Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bellini's Allegories (2 of 3)

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory, subject of the previous post, is a relatively simple, clear, and direct expression of the pervasive Christian contemptu mundi sensibility, illustrating the idea of renunciation and reward.

Renunciation and Reward
"What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

If a respected art historian and Bellini scholar like Rona Goffen can fail to grasp this straightforward allegorical subject, then it is not surprising that the more complex series of Allegories by Bellini has had a colorful history of poor interpretation. In this post I'll present some of the explanations that have been offered, in particular those of Goffen and Edgar Wind. Then, in the next post, an attempt will be made to improve upon those analyses. This exercise in iconography is very much like the challenge of interpreting the Tarot trumps, although lacking the fantasy world of occultism and fortune-telling which has dominated Tarot studies for over two hundred years.

Getting the Right Words

Previous Attempts. A couple weeks ago, Jean-Michel David posted a picture of one of the "Bellini Allegories" to the Tarot History Forum, calling it a winged Temperance [right]. (Keep that identification in mind in regard to Dürer's Nemesis and Vasari, below.) The image has a traditional context (four other allegorical images), and as a group they have attracted considerable interest from art historians. Most of what has been written about them is either false or speculative, including the iconographic conclusions. The overall work of art was not being properly translated into words—the essence was being missed.

The Goal. Iconography is basically a kind of ekphrasis, broadly defined as a description of a work of art. More narrowly defined, ekphrasis is the translation of an artwork from one medium to another. Even a verbal restatement of a pictorial composition can take different forms. It might be a parallel artistic work, for example, a poem based on a painting, perhaps reflecting the themes of the painting, perhaps commenting on it, etc. It might be an iconographic analysis ranging from a simple description of the visual elements (Panofsky’s first level of analysis), explication of the didactic structure (iconography per se), or an elaboration of the larger significance (which Panofsky referred to as iconology). In any of these senses, ekphrasis requires an understanding of the subject matter of the original work.

Difficulties. Even if the iconographic quest is limited to identifying the subject-matter of an image in an objective manner, describing the formal and conventional elements and adding some commentary on larger social context, iconography may be challenging on each of the three levels described by Panofsky. On the descriptive level, for example, a familiar object might be badly rendered, or poorly preserved, or the original might be lost or otherwise unavailable and reproduced in a poor or questionable manner. The image may depict an obscure object. On the level of iconographic analysis, there may be unfamiliar or unconventional symbolism. The wrong elements may be emphasized, or the image may have been intended to be read on several levels. In terms of iconology the possibilities for misunderstanding vary wildly from an iconic medieval Christian image which is instantly recognizable through Renaissance devices and obscure Neoplatonic allegories which may (or may not) be decipherable with effort, all the way to the most idiosyncratic and self-indulgent mnemonic and alchemical conceits which absolutely require an explanation by the author. The most formidable obstacles for iconographers, of course, are mistaken preconceptions.

The Test. An explanation and understanding that can be justified by the work itself—that is, an objective reading closely tied to the pictorial evidence—requires not just the consideration of pictorial elements in isolation but also in combination. How do the individual elements relate to each other in the panels, and how do the panels contribute to an overall composition? This approach, fitting each element into a coherent overall design, places constraints on the acceptable reading of the bits and pieces. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett put it this way: “The test of whether a coded text has been correctly deciphered is that it allows a coherent message to be read.” The analysis needs to make sense of the work.

The Approach. There are various defensible ways to "read" most allegorical images, just as each clue of a riddle suggest various answers. The solution that does the least violence to the individual elements while making the most sense of them all together is correct. The oblique, metaphorical and partial descriptions (enigmatic reflections of the correct solution) that make up a riddle are intended to be collectively sufficient to unravel its solution; and the solution, once discovered, elucidates the previously cryptic clues. Thus, solving such a puzzle is necessarily an iterative process. “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” or, as more commonly stated, what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening? Individually, those elements are vague, ambiguous, and mutually contradictory. Yet when taken together and given the proper reading, the various metaphorical figures become clear and the Riddle of the Sphinx is answered. With a riddle, the "test" is still whether the proposed solution "allows a coherent message to be read", but the reading is a bit tricky.

