Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 27, 2004
Gabriele Paleotti Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (1582) Ed. Stefano della Torre; trans. Gian Franco Freguglia. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Cad & Wellness, 2002. 328 pp. Paper €25.00 (8820973588)
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Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1597) of Bologna was among the most important ecclesiastical reformers and writers on sacred art in post-Tridentine Italy. After receiving a degree in canon law from the Studio di Bologna in 1546, he was appointed an uditore di Rota in Rome in 1556. He subsequently served as the Rota’s counselor to the papal legates during the final session of the Council of Trent (1561–63). Pope Pius IV appointed Paleotti to the Congregation of the Council to study the approval and implementation of Trent’s decrees, which the Congregation issued in print in 1565. In March 1565, Pius elevated Paleotti to the cardinalate, and in 1566 to the position of bishop of Bologna. As bishop, Paleotti, like Carlo Borromeo of Milan, responded zealously to the Council of Trent’s mandate that bishops implement its reforms in their individual dioceses. Paleotti’s Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (Bologna, 1582) was written in direct response to Trent’s reform mandate.

Paleotti lived in his diocese for about twenty years, serving as archbishop there from 1582. He then moved to Rome in 1586. In 1590 he renounced his position as archbishop of Bologna, having received the title of vescovo suburbiaco of Albano in 1598; he became the suburban bishop of Sabina in 1591. During the 1590s, in order to reach a wider audience among ecclesiastics and educated Europeans, Paleotti issued a Latin edition of his Discorso, which was entitled De imaginibus sacris et profanis libri quinque (Ingolstadt, 1594). He died in Rome only a few years later, in 1597.           

The original Italian edition of Paleotti’s Discorso consisted of two books. Book I treated the purpose and functions of sacred and profane images, and their effects on viewers. Book II was devoted to abuses of sacred art, abuses of profane art, and abuses common to both. In addition, the 1582 edition contained indices to Books III–V, proposed books that were, however, never written. These indices are important indicators of the proposed scope of Paleotti’s tract: they reveal that in Book III Paleotti planned to treat abuses in connection with specific images, in Book IV to provide detailed information on Christian iconography, and in Book V to discuss how to decorate various kinds of buildings, both sacred and secular, with images. The Latin edition of 1594 likewise consisted of the texts of the first two books followed by the indices to the three proposed additional books.

The Vatican edition of Paleotti’s Discorso, published in 2002 and under review here, is based on the original Italian edition of 1582. Many art historians who are familiar with Paleotti’s tract have read it either in the anastatic reprint edition with a preface by Paolo Prodi (Bologna: Arnaldo Forni, 1990) or as reproduced in the second volume of Paola Barocchi’s Trattati d’arte del cinquecento; fra manierismo e controriforma (Bari: G. Laterza, 1961), both of which are also based on the Italian edition of 1582. In order to appreciate the merits of the Vatican edition of 2002, it should first be compared to Barocchi’s earlier edition.

The overall difference between Barocchi’s edition and the one published by the Vatican is that the former is a philological study with a complete apparatus, whereas the latter aims for a more accessible text and is complemented by brief introductory essays. Barocchi’s edition is not a facsimile, but it does preserve Paleotti’s own language. In it, Books I and II are followed by the indices to Books III–V. Barocchi’s apparatus contains philological notes of great use to scholars. Paleotti’s original notes, which were printed in the margins of his text, appear as footnotes in Barocchi’s edition; Barocchi’s own notes to the Discorso are published separately as endnotes. In the Vatican edition of 2002, by contrast, Gian Franco Freguglia renders the texts of Books I and II in modern Italian. Paleotti’s original notes to the text are set in parentheses within the text itself; there are no editor’s notes. It is regrettable that the indices to Books III–V are not included in the Vatican edition.

Paleotti’s Discorso is a ponderous text, so one cannot help but welcome Freguglia’s livelier, more accessible, modernized text in the Vatican edition. This newly updated language is far more engaging to the twenty-first century reader than the original, making it appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students—assuming, of course, that they can read Italian. A comparison of a passage from the original text with that of the modernized text makes this contrast very clear. Paleotti wrote in 1582:

Desiderandosi di provedere quanto si può agli abusi delle imagini secondo il decreto del sacro Concilio Tridentino, e considerandosi ciò essere non tanto errore degli artefici che le formano, quanto de’patroni che le commandano, o più tosto che tralasciano di commandarle come si dovrebbe, essendo essi come i principali agenti, e gli artefici essecutori della loro volontà; però si è avuta considerazione in questo trattato di ragionare non solo con li pittori e scoltori, ma principalmente con li curati e con li nobili e persone onorate, che sogliono abbellire le chiese e le loro abitazioni con simili ornamenti. (Barocchi, Trattati 2: 122)

In the Vatican edition of 2002, the same passage reads:

Scopo della presente opera è di porre rimedio, per quanto possibile, agli abusi nelle immagini, secondo le indicazioni del sacro Concilio di Trento. È nostro parere che gli abusi non siano tanto da ascrivere agli errori che gli artisti commettono nel dar forma alle immagini, quanto piuttosto agli errori dei signori che le commissionano e che trascurano di commissionarle come si dovrebbe: essi sono le vere cause degli abusi, in quanto gli artisti non fanno che seguire le loro indicazioni. È per questo che la presente opera non è rivolta solamente ai pittori e agli scultori ma, principalmente, ai curati, alla nobiltà e alle persone rispettabili che abbelliscono le chiese e le loro case ornandole con immagini. (7)

