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16 July 2016

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Or, Is There Such a Thing as Classical Creativity?

So-called Arch of Drusus, Rome
My interest in emulation was as an antidote to the modern compulsion for imitation among classicists, a defeatist attitude motivated by longing for lost glories and the lack of ability to reach them again without directly replicating them. Emulation, I’ve argued, was actually the dominant mode of classical artists and architects vis-à-vis their forebears; imitation was for novices and amateurs. At least until the late eighteenth century.

But emulation, I argued in my book, was mostly an aspect of formal rivalry; Renaissance artists and architects strove, beyond that, to be intellectually inventive—novel, “creative,” capable of bizzarrie and extending the tradition. Neither conservative nor nostalgic, the Renaissance was an optimistic time that privileged invention, that fecund word that they would have used instead of our word creativity, because they would have said only God can be creative (making something out of nothing). What we humans can do is invent, discover, find ideas. Not rehash old ideas, but find new ways of thinking by digging into the past, revivifying the past by reinterpreting it.

In architecture the evolution of forms and types was primarily motivated by meaning. The Romans combined their older triumphal vaulted passage (fornix) with triumphal columns to create a new type, the arcus, during the time of Augustus. The accumulation of typologically legible elements—vault/arch and column—yielded a more complex meaning and created a new type. One hears occasionally in classicist circles of the “fornix motif,” but the thing being described—a trabeated surround to an arch—was neither proper to a fornix nor was it a motif. The triumphal arch (arcus) more commonly deployed columns en ressaut, emphasizing their autonomy as freestanding columns, not part of a bay-spanning system. Here’s a short video I’ve created illustrating the evolution of the type:

The Theater of Marcellus Seen from the Campidoglio
What is called a “fornix motif” should really be known as a “theater system,” since it was in fact proper to the façades of Roman theaters (and amphitheaters), and it formed not so much a motif (a detachable, discrete ornamental form) as a repetitive system of articulation. This too was a Roman invention. And both the nature of the triumphal arch and the theater façade were clearly understood by Renaissance architects who developed a properly linguistic use of classical forms—systematic, articulate, meaningful—to invent a new kind of architecture, capable of evolution while remaining legible and expressive.

Porta Savonarola, Padova, by G. M. Falconetto

That is what we lost with neo-classicism and the Beaux Arts, and what we need to recover if we really want a renaissance today. It takes careful looking at the past, careful reading of the best historians, and the recovery of skills that the artists of the Renaissance had. An act of will, in other words.

01 June 2016

Renaissance of Allegory


In a recent article in Slate (“Save the Allegory!"), Laura Miller makes a plea for deploying the word allegory correctly in cultural criticism—in essence, contradicting the recent tendency to call an “allegory” any film or book that can be interpreted as a commentary on society or politics.  As she argues, allegory is not accidental, it is generative of the work; and allegorical figures in literature are generally called out as such (Fortitude, or Poliphilo—‘Lover of All Things’). She rightly reclaims allegory’s medieval past, but here the deployment of the word “medieval” to describe anything before the “modern” era is also problematic (but I’m not a fan either of calling sixteenth-century art or literature “Early Modern”). The Middle Ages were the middle centuries between the classical culture of antiquity and its rebirth in the Renaissance. That may be a construct, but it’s a useful one, far more coherent than folding the Renaissance and Baroque into the trajectory of Modernism. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is not a medieval book, but neither is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written a century earlier (when Italy was fully in the Renaissance while England, perhaps, did in fact remain “medieval”). This is not to say, at the same time, that the Middle Ages were disconnected from antiquity, nor that they weren’t prescient of the Renaissance (witness Dante): see the still classic The Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec.

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience
A version of an allegory that, this time
implies some irony in Hope’s gestures: 
she attempts to light an altar pyre, 
but the green kindling generates smoke; 
she pours water onto a dead tree stump; 
her temples are greying
But I’m especially interested in allegory in the visual arts, and in the wider culture of the Renaissance and Baroque (like opera, for example). I’m interested in it because it was formative for that culture, but also because my interest in recovering the tools of that culture means that I actually practice it. In practicing allegory I’ve marginalized myself not only with respect to mainstream modernist culture, but also with the ascendant neo-Realist phenomenon (which I just can’t accept calling “Classical Realism”). It’s a marginal position because much of Modernism was predicated on the abolition of allegory, beginning with literature; the Realist painter Courbet drove a stake through its heart in the nineteenth century in the visual arts (even if academic artists continued to practice an enfeebled version of it into the early twentieth century). Both modernists and realists are still suspicious of, if not opposed to, allegory. Perhaps, in the latter case, rightly enough—there’s no stranger iteration of allegory than the one populated by ordinary, realist (rather than idealized) figures.

For me, the critical thing is that allegory was not baggage appended to painting or sculpture in the seventeenth century: it was formative, essential, causal. It was not foisted on artists by pretentious patrons; instead, it was how artists themselves thought and how they perceived the world. When the great Gianlorenzo Bernini was in the midst of a brief period of being marginalized himself, he set to work on an allegorical sculpture, Truth Revealed by Time, both to comfort himself and to make an argument to his marginalizers. Even his seemingly intimate and “realist” portrait of his lover Costanza Buonarelli has been recently interpreted in, if not allegorical terms, at least rhetorical ones.

Now, mythologies can be interpreted allegorically without being intended as such—the hero’s journey, the battle with brute nature, the overcoming of labors. These can be credible allegorical readings because even in antiquity the myths were understood to be messages (maybe not in Homer’s day, but certainly by Ovid’s). But while Plutarch’s Lives may also contain messages about exemplary behavior, the real people he describes are not symbols or types, not gods or mythical heroes, but specific, individual characters. They cannot take on the burden of allegories because they cannot transcend their individual characteristics and stories—which Plutarch is at pains to narrate as realistically as possible.

the design for The Triumph of Hope
So, allegory doesn’t suffer realism gladly. English painters may have popularized portraits as allegories—Lady Somebody as Minerva—but this always feels like play-acting, not personification. Classical theorists like Bellori were suspicious of too much realism precisely because it defeated the transcendent quality of good allegory, locked it down too much into the here and now, the him or her. But naturalism was valued, that sense of the credibility of the allegorical figures. Where is the boundary, then, between realism and naturalism? The answer, perhaps unsatisfyingly, is that it requires taste: taste formed on the canon of “classical” achievement, a canon even loosely defined, but one that establishes some conventions of the acceptably universal. It might be painterly or precise:  Luca Giordano and Tiepolo are as much a part of the canon as Poussin. But its figures transcend their individualism to become types, universals rather than particulars.

The taste for allegory may not accord with our dominant zeitgeist: too ancien régime, too abstruse or pretentious, too opaque. But it’s also not real enough for most people, doesn’t dazzle with its meticulous, every-hair-on-the-head depictions. Its imagery is broad, general, “classical.” At the same time, it’s not divorced from the depiction of reality; some of the greatest allegorical painters were quite fine portraitists. Sargent felt something of this need to distinguish his late-career allegories in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from his virtuoso portraiture; but for my money he went too far in the other direction, his allegories lacking any sense of the sensual, tactile, and human that suffuse the rest of his oeuvre: they are more graphics, almost abstractions, than paintings. That taste that distinguishes realism from classicism also distinguishes classicism from abstraction. And what distinguishes ars from scientia is judgment, formed by experience of the beautiful, which is found more on canvas and marble than flesh and blood.

first thoughts on this version of Hope Over Experience

20 February 2016

Requiescat in Pace Umberto Eco

Beyond Hyperreality

 "Chi non legge, a 70 anni avrà vissuto una sola vita - aveva detto in passato - Chi legge avrà vissuto 5000 anni. La lettura è un'immortalità all'indietro".

Who doesn’t read, at 70 years old will have lived only one life—it was once said—He who reads will have lived 5000 years. Reading is immortality in reverse.
—Umberto Eco

For those like me who fumble for a sense of direction in a culture that seems so wasted, there are way finders who turn up (if you’re looking) along the way who give you just enough clarity, maybe even impetus, that you keep searching with a greater sense of orientation and optimism. Umberto Eco was one of those for me. Just after architecture school, enamored of Italy and what little I knew about the humanist renaissance, I read a review of Eco’s new novel, The Name of the Rose. Reading it I learned something—about the Middle Ages, about Aristotle and Thomism, about Franciscans vs. Benedictines—but I also saw an intellectual, a scholar, working through the craft of invention. It was so illuminating to see that highly self-conscious creative process in action; and it was something I found immensely useful as I worked on my own creative process.

While most of the American obituaries about Eco, who passed away yesterday, focus on his novels, his first novel led me to other writings of his, and I’ve found those (and I can’t claim to have read anywhere near all of them) to be brilliant intellectual bridges between modern issues and classical culture that only an Italian polymath like him could build. I had read Invisible Cities in college—de rigueur for architects circa 1980—and was just as enamored of Calvino as Eco. It’s no coincidence that Eco framed his Harvard Norton lectures to balance those that Calvino was supposed to have delivered at the end of his life—Calvino on writing (Six Memos for the Next Millennium), Eco on reading (Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). I recommend each of them highly, in part because the one on writing tells you a lot about how to read, and the one on reading not a little about how to write.