A cycle like Bellini's Allegories or the Tarot trump cycle is not compared to a riddle as mere analogy. These things are a kind of visual riddle, and originally designed as such. They contained multiple layers of meaning, like an emblem in which motto, epigram, and illustration both clarify and expand on each other. Such allegorical inventions required clever design and conflated iconography, compromising conventional symbolism. They are challenging puzzles to resolve, but although it takes considerable exposition (to a contemporary audience) to explain the solution, once it is seen it makes sense of all the pieces and their combination. It is one thing to highlight themes and relationships within a pictorial cycle, rather like explaining why a joke is supposed to be funny. But to explain the meaning so that the reader actually "gets it" sometimes requires finding just the right words to convey the ideas... a proper ekphrasis. And first, you have to get the basic iconography right, which in the case of Bellini's Allegories (or the Tarot trump cycle) is not a trivial task.

Bellini's Allegories: Background

Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) was a prolific and influential Venetian painter of the High Renaissance. The four (or five) figures in question are commonly known as Bellini's Allegories. Conflicting quotes from a number of sources will give an indication of the uncertainty involved while at the same time introducing historical and iconographic details. Roger Eliot Fry (Giovanni Bellini, 1901) will start things off.

A similar contrast between the intellectual conception and the artistic treatment is evident in Bellini's allegories in the Venice Academy, in which, in spite of the apparent classicism of the forms, Dr. Ludwig has recognised a traditional series of mediaeval allegories. It is evident that these were painted by Bellini in the slight and almost casual manner that would be natural to a great artist in executing a small decorative work as a relaxation in the midst of more serious studies; and it is a natural conjecture that they were the panels done by him for a cassone, mentioned in the will of his pupil Catena.

Fry refers to Gustav Ludwig, (as do most others discussing Bellini's Allegories), who was discussed in the first post of this series. (Among other things, Ludwig identified the fifth figure as Summa Virtus. It was supposed to combine the three Moral Virtues—Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance—in a single monstrous figure.) Note Fry's description of the figures as traditional medieval allegories and the "slight and almost casual manner" of their execution. In contrast, the great literary critic Northrop Frye referred to the images as "curiously modern" in a 1937 letter: "the little row of Giovanni Bellini allegories, for instance, were as near to intelligent sur-realism (if that isn't a contradiction) as I've seen...." So they have been deemed traditionally medieval, curiously modern, and more commonly, as the kind of obscure allegories characteristic of Renaissance humanism. Here is a more typical description, from Bruce Cole (Italian Art, 1250-1550, 1987).

Five small panels from about 1490, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, are parts of a now-fragmentary mirror frame. A sort of miniature version of the large-scale paintings that graced the walls of Renaissance homes, they illustrate complicated allegories set into landscapes of great calm and gentleness. The importance of this commission to Bellini can be measured in the high quality of the design and the care taken in the painting of the panels: the Renaissance did not necessarily consider the commission for a painted mirror frame as less important than a commission for an altarpiece. Bellini's masterful little panels help us see in what high esteem the Renaissance held the decoration of functional objects.

The contrast between interpretations, one writer identifying traditional medieval allegories while another sees complicated Renaissance allegories, one remarking on Bellini's casual execution while another sees masterful design, is entertaining and instructive. Here is another early writer, Mary Knight Potter (The Art of the Venice Academy, 1906).

There are in this room five little paintings by Bellini that are supposed to have been executed for the adornment of some marriage chest or other ornamental coffer. They are allegories, the subjects of which are disputed points. Until lately they have been supposed to represent Bacchus and Mars, Venus, Fortune, Truth, and Calumny. The figures are about eight inches high, painted apparently in tempera on wood. "In them", as one critic says, "can be seen the study of the antiques treasured in the museums of Venetian palaces", and they are full of "the spirit of Titian's later bacchanals". It is now thought that perhaps they are allegories of mediaeval subjects. Truth has been called Prudence, and Venus again, Fortune.

The labels here are those which Potter identifies as having been accepted "until lately", i.e., c.1906, and the pictures are ordered as she listed them. Although these individual identifications are either wrong or at least suspect in each case, it is interesting to note that Potter arranged the five paintings in a meaningful schema. (This may reflect the manner in which they were displayed.) The two images with men are at the outside, the women inside, and the harpy is in the middle. The right-facing images are to the left and the left-facing ones to the right. Thus, even though the meaning of the images is poorly understood, the formal and literal considerations reveal some sort of intended design. It might not be precisely this arrangement, but there is certainly a kind of pairing involved in the subjects and the compositions.

