-1512
drawing
British Museum

Raphael
Phrygian Sibyl
ca. 1511
drawing (recto)
British Museum

Raphael
Drapery study for Phrygian Sibyl
ca. 1511
drawing (verso)
British Museum

SIBYL – One or other of certain women of antiquity who were reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination.  In later times, the number of these was usually set down as ten, flourishing at different times and places in Asia, Africa, Greece, and Italy.

The spirit of deepe prophecy she hath,
Exceeding the nine Sibyls of old Rome
                                 – William Shakespeare (1591)

The Prophecies of the Sibyls . . .
made many Years after the Events they pretended to foretell
                                 – Joseph Addison (1712)

Their industry had scooped the Sibyll's cave
into a prodigious mine
                                 – Edward Gibbon (1788)

– citations from the Oxford English Dictionary

attributed to Giulio Romano
Sibyl
ca.  1525-30
drawing
Prado, Madrid

Pirro Ligorio
Seated Sibyl and attendant Genius
ca. 1540
drawing
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Daniele da Volterra
Sibyl
ca. 1540-45
drawing
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Pellegrino Tibaldi
Sibyl
ca. 1549
drawing
British Museum

Lorenzo Sabbatini
Sibyl seated on clouds with tablet
before 1576
drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

attributed to Antonio Campi
Sibyl reading
before 1591
drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

Annibale Carracci
Study for Sibyl
before 1605
drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

Giulio Cesare Procaccini
Study for Sibyl
before 1625
drawing on blue paper
British Museum

SIBYLLAE – The name given in antiquity to inspired prophetesses of some deity, in particular Apollo.  They were usually regarded as young maidens dwelling in lonely caves or by inspiring springs, who were possessed with a spirit of divination, and gave forth prophetic utterances while under the influence of enthusiastic frenzy.  . . .  Though Plato knew of only one, others mention two, three, four, and even ten or twelve.  In the earliest times they are mentioned as dwelling in the neighborhood of the Trojan Ida in Asia Minor, later at Erythrae in Ionia, in Samos, at Delphi, and at Cumae in Italy.  . . .  The Sibylline Books, so often met with in Roman history, had their origin in a collection of oracular utterances in Greek hexameters, composed in the time of Solon and Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida, and ascribed to the Hellespontic Sibyl, buried in the temple of Apollo at Gergis. This collection was brought by way of Erythrae to Cumae, and finally, in the time of the last king, to Rome. According to the legend, the Cumaean Sibyl offered to Tarquinus Superbus nine books of prophecy; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, burnt all but three of them, which the king purchased for the original price, and had them preserved in a vault beneath the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter.  When they were destroyed in the burning of the Capitol in 88 BC, the Senate sent envoys to make a collection of similar oracular sayings distributed over various places, in particular Ilium, Erythrae, and Samos. This new collection was deposited in the restored temple, together with similar sayings of native origin; e.g. those of the Sibyl at Tibur, of the brothers Marcius, and others.  From the Capitol they were transferred by Augustus as pontifex in 12 BC to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, after they had been examined and copied; here they remained until about 405 AD.  They are said to have been burnt by Stilicho. The use of these oracles was from the outset reserved for the State, and they were not consulted for the foretelling of future events, but on the occasion of remarkable calamities, such as pestilence, earthquake, and as a means of expiating portents.  It was only the rites of expiation prescribed by the Sibylline books that were communicated to the public, and not the oracles themselves."   

– Oskar Seyffert, from The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art, originally published in German in 1882, English translation published in 1891

Guercino
Sibyl
1626
drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

Guercino
Sibyl
ca. 1626-27
drawing
Royal Collection, Windsor

Guercino
Sibyl holding scroll
1638
drawing
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sibyls in Sets

attributed to Baccio Baldini
Libyan Sibyl
ca. 1470-80
engraving
British Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Libyan Sibyl
before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Libyan Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

