Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2012
John Shannon Hendrix and Charles H. Carman, eds. Renaissance Theories of Vision Visual Culture in Early Modernity. . Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 258 pp.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9781409400240)
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The title Renaissance Theories of Vision immediately brings to mind a myriad of representational systems known collectively as perspective but more specifically labeled by type: atmospheric, single-point and multiple-point (also referred to as linear, scientific, and mathematical), intuitive, oblique, and reverse. Simultaneously, it conjures recollected textbook images of converging orthogonals superimposed on schematized masterworks like Fra Angelico’s San Marco Altarpiece (ca. 1438–40) and Pietro Perugino’s Sistine Chapel fresco Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter (1482). These fifteenth-century visions of carefully structured spaces inhabited by figures placed in calculated spatial and proportional relationship to one another as well as to structures and other objects represented within the frame visualize the artist’s control of viewpoint through her or his grasp of what Antonio Manetti in his Life of Brunelleschi called prospettiva, or, “that part of the science of Perspective which is in practice the good and systematic diminution or enlargement, as it appears to men’s eyes” (Antonio Manetti, as cited in Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 124). In referencing two practices—that of the artist who composes and presents the image and that of the spectator who views or receives the image—Manetti acknowledged the complexity of art and vision even within parameters established by a focus on prospettiva. Although Leon Battista Alberti’s codification of single-point perspective construction in On Painting (1435; Latin ed.) still holds a place in discussions of Renaissance art and theory, the conversation has been significantly expanded and enriched during the last four decades.

John Shannon Hendrix and Charles H. Carman’s Renaissance Theories of Vision falls in line with the current course of scholarship. The first of the book’s eighteen illustrations is, in fact, a diagram of Alberti’s pyramids of vision, yet there is much in the chapter it augments, and certainly in the collection of essays as a whole, that enhances an understanding of ocular theory—and hence the perception of Renaissance works of art—before the seventeenth-century technological advances of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Robert Hooke, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and others impacted the science of optics. Dispelling the schematics that are inevitably prompted by the volume’s title, Hendrix and Carman, coeditors of as well as individual contributors to Renaissance Theories of Vision, establish at the outset this more comprehensive approach. In the very first sentence of the book’s introduction they pose the “basic questions” considered and analyzed in the eleven chapters that follow. “How,” they ask, “are processes of vision, perception, and sensation conceived in the Renaissance, and how are those conceptions manifest in the arts?” (1) As one might expect, success at answering these queries varies among the contributors, who tackle topics that reflect evolving ideas about optics and mathematics rooted in Graeco-Arabic investigations through considerations of their effect on artistic practice and verbalized notions (poetic as well as theoretical) of seeing throughout Europe.

Because, as Hendrix and Carman state in their introduction, “readers will select topics from this collection according to what strikes them as immediately interesting” (2), it is useful to review the general nature of the whole. Of the eleven chapters in Renaissance Theories of Vision, seven have Italian works, visual and/or textual, as a focus. The remaining essays, which in some way reference Italy, review Arabic investigations of optics and northern European theories of reflection and refraction. Turning first to the group of seven, four chapters are in-depth examinations of a single work, including Amy Bloch’s impressive discussion of Donatello’s Chellini Madonna (1456). With an especially discerning critical sensitivity to process, material, and transference, Bloch reveals how the Chellini Madonna, a work cast in bronze via the method of lost wax, was fabricated to allow for its replication in glass. Recast in this medium, the Chellini Madonna elicits a different response from a version in bronze. Bloch considers both against a theology of light and vision. Using Leonardo da Vinci’s well-known drawing Two Views of the Skull (1489) as a starting point and plumbing the artist’s notebooks for observations concerning material and spiritual vision, Liana de Girolamo Cheney revisits the Uffizi Annunciation (1472–78) with an eye to discussing the symbolism of shape and design. Looking at Fra Angelico’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1436–41), an altarpiece originally situated in “the final devotional space in which a condemned criminal was to spiritually repent for his or her sinful crime,” Allie Terry gives theory a discerning and welcomed practical application through somaesthetics, or the enhancement of “the visual encounter between the viewer and object” (48). Nicholas Temple looks at Raphael’s already much-discussed School of Athens (ca. 1509–10), in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace, or rather he analyzes the gestures, postures, and gazes of the figures occupying the picture’s ideal space in terms of a “spiritual journey of the destinal,” which he uses in the sense of Martin Heidegger’s “forward-directness,” thereby enabling him to link the “triumphal symbolism” of the fresco to the painting on the opposite wall, the Disputà. While it is obvious, as Temple states, that the assembled figures in both School of Athens and Disputà cannot be thought of in terms of a linear history, his view of the Stanza della Segnatura as “historiographical narrative” presented as a “temporality” captured as “a constellation of moments” (145) is intriguing. Rather than focus on a specific painting or sculpture, Christian Kleinbub considers with characteristic acuity a particular and largely overlooked element seen in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italian painting, namely “cloud putti,” or those “emergent faces, heads, or upper torsos . . . that fall well short of the normative bodies discussed in Renaissance theories of history painting” (117), and that populate such masterworks as Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno (ca. 1512) and Titian’s Assuntà (1516). The remaining two essays focused on Italian production—in both cases textual rather than visual—are by the editors. Their theological-cum-philosophical subjects explain, perhaps, the keyword “theory” in the book’s title. Bringing Nicholas of Cusa’s contextualization of vision in On Learned Ignorance (1440) to bear on Alberti’s statements in On Painting about istoria as well as his comments concerning the origin of painting, which he links with the story of Narcissus’s conversion from youth to flower, Carman joins Martin Kemp, Samuel Edgerton, S. K. Heninger, Jr., and others who have examined the complexities of vision as sight and insight, as a faculty through which the physical is grasped and the conceptual gleaned. Pointing to “divergent understandings of perspective” articulated in current scholarship, Carman, “along with others,” believes that differences can be reconciled (33). To this end, he conjoins seemingly disparate visions—the rational and the spiritual/intellectual—into a “dialectical, twofold vision” (38) that, he argues, resolves the tension inherent to an understanding of sight as a faculty that is both physical and conceptual. Hendrix turns his critical lens to Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium (De Amore), written in 1469, and the influential aesthetic theories of Florence’s Platonic Academy. Citing, among others, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, and casting his arguments “in Kantian terms” as well as “in Hegelian terms” (99), Hendrix details how the figurative expressed in language (text) is joined to the figurative visualized in image through perception, which is “governed by desire” that is in turn “governed by knowledge of God” (89).