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with "traditional" "medieval" allegories, things like Love, Time, Fortune, and Death, that Ludwig was quite mistaken. These are Renaissance novelties. However, "Venus" is immediately recognizable as Fortune, with her boat and her sail-shaped dress, as well as subordinate figures both floundering and triumphant, and "Truth" is clearly Vanitas, with her mirror and death's head pedestal. But none of them is quite conventional. As Paul Joannides (Titian to 1518, 2002) observes, Bellini "had executed secular work of distinctly arcane nature, notably a suite of four opaque allegories (supplemented by a fifth by Andrea Previtali) painted for a chest which was later owned—rather than commissioned by—his pupil and Giorgione's friend, Vincenzo Catena." There are several points introduced in that quote, notably that the fifth painting is not by Bellini. A more recent identification of the artist is Previtali, a follower of Bellini, and a more recent (and more plausible) identification of the subject matter is Nemesis. (Robert Englekirk, Appreciating Italy, 2007.) In any case, these five figures are challenging, "arcane" and "opaque". Some elaboration on this subject matter and Bellini is provided by Hugh Honour (The Companion Guide to Venice, 1997).

In point of subject matter, they are among Bellini's most uncompromisingly Renaissance paintings, for they appear to illustrate the arcane philosophical ideas of some humanist. Yet the general effect is curiously Gothic. For, like the majority of Venetian painters, and unlike the Ferrarese and the Florentines, Bellini seems to have cared little for the intellectual ideas of the humanists. When, late in life, he was painting a mythological picture for Isabella d'Este he complained that he was working so slowly because he found the pagan subject so distasteful.

Here is a fairly straightforward description from the Web Gallery of Art. It offers some alternative readings for a couple of the images—e.g., a naked woman with a mirror might easily suggest either Prudence or Vanitas. "Falsehood" and "Virtus Sapientia" are far-fetched readings, but the others are reasonable.

The four panels with Allegories at the Accademia in Venice are often likened to the Sacred Allegory, but they belong instead to the artist's scanty secular production. They originally formed part of a small dressing-table with a mirror and a rack on which to hang objects, belonging to the painter Vincenzo Catena who, writing his will in 1530, left it to Antonio Marsili. The spread of this kind of furniture was so great that in 1489 the Venetian Senate prohibited its manufacture, limiting it to what was strictly necessary. Often, as in this instance, their decoration comprised symbolic representations of a moralistic character.

An unusual theme for Bellini, the panels represent respectively: Lust tempting the virtuous man or Perseverance (Bacchus who from a chariot offers a plate of fruit to a warrior); fickle Fortune (the woman on an unstable boat holding a sphere); Prudence (the naked woman pointing at a mirror); Falsehood (the man emerging from the shell). There are diverging opinions about the interpretation of the last two representations, such that they have been seen as: the Woman as Vanitas (on the basis of similar representations by Jacopo de' Barbari and Baldung Grien), and the Man in the shell as an allegory of Virtus Sapientia, since the shell might have a positive connotation as a generative principle.

It seems that every would-be exegete of these images mixes some sound readings with at least one howling blunder. Some writers despair of finding the correct identification of Bellini's subject matter, with or without the fifth image. Wilhelm Waetzoldt, discussing the Bellini's Allegories and Dürer's contemporaneous Nemesis (which Vasari termed Temperance) and Sea Monster, (Dürer and his Times, 1950) offers this excuse.

The understanding of pictures is circumscribed by the time factor, because the subject-matter of culture changes with time. The biblical knowledge of the modern man—compared with that of his forefathers—is already so slight that only the best-known biblical subjects can generally be understood without the aid of inscriptions or explanatory texts. And how much more rapidly has the allegorical subject-matter of the Renaissance sunk into oblivion!

Ronald Shaw-Kennedy (Venice Rediscovered, 1978) just shrugs: "Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to explain the subjects [of Bellini's Allegories] and it is better not to worry about them, but simply to admire the supremely delicate paintings." Ron is a wise man, but we will go on nonetheless.

Edgar Wind's Analysis

As noted in the first post of this series, one of the great lights of the Warburg School, Edgar Wind, offered an assessment of Bellini's Allegories as a footnote, (Bellini's Feast of the Gods, 1948).