For scholars concerned with philological issues, of course, the modernization of a text prevents the reader from comparing a given author’s original wording with that of his or her predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. Such words as cognizione and dilettatione, for example, in the 1582 edition, are modernized in the 2002 edition as conoscenza and piacere without altering the meaning of Paleotti’s original text. But when attempting to determine connections among various tracts on sacred art, familiarity with the original language is absolutely essential. For example, Giovanni Domenico Ottonelli, a Jesuit father, and Pietro da Cortona, the renowned artist, relied heavily on Paleotti’s Discorso in composing their Trattato della pittura e scultura, uso ed abuso loro (Florence: Gio. Antonio Bonardi, 1652). In the Ninth Question of chapter 2, Ottonelli—the main author of the tract—discussed the kinds of delight (diletto) that viewers may receive from sacred images. Ottonelli’s use of such wording as cognitione, diletto ragionevole, and diletto spirituale is drawn from Paleotto’s Discorso. Yet Ottonelli actually quotes from the later Latin edition of Paleotti’s tract. Hence, Ottonelli notes that “A tertia cognitione, scrive il Cardinal Paleotti, ‘manat ea delectatio, qua spiritualis vocatur’ ” (from G. D. Ottonelli et al., Trattato della pittura e scultura: uso et abuso loro, ed. Vittorio Casale [Treviso: Libreria editrice Canova, 1973], 60). In the Italian edition of the Discorso, Paleotti himself cites many authors who wrote in Latin, such as Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and others whose works were known to him in Latin translations, such as Aristotle. Therefore, knowledge of the precise words Paleotti used in both the Italian edition of 1582 and the Latin edition of 1594 is necessary when undertaking a close philological reading of his tract on art.

The introductory essays to the Vatican edition of 2002, though brief, usefully place Paleotti’s text in its socioreligious and artistic contexts. Despite some repetition among the essays, their authors present complementary perspectives from which to read the Discorso.

In his Presentazione (v–x), Carlo Chenis introduces Paleotti’s concern with the legitimate use of sacred images in its ecclesiological and historical context from the Second Nicene Council (787) to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962–63). Chenis notes that Paleotti’s Discorso “stimola inoltre la riflessione su questi temi, non solo per quanto concerne l’ermeneutica dell’iconografia cultuale in epoca barocca, ma anche per quella contemporanea” (v). He demonstrates that issues addressed in the Council of Trent and in Paleotti’s Discorso were reconsidered in remarkably similar terms during Vatican II. The twentieth-century context for maintaining such continuity in image theory deserves further analysis.

Giuseppe Fusari, in his introductory essay to the Discorso (xi–xxiv), draws on Paolo Prodi’s two-volume book Il Cardinale Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1597) (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1959–67) to outline the development of the Discorso from its germination in 1578, to its circulation among Paleotti’s colleagues (including Carlo Borromeo and Ulisse Aldrovandi) in 1581, to the publication of the first Italian and Latin editions. Fusari notes that Paleotti subordinated aesthetic issues to art’s catechetical and pedagogical functions. He perceptively remarks that because Paleotti believed that God communicated to human beings through reason and reality, in art an abuse “assume quindi i contorni definiti dell’errore proprio in riferimento a questa razionabilità del dato reale-rivelato” (xxiii).

In the final introductory essay of the Vatican edition, Francesco Repishti (xxv–xxxiii) provides a summary of the contents of the Discorso. He also surveys scholarly interpretations of the treatise, particularly during the last century. Repishti notes that the Discorso drew harsh criticism from early-twentieth-century scholars such as Lionello Venturi, who, in the Storia della critica d’arte (Rome: Edizioni U, 1945), blamed Paleotti, Giovanni Andrea Gilio, and Ottonelli for having given precedence to moral rather than aesthetic values, and for having attempted to suppress artists’ creative autonomy (xxx). Repishti provides a lucid overview of recent interpretations of the Discorso—including those of Barocchi, Prodi, Maria Calì, the present reviewer, and Sandro Benedetti (xxx–xxxvi). Although he does not attempt a full critical analysis of these scholars’ contributions, Repishti’s summary offers a point of departure for considering some of the major issues involved in interpreting Paleotti’s discussion in the Discorso of the production, use, and reception of sacred and profane art in early modern Catholic society.

In short, the edition of Paleotti’s Discorso published by the Vatican in 2002 is an excellent modernized version of the text that deserves a place in the library of every college or university where Italian art history, history, and literature are studied. This edition, unlike the one edited by Barocchi, does not aim to be a philological study, but rather encourages accessibility to a book that deserves a wider audience. The specific post-Tridentine context in which Paleotti raised questions concerning the power of images—and the degrees and means by which one might seek to control them—is rich and fascinating in its own right. The questions he posed then are still of considerable interest today.

Pamela M. Jones
Field Editor for Early Modern Southern European Art, caa.reviews; Professor of Art, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts Boston

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