Eco was a scholar, critic, and author. As a critic he was withering on his native Italy, and while it’s hard to deny the verity of his criticisms, it should be said—and he never could have said it himself—that only Italy, and its really marvelous humanist high schools, could produce an Eco. In my experience he is not so much a titan as a type—he’s only the most famous of a kind of Italian intellectual that the country produces (or maybe, produced) in abundance. While I didn’t know him personally, I have known the type. And knowing them is like knowing their forebears (Pico della Mirandola, Egidio da Viterbo, Pietro Aretino, Daniele Barbaro, Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Marino, Giambattista Vico). Eco’s counterweight in contemporary Italy is Roberto Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Tiepolo Pink), who has been less political than him but equally interested in the esoterica of Athanasius Kircher.

Eco may have been the greatest non-practicing Catholic thinker of the last half-century. He dialogued with and debated the Jesuit Cardinal Martini of Milan, and I suspect he longed for the relative certainty that faith affords. Instead, I remember him, around the time Foucault’s Pendulum came out, describing his worldview as “tragically optimistic”—because optimism was naïve, and a tragic view of the world was pointless. Who knows what he thought as he contemplated the end, but he has passed into another kind of immortality than the one reading affords, and it may finally make sense of things for him.

A brief Eco reading list beyond the novels:
Conversations About the End of Time, with Jean-Claude Carriere, Jean Delumeau, and Stephen Jay Gould
Serendipities: Language and Lunacy
Travels in Hyperreality
Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

24 December 2015

Sketching at the Getty


Yesterday my wife Brette and I went to the Getty Museum: me for the first time. We had a lovely day to do it, partly arriving via public transit (yes it exists in LA). What a spectacular site, not to mention program, enough to make any architect envious. While I appreciate Richard Meier’s references, in plan at least, to Hadrian’s Villa, I couldn’t help thinking a more overt reference to the Roman villa in the architecture wouldn’t have been much, much more appealing, and sympathetic to the collections. Ç’est la vie moderne.

While there I experimented with drawing on my new iPad Pro (whereupon I currently type), using the ill-named Procreate app to approximate sketching on paper with pencil. I first drew Bernini’s bust of Paul V in pencil, then tried it on the screen (I’ll post that eventually); later I tried just the screen for Rombout Verhulst’s portrait of Jacob van Reygersberg. The app has the advantage of recording a video of the drawing as it happens, which you can see here (apologies for some anomalies, editing the video is not yet my forte):

Although the app can approximate paper texture and pencil grain, you’re still drawing on a slippery screen, and returning to draw on paper heightened my awareness of the subtle resistance of the paper surface (in my case a handmade grey laid paper from Zecchi in Florence). The value of the app for me was the portability and the chance to record the drawing to show to students at Notre Dame and elsewhere.

I was happy to find the Getty has a dedicated sketching gallery, equipped with benches and drawing materials. I had seen last month that the National Gallery in Washington offers drawing in the museum sessions. All of this is a wonderful way to revivify the original purpose of the museum to be a home of the Muses.

While drawing the Flemish bust my wife caught up with me, excited to report she’d just met a hero of hers and mine, a well-known British actor, while looking at paintings in the early Renaissance section. And he, with a young female companion, were heading our way. So when he and his companion arrived I was nearing the end of the sketch, and we had a lovely, informal chat about the app and drawing. Brette and I were discrete enough not to ruin the conversation with recognizing our actor interlocutor, but we couldn’t stop talking about the encounter the rest of the day. And if he’s somewhere reading this, and fancies a pint with some discrete fans, an email can make it so….

28 November 2015

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience


The Triumph of Hope Over Experience, oil on canvas, MMXI 

Recently I gave a talk in Washington at a roundtable discussion about the World War I Memorial competition. I framed the memorial discussion as a choice between three types of memorials: the therapeutic, the documentary, and the rhetorical. Perhaps needless to say, I was advocating for the rhetorical, which is the classical mode operating at its most articulate. The rhetorical approach to the arts is arguably what defined the Renaissance tradition, and as I argued in a recent talk in Spain about humanism in architecture (you can see the video here) the Renaissance effectively invented the classical language of architecture qua language. In the arts—and I fancy myself a painter as much as an architect (something my painter friends have a hard time understanding)—there is a rampant rebirth of realism, but very little of what I would call classical painting. Now, there are many who throw the moniker Classical Realism around, and I have argued elsewhere that that is a contradiction in terms. But lest the impression be given that all I do is argue, what I really do is hope, against all the evidence to the contrary.