Bellini was familiar with the belief that revelry should be acceptable as a reward for virtue. He himself had painted an allegory of Comus, a comes virtutis graciously offering the reward of pleasure, a Bacchus-like figure (for Comus was the son of Bacchus), comfortably riding on a chariot drawn by cupids and following on the heels of persevering Virtue: virtute duce, comite fortuna. As Comus is here to represent good fortune, he bears the attributes of Bonus Eventus.
[Footnote:] Bellini's allegory served, together with three others of equal size and a fifth slightly smaller panel, as decoration of a mirror. Cf. G. Ludwig, "Venezianischer Hausrat", Italienische Forschungen, 1906, I, p. 187ff. His reconstruction is, however, untenable: (1) it postulates a sixth panel, of which there is no trace, (2) it does not adequately account for the smaller size of one of the five panels, (3) it is based on an iconographical theory which is contradicted by the visual evidence. The blindfolded harpy with flying forelock cannot possibly be Summa Virtus, even though she is winged and carries the two jugs of Temperance. Nor is Prudentia ever represented with so repulsive a face or with an ugly mask in her mirror or attended by little drummers and trumpeters. While the woman in the boat has certainly the attributes of Fortuna, she does not look "inconstant". Her maternal affection for the little children might qualify her for a Caritas; in fact, the group is led by a jubilant Amor. From the symmetrical use of symbols in the four major panels, I would infer that the mirror was intended for a couple: As Comes Virtutis is the good fortune of man, so Fortuna Amoris or Caritatis is the good fortune of woman (cf. the juxtaposition of Bonus Eventus and Bona Fortuna, male and female allegories of good fortune, in Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXVI, 23). These two images of well-deserved fortune are counterbalanced by two warning pictures of evil fame: Vana Gloria as the ill fame of woman and Servitudo Acediae as the ill fame of man. The symbolism of the snail corresponds to Pierio Valeriano, Hieroglyphica, 1575, p. 203 (bk. XXVIII, s.v. cochlea). The moral that the mirror can be used for good and for ill is summarized in the blindfolded figure of Nemesis, which is places with deliberate paradox above the glass. On her role as winged goddess of chance, retribution, and temperance cf. Gyraldus, "Syntagma XVI", Opera Omnia, I 1696, p. 465, and Alciati, Emblemata, 1531, fol. A7r, where both picture and text supply striking parallels to Bellini's image. For the combination of Nemesis with a mirror, see Alciati, Emblemata, 1542, no. LXXIX: "Illicitum non sperandum", also an engraving by the "master of 1515" (Van Marle, Iconographie de l'Art Profane, II, fig 216), where Nemesis herself holds a mirror. Iconographically, the picture of Nemesis belongs so unquestionably to Bellini's mirror and is so brilliant and original in its treatment of the theme that it seems difficult to accept R. Longhi's recent verdict: "nulla ha veramente in comune con la poetica del grande maistro" ("Viatico per la Mostra Venexiana dei Cinque Secoli", La Rassegna d'Italia, I, i, 1946, p. 70.

Wind interprets the program as contrasting "two images of well-deserved fortune" on the left against "two warning pictures of evil fame" on the right, with a male and female example of each, and Nemesis presiding overall. Fortuna Amoris (identified with Caritatis) is the good fortune of woman and Comes Virtutis is the good fortune of man. Vana Gloria is the shame of woman and Servitudo Acediae is the shame of man. At this point I will simply note that 1) Fortuna Amoris is a perverse reading, as Fortune's supposed "maternal affection" only extends to two of her children, whom she comforts, while ignoring the other two of her children—who are drowning! 2) Comes Virtutis and Servitudo Acediae are inadequate readings. 3) The Nemesis panel almost certainly belongs to a separate series. Therefore, Wind's overall thesis fails despite having attempted to explain the similarities, differences, and relationships of the cycle as a whole.

Rona Goffen's Analysis

Rona Goffen's 1989 Giovanni Bellini is the most detailed recent discussion of Bellini's Allegories that I found. As with the others writers mentioned, Goffen mixes good ideas with weak ones, and includes the seemingly requisite howler. Despite her iconographic blunders, she is a very good source for the historical information. For example, she casts doubt on key elements of the traditional historical narrative of the Allegories, hypothetical reconstructions which are usually presented as fact.

