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23 December 2014

Untrodden Territory

The Challenge of Emulation

Many art historians will be taken aback by the unapologetic nature of these proposals, but one can appreciate Mayernik’s book even while rejecting some of his premises because it offers something essential to discussions of Renaissance imitative practice: an insistence on the artists’ creative engagement with tradition.
Elena Calvillo, review of The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture, in Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2014, p. 1332

I’m pleased The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture was recently reviewed in Renaissance Quarterly (Winter 2014). The reviewer argues that what I cover in the book is “well trod,” but in fact during my research and since I have not come across much, if any, Renaissance or Baroque scholarship that explicitly and correctly uses the term “emulation,” with its sense of rivalry (i.e. aiming at victory, in the words of Erasmus): certainly no studies on the visual arts, apart from those on ancient Roman sculpture and Napoleonic painting, where emulation is the primary theme. I don’t think, in fact, historians are attuned to an emulative mode of thinking, precisely because, as the reviewer notes, the notion of advancement in the arts is foreign to them; historians are good at tracking down artists’ sources and precedents because it is not unlike what they do in the archives, but they don’t allow themselves to think in terms of better or worse, and don’t recognize artists’ competitive streak because they don’t share it (not to imply that historians aren’t competitive with each other, but it’s not as dominant a trait as it was for the artists they study). Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s recent essay in The American Scholar is quite good on the humility required of the historical researcher.

Robert de Cotte, Palais Rohan, Strasbourg
Sine it’s been a year since the book appeared, it may be worth commenting on the difficulty I’ve found in getting the book reviewed, and even being invited to lecture on it by ostensibly sympathetic organizations like the ICAA (their Washington DC chapter being a notable exception, for which I’m grateful). I was also surprised to find at last February’s INTBAU conference Unpacking Pastiche that some of my colleagues, leaders in “traditional” architecture, weren’t troubled by the concept of pastiche, indeed proudly claim to practice it. Clearly, then, the notion of emulation is, if not only foreign to most contemporary classicists and traditionalists, in fact troubling. It seems to fly in the face of the deference they display to past heroes, even minor ones.

If pastiche is not as problematic as it should be for classicists, what about kitsch? Roger Scruton can’t help reveling in kitsch’s durability in the face of modernist condescension (recently for the bbc magazine, 15 years ago for City Journal), but surely an argument for tradition or the classical shouldn’t cozy up to the vulgarities of kitsch. Modernists were indeed right that, by the early twentieth century, much academic and representational art had become either maudlin or cloying, drained of intellectual force and inventive energy. That, though, is a problem of the nineteenth century, but does not apply to art of the eighteenth or earlier. So reconstituting representational art from its nineteenth-century residue is not the thing to do, and certainly claiming kitsch as a defense of representational art’s appeal doesn’t help either.

An unjustifiably forgotten book is Michael Greenhalgh’s The Classical Tradition in Art (1978)[1]. Greenhalgh argues for the idea of the classical tradition as effectively a product of the Renaissance; defines a living classical tradition as not slavishly devoted to the past; and locates the death of the tradition with Ingres (I might located it slightly earlier, but I too would position Ingres outside the idea of a living classical tradition). For some reason the Renaissance and Baroque are not today the defining periods for the classical that they were for Greenhalgh and his generation, even as they were for Gromort; and it is in large measure this that makes the idea of emulation anathema to contemporary classicists.

As we end a year and embark on another, here’s to the hope that the Renaissance and Baroque are re-appreciated for their essential role in the classical tradition. And that emulation is not feared, but embraced.


13 December 2014

The Cast Party

 Shadows of the Past 

The Bartolini Collection at Florence's Accademia Museum
The week after my talk at the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library on 3 December, I visited the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, where wonderful work is being done in the legacy of Charles’ mentor R. H. Ives Gammell and his forebears. On my way to the train later in the afternoon I stopped by the Accademia Museum, happily relatively empty at this time of year. After the monumental Michelangelo work, the room of Bartolini casts had new resonance for me, with its recollection of the Romanelli casts connected to the Cecil Studios in Borgo San Frediano.

Casts have become, in the contemporary parlance, “a thing;” there is a site dedicated to them qua artifacts:
The Passagli Collection on Display at
Lucca's Palazzo Ducale

Once upon a time casts were models of excellence, the choicest examples of ancient and modern sculpture available in 3D for students, like the Passaglia collection at Lucca’s liceo artistico:

But at some point in the second half of the nineteenth century, they became white forms with complex shadows and reflected lights to be drawn meticulously in the academies; they were no longer models to aspire to, paragons of Bellori’s l’Idea del Bello, but merely forms in light to serve aspiring drawing students. That, in the end, is the difference between classicism and realism: the extent to which casts are 1. ideal models to imitate and emulate, and 2. more than stable figures without color. The casts are back after their near-eradication in the middle of the twentieth century, in particular at the many ateliers and so-called academies that have sprouted in the last two decades; but are they, in a paraphrase of the title of Michael Baxandall’s book, shadows or enlightenment?