I paint en plein air, I’m not a bad portraitist, and I occasionally do still life. But where my heart lies is allegorical and narrative painting. And yet I know there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that kind of painting, at least by the evidence of gallery representation; I’d be happy to show and sell my plein airs, etc., and have done and continue to do so. But I continue to hope against experience for an audience for the rhetorical work. So when I heard recently about an art representative looking for work for an art fair in Padova, my first instinct was to provide her some plein air work: low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Likeable, accessible stuff. But I then thought, why not show her something of the allegorical? At our place in Italy I had a composition I’d done a few years ago, The Triumph of Hope Over Experience. This is a theme that sounds like a Baroque allegory, but as far as I can tell it’s not often, if ever, been painted. I sometimes do these allegories to deal with my current concerns, like Diogenes and Alexander (speaking truth to power). The Triumph of Hope is about my own hope in the face of experience—of the waning of whatever there was of a classical movement in architecture, of the aversion to allegorical and mythological painting, of our general comfort as a culture with mediocrity—because I know the great traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque still attract millions of visitors to Europe, even if those same people can’t imagine realizing such things today.

In fact, the art rep liked the allegory, put it in the show, was optimistic about its chances for an award, even a sale, and wanted more. Ah, hope! The allegory was becoming reality, I thought.

The experience, instead, was of the ordinary kind—no sale, no prize, no press. But, like the painting (and a new one, slightly more sanguine, is in the works) I pour water on seemingly exhausted plants, and light fires in the dark; small leaves sprout from dead branches, ancient altars glow again. Ah, Hope! She’s her own justification. And not a bad theme for a painting.

14 October 2015


Sustainability as Entertainment 
along the Cardo and Decumanus

the Swiss Pavilion
I gave a talk about the TASIS campus as an alternative to the crisis of sprawl at the Swiss Pavilion at Expo Milano on October 10. Expo’s ostensible theme is Feeding the Planet, and while there was a subtext of food at the national pavilions, this is hardly comes off as an event intended to change the world. After all, McDonald’s had a place on the so-called Decumano (allusions to the Roman decumanus being a form of pretense without much substance). This was sustainability as entertainment, and wow, does it work: on a beautiful autumn Saturday it was absolutely packed, the waits to get into many of the pavilion exhibits ranging toward four and even 
the Decumano looking west
six hours, and the dense (in more than one sense) crowds along the Decumano almost un-passable. 

benvenuti in Italia!
Questions are un-escapable about how sustainable the Expo itself is: the Expo website has a page on Sustainable Expo, but when I visited it the link to Sustainable Architecture of Self-Built Pavilions was broken. It’s one thing to recycle building materials, another to reuse buildings; I suspect there will be much more of the former than the latter. The Swiss pavilion tower, earnestly didactic almost to the point of pedantry about limited food resources, was built of concrete, steel and glass, accessible only by (small) elevator, much of it hard to imagine being salvaged and reused—although the glue-laminated timber passerelle that snakes its way somewhat irrationally (formal rationalism may no longer be the dominant Swiss mode) around the tower could theoretically be unbolted and reassembled. Very few pavilions could be recognized for their national identity without signage—Italy perhaps most egregiously; but this is in a way to say that few were in any sense evocative of traditional architecture (Romania being among the notable exceptions).

feel the slove-nia

Mmmmm, meat!
This was, paradoxically if not cynically, not at all about seriously dealing with hunger, healthy eating, traditional foods (the only “traditional” displays of food were Dante Ferretti’s jumbo-crèche carts of fake food along the center of the Decumano), or biodiversity. This was about consumption being swallowed with a soupçon of concern. Feel good about yourself while chowing down at a food cart in a throw-away landscape! 

taking the long view: Yikes!

Zooming out and seeing the fair in context, the increasingly nightmarish landscape that takes over as Milan dissipates into its periphery begs the question of how the Expo could have been more “constructive:” maybe rehabilitating a dilapidated neighborhood instead of operating in a cordoned-off hinterland? Taking over an at-risk or moribund field and rendering it arable? But this Expo isn’t all about constructive change, it’s more about the status quo—and full steam ahead! Fortunately, many in the food world are more serious than Expo expresses, and certainly more enlightened than the hegemonic architectural forms on display. They have Slow Food, where's the Slow Architecture?