For a hundred years and more, these panels have been associated with the restello belonging to Vincenzo Catena and mentioned by him in his last will. G.B. Cavalcaselle first suggested this provenance, but technical and stylistic evidence suggests that the fifth panel does not belong with the first four. There is little reason to believe, moreover, that Bellini's Allegories once belonged to Catena, who may or may not have been the original owner of the restello cited in his will of 1525—but not in his testament written a dozen years earlier—and whose restello may or may not have been decorated with any of these pictures. Bellini had apparently painted a restello at the beginning of his career, of which the Pagan Allegory is all that remains, and perhaps others were graced with pictures by him. However attractive, the association of the Accademia panels with the restello mentioned in Catena's testament seems merely fortuitous.

Catena's reference to Bellini does not describe, nor even number, the pictures. However, the mere possibility that a connection exists enabled Cavalcaselle to speculate and thereby create an intriguing but hypothetical narrative. Because it is such a good story, it tends to be repeated generation after generation, and Goffen's more critical assessment is refreshing. She describes the panels in general before trying her own hand at their interpretation.

As in mural painting and in other narrative cycles, in the four Allegories the direction of light is consistent, tying the group together and indicating the original placement of the panels. The direction of movement in each scene confirms this. The two compositions with male protagonists were originally pendants, with "Bacchus" on the left and the signature at the bottom of the "Snail" panel, IOANNES BELLINVS.P. The compositions of the remaining two paintings, with female protagonists, indicate that the water scene was to the left and the woman with the mirror to the right. These horizontal pairings form logical vertical pairings as well, corresponding to the direction of the action in each scene. When the four panels are rearranged in this way, male and female are juxtaposed. Bellini has also distinguished the figures according to their classicism, especially in the case of the female figures, contrasting the nude, a nonclassical northern type, with the classicizing woman in the boat. Each is paired with a male figure of comparable classicism or nonclassicism. Bellini further distinguished the figures morally, with one member of each sex embodying something virtuous and the other something invidious. Hence, virtue and vice seem to have been allocated equally between the two sexes and the two modes, classical and nonclassical. Suggestions regarding any of the panels obviously must be consistent both visually and symbolically for all four—they form a cycle—and it is worth remember that Bellini himself was capable of "fantastic inventions", as Pietro Bembo reminded Isabella d'Este. Perhaps these compositions have caused scholars so much iconographic confusion precisely because they were Bellini's personal fantasy, not a compilation of more readily recognizable symbols imposed by a patron.

Below is the arrangement Goffen suggests, named with the interpretations she subsequently provides. This arrangement is very similar to the two shown above, as listed in a 1906 source, (apparently representing 19th-century views, and probably reflecting the display of the items in the Venice Academy), and as pictured by Wind. The most striking difference is Goffen's omission of the Nemesis panel. In Goffen's arrangement, 1) left-facing allegories are placed on the right and vice versa; 2) same-gender allegories are paired horizontally; 3) the male allegories are placed on the bottom, so that the artist's signature appears at the bottom. This is, without doubt, the correct overall arrangement of the series. Moreover, this is fairly obvious without recourse to conclusions about style or assumptions about virtues and vices.

The idea that both vertical and horizontal pairing should be meaningful is key. This compositional arrangement provides additional information, beyond what is in the images individually. Unfortunately, Goffen failed to make good use of that insight, and her specific identifications of the allegories range from good (Self Restraint) to very bad (Melancholy).

The first scene represents Melancholy. The same attribute, the globe of Fortune, and the same characters, a woman and several infants, reappear in two paintings by Lucas Cranach representing Melancholia, the name inscribed on one of them. Similarly, Dürer depicted Melancolia I with a globe and a putto in his engraving of 1514. Bellini's Melancholy sails in a boat, but how it is propelled is unexplained: the mechanics of her progress are concealed by the cropping of the picture, perhaps to signify that her voyage is uncontrolled and unguided, aimless like her musings in the characterizations by Cranach and Dürer. Bellini further confirmed her identity as Melancholy by a remarkable detail, the expressive faces. The incisive characterizations of these features, all the more extraordinary given their small size, was anticipated in the early Pagan Allegory.

