Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 2017
Malcolm Bull Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth: Vico and Neapolitan Painting Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 160 pp.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $24.95 (9780691138848)

What is the truth in painting, and what is truth in reality? Revolving around the learned Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), Malcolm Bull’s Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth: Vico and Neapolitan Painting brings us to Naples in the early eighteenth century, offering an analysis of painting and art theory in correlation with the philosophical concepts and insights of Vico’s work on these matters. Vico was educated in rhetoric and law and taught as a professor of rhetoric while writing a series of books, including the groundbreaking New Science (first edition published in 1725, revised in 1730, with a third revised edition published posthumously in 1744, the year of Vico’s death). Bull investigates how Vico’s thinking was influenced by the painting of his time and offers an explanation of a series of key themes in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century art concerning the truth in and of painting and the power of images. The book addresses the investigations of idea and reality that inform the production of art and how these concepts relate to Vico’s endeavors to understand major philosophical questions regarding the development of civilizations. Vico based his encyclopedic New Science on a remarkable method of analyzing etymology and myths in order to reveal historical truths—a kind of seventeenth-century precursor of Michel Foucault, Michel Serres, and other major twentieth-century philosophers of history.

Bull argues that Vico’s method was developed and refined by his thorough knowledge of and keen eye for seventeenth-century art in Naples, where the demonstrative naturalism of Caravaggio from the beginning of the century had been abandoned for new tendencies toward poetic constructions, bringing the concept of artistic imagination or fantasia to the fore. In this process, imagination and poetic invention came to be seen as a passage to truth in terms of an abstract idea or ideal as opposed to the falsehood of mimetic naturalism. On this view, the more alive a painted figure appeared to be, the more emphatically dead or merely material it really was.

The aim of Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth is to see Vico through the painting of his time in order to present and discuss a series of major themes within art theory as well as topics of major philosophical resonance. The book includes engaging perspectives of general historical and philosophical importance—for instance, on the growing and highly sophisticated stylistic consciousness of the time. With roots back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the interest in artistic style continued through the seventeenth century—particularly in Bolognese art and art theory. It was an ongoing topos of the time that artists could appropriate parts or stylistic quotations of a great artist’s works in new, inventive compositions, taking as a common point of reference Pliny the Elder’s story of Zeuxis building his representation of an ideally beautiful woman from individual parts of a series of female models. The reflections on style intensified in the eighteenth century, and in the writings of Vico they were theorized through the rhetorical framework of his thinking.

Bull’s method is exemplarily simple: close readings of Vico, focusing on his observations on images, are brought together with an impressively precise and detailed knowledge of the Neapolitan art scene of his time. Readers are informed about which paintings were available to the interested viewer in churches and art collections and on what art theory Vico appears to have based his own writings. This approach is seen not only in the text’s frequent, important quotations from Vico’s works but also in the book’s notes, which are practically all references to Vico’s writings or to art theory of the period (predominantly Florentine sources from the sixteenth century and Bolognese from the seventeenth). Hardly any secondary literature is involved. The dependence of Vico on actual artworks present in Naples is corroborated by eye-opening analyses of paintings ranging from works by Caravaggio around 1600 to works by Guido Reni, Luca Giordano, Francesco Solimena, and others produced in Vico’s lifetime. Despite Vico’s extraordinary erudition and historical curiosity—especially about Roman antiquity—he never traveled to Rome, which today would be a trip of less than two hours by train. Naples was, indeed, politically oriented toward Spain.

This so-called golden age of Naples brought about an impressive array of masterpieces, which Bull analyzes both stylistically and iconographically. It is decisive for Bull to stress that painting may embody insights that are only afterwards taken up in writings about art theory as opposed to what usually happens in the discipline of art history: namely, that art theory and philosophy are the point of departure for an analysis, leaving painting in a secondary position as the mere illustration of intellectually verbalized ideas. Bull insists that Vico’s conceptualization of truth and history developed through his interest in and study of art. To Vico, there was an obvious connection between verbal and visual images, and Bull argues that Vico’s study of painting in Naples around 1700, celebrating the poetic truth of artistic invention and imagination rather than the falsehood of apparent naturalism, contributed to his conceptualization of abstract or universal truths embedded in myths. As explained by Vico, it was human fantasia that enabled “the first men, the children, as it were, of the human race . . . to create poetic characters; that is, imaginative class concepts or universals, to which, as to certain models or ideal portraits, to reduce all the particular species which resembled them” (34).

In accordance with a systematic back-to-the-sources approach, Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth is attractively economical in length with only four main chapters and a total of 125 pages of clearly written text and illustrations consistently focused on content. The only exception to this otherwise appealing succinctness is the epilogue, which ends somewhat abruptly. Here, the insights of Vico are compared with Friedrich Nietzsche’s observations on truth and lies, which, interestingly, come very close to Vico’s. But the epilogue lacks a summing up of the relevance of Bull’s (convincing) observation that Nietzsche must have read and found inspiration in Vico’s work. Nietzsche’s appropriation and, to a certain extent, reversal of Vico’s belief in the truth in images becomes a kind of appendix to the book taken as a whole. It could, instead, have been integrated into a concluding chapter that reached back to the observations of preceding chapters. For instance, the assertion in the epilogue that Neapolitan Baroque is “perhaps one of the passages through which modern consciousness was formed” (122) might have provided more perspective through the comparison with Nietzsche, just as the analysis of the growing consciousness of style in Vico’s time, culminating with Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s later landmark writings, could have been addressed with respect to the development of the institutionalization and conceptualization of art history. And it would also have been useful if a somewhat expanded conclusion had offered a summary of the relationship between Vico’s remarkable interpretations of myths and his understanding of painting. A focus on Vico’s period as a passage “through which modern consciousness was formed” might have been a point of departure for dealing with these questions in a more elaborate rounding-off of the book.

Since a close reading of both form and content in a series of paintings plays a major part in the book’s argument, it is a shame that the paintings are reproduced in black and white in this otherwise well-crafted volume. As Vico himself put it: “Words are to poetry what colors are to painting” (88). Bull is convincing about the significance of the formal qualities of the works of art, including their colors, which he explicitly addresses. While the selection of examples is quite to the point, the fact that they are reproduced in black and white is an impediment to the comprehension of Bull’s analytic descriptions.

Apart from these reservations, Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth offers intriguing analyses of painting along with acute close readings of Vico’s writings with a fruitful interdisciplinary approach. Through its discussions of Vico as a rhetorician with a historicized view of civilization, style, and time, the book is a strong proponent for the relevance of rhetoric as a kind of art theory of its present moment. It is, in sum, an accomplished, concise, and intelligently focused account of a series of interesting core questions about art, questions that were addressed not only in art theory but also in a series of remarkable works of art in Naples at the time.

Maria Fabricius Hansen
Associate Professor, Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen