Monday, July 30, 2012

The Illustrators of Petrarch

The great compilation of Petrarchian illustrations was published in 1902, by art historian Eugène Müntz (1845-1902) and the wealthy amateur scholar, Victor Masséna, prince d'Essling et duc de Rivoli (1836-1910).

Pétrarque: ses études d'art, son influence sur les artistes, ses portraits et ceux de Laure, l'illustration de ses écrits. (Petrarch: His Studies of Art, His Influence on Artists, Portraits and Those of Laura, the Illustration of His Writings.) appears to have a copy on offer for only $800. The description says the book has 290 pages, with 21 plates and many illustrations in the text. The edition was limited to 260 copies. Although 110 years old, it remains an important work. Despite its age, it is not available via Google Books or the Internet Archive. It is available in only a few libraries around the world, and cannot be accessed even through most inter-library loan programs.

Below is a review of the book by George Santayana. He attempts to explain something of the significance of Petrarch’s Triumphs “in his own age”. He also makes the important point that the pictorial representations were not in fact dependant upon Petrarch’s poems for anything other than the identity of six personifications. The six figures as usually portrayed, with their common motif in triumphal chariots, were a novel work only loosely based on Petrarch. I have collected some examples, from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

Petrarch's Triumphs

The Illustrators of Petrarch

By George Santayana
(The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 94, 1904.)

It is a long time since Lessing refuted the forgotten critic who maintained that good poetry must furnish good subjects for illustration; and the principle laid down in the Laocoon, to the effect that plastic art should not insist on expressing action, nor literature on describing form, is one of the few aesthetic principles that seem to have passed into axioms. The facts, however, remain imperfectly sifted, and the innate impulse which each art feels to transgress the sphere in which it has no rivals constantly leads to new attempts at fusion or substitution in artistic effects. After all, fable has always been a congenial subject for painting; the need of illustrating the Bible, for instance, hardly deprived Christian art of its inspiration. Yet for illustration to flourish special conditions, apparently, have first to be fulfilled; and we may well ask ourselves afresh what these conditions are, and when plastic art and poetry profit by borrowing each other's themes.

Some hints toward answering this question may be drawn from the sumptuous work on the illustrators of Petrarch which the Prince d'Essling and M. Eugène Müntz have recently published.(1) The book itself propounds no thesis, and is rather a monument to the personal taste and learning of its authors, who have sought to feast the eye at least as much as the mind; but a reviewer, leaving the volume to speak for itself in those particulars, may stop to reflect for a moment on the situation it unfolds, and on the character of those poems in which succeeding generations found subjects for so many miniatures, frescoes, tapestries, and other decorations.

The first fact to be noted is that almost all the illustrations to Petrarch reproduce his Triumphs. The rest of the Canzoniere and the Latin works seldom inspired any artist. The casual reader may be surprised at this preference shown for the Triumphs, which he may never have heard of; but surprise on this point, as on all others, will probably be dissipated by reflection. The Triumphs are not inferior to the Sonnets in what is Petrarch's greatest merit, — versification and diction; they do not lack, in appropriate places, as warm a breath of pathos and passion; and if the lists of names or the brief references to history and myth seem to us tedious, we must remember that antiquity was then a new world opening to human ken, a world whose weakest echo was full of poetry and power. Even now the rhythm of antique names is not without its magic, and I do not know whether it is pure music or Sehnsucht for ancient things that fills lines like these:—

Odi poi lamentor fra l' altre meste
  Oenone di Pari e Menelao
  D'Elena, ed Ermion chiamar Oreste,
E Laodamia il suo Protesilao.(2)

Doubtless the sonnets, since they sing of absolute love, touch a more universal chord, and can awake some response in minds no matter how empty; to the modern lover Laura is a more intelligible symbol of his own case than Cupid could be. Metaphors drawn from nature and poetic virtuosity, such as the sonnets abound in, charm the reader of verse more than a moral allegory is long likely to do. The sonnets accordingly can aspire to a permanent popularity. It is true that they are somewhat lachrymose and monotonous, and that, for all their exquisite beauty, they do not always respond to literary impulse, and are already far from satisfying romantic feeling, so that a certain historical imagination and gift for reconstruction is needed to appreciate them fully; for fashion is no less variable in sentiment than in art, and even more contagious and irresistible. Nevertheless, a finished expression of love, like the Canzoniere. which is at the same time a landmark in Italian literature, has claims to perennial attention; and so we continue to regard Petrarch's sonnets as classic, and to remember him chiefly for their sake.

In his own age, however, religion was still the most prominent and expressible part of the mind; even rebellions against religion had to appear somehow in its service, if they were to go beyond mere pertness and personal whim. The love of beauty had to insinuate itself into a cultus, the avowed aim of which was to mortify the flesh and to quench the concupiscence of the eyes; the love of reasoning had to attach itself, with an insidious zeal, to the service of dogma. So the new pagan patriotism for Italy and the Empire, the new sense for all ancient glories, needed at first to subordinate itself to a Christian philosophy of history and life. The Renaissance could have enlisted on its side only minds consciously frivolous and heretical if it had not looked to a glorification of Christendom.

