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18 August 2012

Emulation and Imitation

Making Distinctions

I’ve been writing a lot lately toward my book on Emulation, and have increasingly realized how little appreciated is emulation as a primary means of operation in the Renaissance and Baroque, but also how often it is conflated with imitation. In fact, I think imitation as a mode of artistic production, rather than an aspect of artistic formation or apprenticeship, is one of the consequences (and parallel causes) of neoclassicism in the later eighteenth century. Until then, and after the Middle Ages, imitation of artistic models was either a part of an artist’s atelier formation, or a defining characteristic of provincial or journeyman artists without aspirations to novel achievement. What almost all the artists and architects we think of as masters were doing was, in some way or another, emulating—or rivaling—either contemporary or past masters; this was not always eristic, or critical, but it did provide a competitive framework for artistic achievement. In other words, this is how artists saw themselves vis-à-vis their peers, and how they wanted to be evaluated. The nature of emulation is inherently optimistic, and I would argue the nature of academic classicism after the eighteenth century is either pessimistic (too imitative) or too engaged by style rather than ideas.

That being said, I have realized that I have been framing my own self-education in the classical tradition as an emulative exercise for the last thirty years, whether consciously or not; what was conscious was my sense that I only imitated to apprehend information, never to define myself. For better or worse I have wanted to be considered not an imitator of some Old Master model, but a legitimate “contemporary.”

As a model of a process of self-education I’m posting here two small exercises in modeling: one a copy of a bozzetto of Bernini’s Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, the other an original high relief medallion of the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The intentions of the former are fairly self-evident: apprehend the technique and energy of Bernini’s model, not as a literal copy but as a free copy, where some sense of the looseness of technique is a condition of speed and spontaneity. The medallion, on the other hand, is an exercise in modeling a relief that tends toward sculpture, and wanting to suggest narrative within the tightly prescribed boundaries of the frame. As an emulative exercise it does not take on any particular model, but is meant to be invested with the plasticity of form of Bernini’s rivals’ (Algardi) and followers’ (Guidi, etc.) exercises in high relief, and Bernini’s concern for the concetto. The kind of thing, in other words, one might have done in Rome around 1700.