SPELT FROM SIBYL'S LEAVES

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, faulty, voluminous . . . stupendous
Evening strains to be time's vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earlstars, stars principal, overbend us,
Fire-featuring heaven. For earth her being has unbound; her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; self in self steeped and pashed––quite
Disremembering, dismembering all now. Heart, you round me right
With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.
Only the beakleaved boughs dragonish damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Our tale, O our oracle! Let life, waned, ah let life wind
Off her once skeined stained veined variety upon, all on two spools; part, pen, pack
Now her all in two flocks, two folds––black, white; right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But these two; ware of a world where but these two tell, each off the other; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins called this poem "the longest sonnet ever made."  In sprung rhythm, eight stresses to the line.  Composed in 1884-85 – title and theme from the Latin hymn Dies irae 'As David and the Sibyl testify . . . what terror shall affright the soul when the Judge comes . . .'

attributed to Baccio Baldini
Delphic Sibyl
ca. 1470-80
engraving
British Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Delphic Sibyl
before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Delphic Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

attributed to Baccio Baldini
Persian Sibyl
ca. 1470-80
engraving
British Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Persian Sibyl
before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Persian Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

attributed to Baccio Baldini
Erythraean Sibyl
ca. 1470-80
engraving
British, Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Erythraean Sibyl
before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Erythraean Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

attributed to Baccio Baldini
Samian Sibyl
ca. 1470-80
engraving
 British Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Samian Sibyl
before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Samian Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Twelve Sibyls

Joachim Wichmann
Six Sibyls - Persian, Libyan, Delphic, Cimmerian, Erythraean, Samian
ca. 1648-86
etching
British Museum

Joachim Wichmann
Six Sibyls - Cumaean, Hellespontine, Phrygian, Tiburtine, European, Agrippine
ca. 1648-86
etching
British Museum

Of the named Sibyls active in antiquity, the largest group so-far located in one place consists of the etchings above – representing a dozen different ones – printed from two plates on two sheets in the middle of the seventeenth century and preserved today at the British Museum. Unlike Muses, Sibyls never worked in groups and were only rarely portrayed in groups. If shown in any company at all, they would typically be involved with noble supplicants or high divinities, not one another. The Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Sibyl were the most famous in the ancient world. That fact assured those two a corresponding prominence in the Renaissance and its after-ages. A sampling of these early-modern manifestations appears below, focusing on the figure of the Cumaean Sibyl.

Agostino Veneziano
Cumaean Sibyl in a landscape
1516
engraving
British Museum

Girolamo di Benvenuto
Cumaean Sibyl
 before 1524
drawing
British Museum

Adamo Scultori after Michelangelo
Cumaean Sibyl from the Sistine Ceiling
before 1585
engraving
Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Raffaello Schiaminossi
Cumaean Sibyl
1609
etching
British Museum

Domenichino
Cumaean Sibyl
1616-17
oil on canvas
Galleria Borghese, Rome

François Perrier
Aeneas consulting the Cumaean Sibyl
1646
oil on canvas
National Museum, Warsaw

"The nature of Sibylline inspiration is diversely reported.  Virgil offers a famous description of the Cumaean Sibyl uttering ecstatic prophecy under the inspiration of Apollo, but texts from Erythrae or recorded in various ways by Phlegon of Tralles, Plutarch and Pausanias clearly state that the Sibyl spoke under her own inspiration.   . . .  Widespread interest in Sibyls throughout the Mediterranean world probably stems from the connection between the Sibyl and Rome that dates to, at the very latest, the early 5th century BC.  . . .  The Sibyl's intimate connection with Rome made her a natural choice for Christians who sought evidence from pagan sources for the truth of their beliefs.  . . .  Belief that Virgil's Fourth Eclogue (modeled on sibylline prophecy) was in fact inspired by the Cumaean Sibyl combined with this interest to elevate the Sibyl to a position of remarkable importance in Christian literature and art."

– from The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth

Claude Lorrain
Coast view with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl
ca. 1645-49
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Salvator Rosa
River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl
ca. 1655
oil on canvas
Wallace Collection, London

Salvator Rosa
Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl
ca. 1660-65
etching
British Museum

Guercino
Cumaean Sibyl and Winged Genius
1651
oil on canvas
National Gallery, London

Claude Lorrain
Aenaes and the Cumaean Sibyl
1673
drawing on blue paper
British Museum

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Lake Avernus with Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl
ca. 1814-15
oil on canvas
Yale Center for British Art