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22 June 2015

Laudata Siena

The World Pope Francis Advocates Already Exists: It’s Called Tuscany

143. Together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat. This patrimony is a part of the shared identity of each place and a foundation upon which to build a habitable city. It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense.
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Francis, 18 June 2015
p. 42

156. Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment”.[122]
pp. 45-6

View of Siena from the south
With the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment it might be said that there is no longer any excuse of ignorance for ignoring our common home. It should also be borne in mind, though, that the situation he fears and the future he hopes for are equally evident already on the planet—the former in so many places built in the last century and a half, the latter in the world we inherited from before. Where that older world has not been destroyed, even if only preserved and not augmented, a vision of what the world could be is available, tangible, and accessible.

The Virtues of the well-governed city on the left,
and their effects on city and countryside on the right

The common good was painted in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco of the Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Siena town hall as the “ruler” of the well-governed city. As the city in the fresco is understood to represent the real city outside, so too is the harmonious and fertile frescoed landscape meant to be continuous with the real landscape outside the room’s only window. This is how I summed it up in my book Timeless Cities:

"Lorenzetti’s attention to detail and the rich complexity of life he shows must have made his fresco seem very “real” to his fourteenth century audience; he also, consciously, wrote the inscription carried by Securitas in Tuscan rather than Latin, to make it accessible to a wider public. The real world is also intertwined with the allegorical world in the Good and Bad Government tableau by frescoing only three walls of the Room of the Nine, leaving the fourth, exterior wall (flanked in the corners by the extensions of good government of the city into the painted countryside) open through its large windows to the real Sienese landscape beyond, thereby blurring the distinction between illusion and actuality: just as the real city of Siena is alluded to in the image of the well-governed city by the way one enters the room, so too the well-governed contado is extended from the fresco out through the room’s real windows to the landscape beyond. Here, by means of this single simple leap from the fictive landscape of the painting to the real Sienese countryside available outside the window, practical politics (the actual “good” Government of the Nine which takes place daily in the room) ideally merges with the painted allegorical Virtues (the figures surrounding the good governor) and the sacred realm (in the form of the mater misericordia frescoed in the preceding room and embodied in the very shape of the piazza outside) in a complex sequence of scenes which iconographically convey many potential symbolic readings simultaneously, while their novel realism speaks directly to the humblest petitioner. As a work of art the fresco is almost inexhaustible in its possible levels of a appreciation. As a moral message it is both a promise to the citizens and an admonishment to their leaders. As an architectural ideal it both sums up and spurs an urban vision that would receive additional fleshing out over the next three centuries."

Looking south from the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico
Siena and its landscape remain humane, beautiful, and sustainable. It has been a choice to preserve them, but the fact that they exist means we can also choose to make them again, wherever there is the will.

12 June 2015

Virtuosity and Emulation

Rubens, The Feast of Venus

At some level the idea of an academy of emulation encapsulates the general practice of emulation. In other words, what is taught is what an emulative artist would do (and continue to do throughout her or his career). To make the implications of this more clear—and to clarify perhaps how Old Master artists saw their challenges—I would distinguish two categories of techniques of classical work in the emulative tradition: techniques necessary for invention, and “pro forma” techniques. What I’m suggesting is that artists like Rubens, Cortona or Pittoni displayed their virtuosity by a combination of pro forma displays of accomplishment (part of the art of documentation), and more daring techniques proper to invention. Primarily (unless he was working on portraiture) Rubens would have privileged invention, with documentation as a necessary but complementary display of his mastery. Those two categories were composed of the following aspects:

I.      Techniques Necessary for Invention
  1. Foreshortening
  2. Rotating figures in space
  3. Projecting shadows
  4. Reflected lights (luminosity)
  5. Spatial depth/layering

Spatial layering in Rubens

II.    Pro-forma Techniques
  1. Anatomy (some telltale display, e.g. a prominent knee)
  2. Perspective (even if, and generally more commonly, fragmentary)
  3. Materials and textures (the “still life” aspect)

Still life in the Feast of Venus

G. B. Pittoni, The Sacrifice of Polyxena
The pro forma aspects are those things about which the consummate academic artist, Carlo Maratta, claimed tanto che basti—all that’s enough—in his polemical print addressed to students of drawing. One only needed, and should not usually exceed, enough of those pro forma displays to establish the credibility of the invented image. Since the image was a scene often difficult to pose or stage in the studio—think of ceiling paintings, or scenes of battle or martyrdom—invention was the thing, and artists primarily studied the figure in order not to need the model while inventing. Being able to imagine a figure turned, even hovering, in space, extending an arm and projecting a shadow or receiving a projected shadow from a distant object, making light bouncy and lively, and creating the illusion of space and depth beyond what could be achieved with linear perspective: this was the stuff of mastery, of virtuosity.

Invention techniques need imagination, pro forma techniques depend on documentation. The experience of documentation trains the imagination—not forgetting, of course, the documentation of exemplary works of art!

Still life

Perspective and spatial layering