While Renaissance Theories of Vision cannot be said to represent equally the ideas and artworks that were conceived north and south of the Alps, Hendrix and Carman broaden the vista as well as extend the “Renaissance” time frame. And they do so to very good effect. Following the introduction, Nader El-Bizri adeptly guides the reader through a largely unfamiliar field ripe with Arabic theories of optics, catoptrics, and dioptrics. The investigations of the Arab polymath Ibn al-Haytham are at the center of the discussion, but El-Bizri looks both backwards and forwards, grounding Arabic scholarship in the writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and others while noting the influence it exerted on seventeenth-century European thinkers. The latter point is underscored by the references to Ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhazen (spelled variously in this book), that appear throughout Renaissance Theories of Vision, including the chapter by Thijs Weststeijn. Weststeijn takes John Shearman’s eye-opening Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) in a new and pan-European direction through an investigation of ocular fascination (fascinatio) and early modern theories of intromission (rays or tiny images sent out by the objects of vision) and extramission (rays sent forth by the eye gazing at the object). Uniquely, this chapter includes the destructive, or at least threatening, aspects of the gaze as it examines Agrippa von Nettesheim’s theory of spectral substances in De occulta philosophia (1531). The topos of lifelikeness that pervades so much of the literature of the period is here presented as reciprocity between beholder and beheld, artist and model/image, image and viewer in a rich reading of the Pygmalion and Galatea (ca. 1529–39) attributed to Bronzino.

The last two chapters move the discussion north of the Alps to Austria and the Netherlands and adjust the “Renaissance” time frame to accommodate seventeenth-century artworks and eighteenth-century theoretical texts. Referring to Alberti’s description of painting’s origin as “Narcissus’ mirror-moment” and with the intent of assaying visual experiences, Faye Tudor discusses Johannes Gumpp’s Self-portrait (1646) as a picture in which vision and identity are explored “in the replication of the self, and the formation of what might be termed [an investigative process of] ‘self-reflexiveness’” (171). A painting in which the artist presented himself at work on his own image, Gumpp’s Self-portrait offers multiple views—and visions—of its subject. The “real” Gumpp, his back to the viewer, fills the painting’s center. To the left and right we see, respectively, Gumpp’s face reflected in the mirror and his partially painted self on the picture positioned on the easel. Tudor’s adept unpacking of the tripartite structure of the self-portrait will appeal to many. Sadly, her analysis lacks an illustration of the work under discussion (although in a footnote the reader is directed to a website where one of the two versions of the self-portrait can be seen). The absence of adequate visual supplements here points to a deficiency in the book as a whole. It appears that the contributors were each restricted to three illustrations. In some instances authors eschewed images altogether. It would have been helpful to readers had they granted (or been allowed to grant) their allotments to others.

Renaissance Theories of Vision concludes with Alice Crawford Berghof’s astute hand-in-hand consideration of Rembrandt’s and, to a lesser extent, Velázquez’s “rough style” with Samuel van Hoogstraten’s 1679 practical treatise dealing with art and verisimilitude and George Berkeley’s theory of “immaterialism,” an understanding of opticality as “two experiences: the sense of sight, and the imagined sense of touch” (187). In light of the early modern discourse on the senses, which included weighing discernment through touch against visual perception, Berghof’s probing discussion adds welcomed dimension to the collection, which by and large delivers on the book’s introductory promise to initiate a rethinking of “how vision is constructed in the Renaissance.”

Fredrika H. Jacobs
Professor Emerita, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.