POSTSCRIPT: The V&A's cast collection recently reopened, the media have their usual nonsensical take on things:
"Originally opened in 1873, the galleries were conceived as a definitive collection of great works from Europe, full-size fragments of exotic cathedrals and palaces, duplicated in London for all to see. It was an aristocratic grand tour for the armchair explorer, conveniently compressed into two rooms."

I'm sorry, but who ever entered the V&A's cast gallery and was deceived into thinking he had been transported to Florence, or thought that the Florentines had sold the David to the British? I suppose calling them "fakes" imparts an edge of, well, edginess that The Guardian is expected to deliver to its readers. Never mind the reality, here's the past.... Plus, the casts were, technically, not "duplicated in London" but in Paris, where some of the greatest casters were. And aristocrats still went on actual Grand Tours to Florence itself. Whatever.

17 November 2014

Emulation Talk at the British Institute in Florence

Emulate the Best

In anticipation of my upcoming talk at the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute in Florence, I thought I’d post this apposite extract from my favorite English poet, John Dryden:

Kneller's portrait of Dryden
Of various Parts a perfect whole is wrought;
Thy pictures think, and we Divine their Thought.
*Shakespear, thy Gift, I place before my Sight;
With awe I ask his Blessing e’re I write;
With Rev’rence look on his Majestick Face;
Proud to be less, but of his Godlike Race.
His Soul Inspires me, while thy Praise I write,
And like Teucer, under Ajax Fight;
Bids thee thro’ me, be bold; with dauntless breast
Contemn the bad and Emulate the best…
—John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller, Principal Painter to His Majesty”, from Miscellanies (1694), in The Poems of John Dryden, ed. John Sargeaunt, Oxford Editions of Standard Authors, 1948, p. 168.
*Shakespeare’s Picture drawn by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and given to the Author

The talk is open to members of the Library, but joining the Library is rather straightforward, in person at the Institute.

An encouraging review of The Challenge of Emulation has been published by the Sacred Architecture Journal:

And here are some links to recent articles of interest:

25 October 2014

The Celebrated Architect

Praising and Burying Carlo Fontana at the Accademia di San Luca

For three solid days this past week Rome’s vestige of the Accademia di San Luca in Borromini's Palazzo Carpegna hosted mostly Italian speakers (with a handful of Germans, a couple of Americans, and one Frenchman) for a conference on the “celebrated architect” (that’s how he had described himself) Carlo Fontana, principe of the Academy at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’m rather partial to Fontana myself, both as a teacher (Gibbs, von Erlach, Hildebrandt, and Juvarra were among his celebrated students) and architect; as an architect he was Bernini’s heir, and if he lacked the master’s fertile iconographic mind, he managed a sophisticated compositional approach to the bel composto, and virtually defined the terms of early eighteenth-century Roman architecture.

For most of the conference the talks addressed particulars of Fontana’s atelier, his collaborators and successors; his work for the theater; or the Colosseum church project. Others focused on specifying his personal provenance, cataloguing his lesser-known works, or looking at the mechanics of his constructions. Most of these would qualify as praises, if faint; Paolo Portoghesi, in his overlong talk, seemed more interested in burying Fontana as an uninventive shadow of Bernini or Borromini—a rather outré opinion common among an older generation of scholars. The majority of the Italians, many of them architects, wanted to project onto Fontana’s operations the bureaucratic realities of modern Italian building, a natural if regrettable predilection.

There was little in the way of his relationship with the elephant in the room, the French Academy; essentially nothing on his compositional methods, his conception of space, or his urbanism; less than nothing, if that’s possible, on his iconography, the concetti Bernini privileged in the artistic act. Implicitly, no one really took Fontana seriously as an intellectual, a thinking artist. Instead, he was projected unquestioningly as a solid practitioner, an able administrator both in the field and in the academy, a clever political operator; coincidentally, many of the mid-career Italian presenters could have been mistaken for habitués of the Palazzo Madama.

I think there was a time, or I would like to think so, when the mission of scholars was to try to understand the past on its own terms, not as a mirror of ours. I also, fortunately, studied architecture at a time when history was considered relevant to modern practice; postmodern relevance it may have been, but it opened doors that seem to have closed again, perhaps even more definitively this time. I feel bad for those young Italian scholars equipped with a wealth of often esoteric information on specialist subjects, who aren’t taught to integrate their knowledge into a larger frame and see it as completely detached from modern practice (even as they, paradoxically, project modern practice onto the past). I feel bad, but I can’t change it, and all I can do is practice the alternative….