The Triumph of Eternity
Christ in Judgment over Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, and Time

Now Petrarch, like the other chief humanists, was a devout enough Christian. When he reviewed all classic virtue, and the whole march of things, to show its culmination in God and eternity, he thought he was paying homage to Christian truth. If the mundane pageant was wonderful and fascinating, the sad issue and final collapse of it were all the more edifying. It was accordingly into a work of edification, written in his old age, that he wove both his profane or modish enthusiasms. — his love for Laura and for antiquity. In that pious setting, overtopped by a majestic supernatural philosophy, a song of love and greatness could seem doubly brilliant, doubly touching, and, what is more, almost penitential. It was in the effort to confess their sins more eloquently that people began again to utter and to cultivate their passions.

To insinuate pagan values into Christian themes — and the whole Renaissance did nothing more — was what Petrarch accomplished in his Triumphs: a feat which made them a singularly fitting subject for ceremonial art. The form of a triumphant progress lent itself to pageantry; Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity, in their successive approach and victory, could each appear with a great retinue of historic and symbolic figures; whatever learning or imagination a man possessed he could exhibit in such a work. At the same time the subject was weighty and sacred enough to be depicted anywhere. The pious could not be offended at a Cupid, however lovely, that Chastity was about to disarm; an allegory which is indeed somewhat arbitrary, since in real life, as our authors observe, it is often the opposite that happens. Similarly the Triumph of Fame over Death could not seem too pagan when Time was already hastening to vanquish Fame; nor could this last idea savor of infidelity, when Eternity was seen glorified in the final picture. Into this unobjectionable fable, however, all sorts of images could be packed. The triumphs of Love and Fame especially lent themselves to every merry or high conceit, while the triumph of Death left room for the grotesque popular symbolism.

It is remarkable, however, that where the subject allowed so much freedom and so greatly stimulated invention, both episodes and treatment should immediately have become conventional. While in Petrarch, for instance, only Cupid occupies a chariot, the designers have usually represented the other victors also enthroned on floats, such as religious and civic processions had made familiar. This circumstance shows how conservative the eye is, and how unwillingly it departs from what it has seen, in order to follow discourse and imagination. Indeed, much that our authors represent as illustrations to Petrarch is attached to his poem only remotely. There was an independent pictorial tradition more influential over artists than were the poet's far richer and more varied scenes. The idea of these successive triumphs had evidently become common property. It was a moral and allegorical theme which, like the great religious subjects, might recommend itself anew to any patron; like them, it was treated in a traditional fashion, which could vary only with that gradual change in schools or on the appearance of great masters.

The Triumph of Chastity
Love Disarmed and Bound, Luca Signorelli, c.1509

In fine, Petrarch's Triumphs did not so much inspire plastic art as launch and make popular a striking allegory which the artists were led to employ and to recast in their own manner. If we care to generalize this result we may say that a poet, to influence the plastic arts and elevate their often trivial ideas, must work first on the popular mind. When the poet's images have become current the artists, too, may be infected by them, and may turn their technical gifts to illustrating those ideas, naturally transforming them somewhat in the process. It is hardly too much to say, for instance, that illustration of the Bible has reached distinction only when the person or scene to be portrayed has become legendary and native to the public mind; men do not picture the gospel till they have ceased to read it, and have remodeled it in their own thoughts, giving it that movement and accent which their own imagination requires.

This observation should not be strained into an assertion that good literary subjects are unsuited to the arts. What happens is merely that each art has its own procedure, its own models and habits, which cannot be thrown off without paralyzing it. If the Good Shepherd could at first be represented only as a sort of Orpheus, and never otherwise than in a classic guise, it was the visual imagination that by its inertia demanded that type. Such hereditary inertia gives life and character to art, as to every organic formation, furnishing the basis for all variation and progress. Literary creations can hardly be translated into pictures when no scheme for such pictures exists or can be furnished by visible objects. To illustrate Homer or Dante is difficult, not because the poems move too fast, but because traditional visual images are wanting, images already defined in their type and accessories, which the designer may adopt and refine upon.

The vogue of Petrarch's Triumphs among artists suggests a further observation, that art is not really indifferent to its subject. Of all the images offered by Petrarch the Triumphs alone had enough significance to hold the field. Any episode in any epic can suggest figures and attitudes in plenty, but an interesting picture needs, after all, to speak to the mind and to subordinate its technical and sensuous riches to some problem of composition and expression, to some given idea. Mediocre painters are never so tolerable as in a significant picture, and great painters are never so great. The occasion not only awakens but controls inspiration; it defines the problem and allows the critic to form a judgment which is not wholly personal and arbitrary. This last circumstance is of more consequence to art than the artist may sometimes think; for in a sense the public is composed entirely of critics, and unless a certain consensus of interest and comprehension is established in respect to a work of art, its existence is precarious, and its influence null. Petrarch's Triumphs could stimulate decorators so long as Petrarch's intellectual interests dominated the world; the pageantry of the scenes could avail nothing when their higher eloquence was gone.


 ✎ 1. Petrarque, ses e´tudes d'art, son influence sur les artistes, ses portraits et ceux de Laure, l'illustration de ses e´crits. Par le Prince D'esslinq et Eugene Muntz. Ouvrage accompagne de vingt et une planches tire'es a part et de cent quatre-vingt-onze gravures dans le texte. Paris : Gazette des Beanx-Arts - 1902.
 ✎ 2. Compare Alfred de Mussel:—
    . . . Le bleu Titarese, et le golfe d'argent
    Qui montre dana ses eaux, oil le cygne ae mire,
    La blanche Olooasone a la blanche Camyre.

No comments:

Post a Comment