There is no excuse for Goffen's blunder here, unless she was rejecting the obvious just for the sake of novelty—like a Tarot enthusiast might. Bellini's woman in a boat, (which Goffen notes is rudderless, appropriate for Fortune), whose dress billows behind her like a sail, who holds a globe as Imperatrix Mundi, (which Goffen identifies as "the globe of Fortune"), who embraces some subordinates while others flounder, was correctly identified as Fortuna Inconstans at the turn of the previous century. Dürer's Melancholia I (above) has virtually nothing to recommend it as a cognate image. From more than two dozen distinct elements in Dürer's image, a sphere and a winged putti are singled out as defining characteristics of Melancholy. Such naive cherry-picking would be expected in an online Tarot forum, but is embarrassing from an art historian. Likewise, Cranach's allegories of Melancholy bear little resemblance to Bellini's Fortune. Cranach created at least four versions, dated 1528, 1532, 1533, and one usually dated online as 1553, the year he died. (It is dated 1532 by Le Musée d'Unterlinden de Colmar, which holds the painting, and it resembles the 1528 version.) They share a number of features. Each one has a red-haired woman in a red dress, seated indoors at the right edge of the image, whittling on a stick. Two of the women have wings. All four versions show children playing, and all four have a bizarre apocalyptic vision in the upper-left corner and a distant landscape. Three of them have a dog and a ball; two of them have a pair of birds, and other details vary as well. It is difficult to even guess at the details of the landscape or the fantastic visionary elements. The 1553 version (right) has the woman wearing a crown of thorns, tilted at a rakish angle. However, in each case a woman sits and whittles and stares into space while children play in front of her. The identification of the images as allegories of Melancholy implies that a bored mother of small children, isolated with her fantasies, aptly personifies that state. Identifying this vision of Melancholia with Bellini's Fortuna Inconstans ignores the several defining elements of the latter, including the winged trumpeter Fama at the bow of the boat, instead viewing Fortuna simply as a negligent mother, probably bored senseless.

Melancholy frowns and her little companions are woebegone, but the nude woman in the next panel smiles at us as she presents her attribute, a mirror with reflected image, and the accompanying children celebrate her with raucous, gleeful music. Mirrors were associated with self-knowledge in art and literature, and this seems consistent both with the action of Bellini's figure—naked, like all truth—and with her placement on a pedestal resembling an ancient altar. The nude is Self-Knowledge, which she commends to the beholder with her gesture of indication and admonition, as though to say, "Know thyself".

This is not only a mistaken conclusion, but some of Goffen's observations are blatantly false. The detail image above shows the "raucous, gleeful" music makers and the pedestal on which the woman with a mirror stands. They might have been raucous and gleeful the night before, assuming that their present state reflects a near-fatal hangover, but Goffen's description clearly falsifies their appearance. The pedestal does resemble an altar, one decorated with a festooned ox skull—symbolizing sacrificial animals. The woman is Vanitas, a memento mori, and her despondent entourage reflects that somber theme. A literal description of Vanity's subordinate figures would be "downcast"; a more figurative and interpretive description might be "lethargic" or "lifeless", appropriate to the theme of Death. Contrast those dejected musicians with the supposedly "woebegone" winged trumpeter from the first image (left), who stands upright, head held high, and whose inflated cheeks tell a very different story than the one offered by Goffen. Her readings are as perverse as Wind's assertion of "maternal affection", although she approaches the correct meaning. The ghastly gray image in the mirror does indeed reflect a kind of self-knowledge but, specifically, it is the awareness of one's mortality; rather than nosce te ipsum, the proper motto to accompany her gesture would be respica te, hominem te memento.

There is more to Goffen's interpretation of this image, and her comments on the other two allegories are less flagrantly mistaken, but having failed so badly on the first two there is no need to go further into her interpretations. Goffen began with a virtue-vice hypothesis, and then forced the allegories to fit that mistaken model. It was not a bad hypothesis a priori, but it turned out to be wrong. This is demonstrated by 1) readings that are clearly false (Melancholy) or partial (Self Knowledge, Envy), and 2) the failure to make compelling sense of that overall arrangement. If the four allegories can be identified more clearly, that information can be used to find a more appropriate conceptual model, and that model can then be used to refine the initial reading of the individual allegories. If it still doesn't make good sense, at least more will have been learned about the images and the cycle, and another attempt can be made. Given the manifest inadequacy of what has been published, the discussion should have moved forward a bit. This iterative, generate-and-test methodology is the approach required by the Tarot trump cycle.

1 comment:

  1. Please excuse my awkwardness. As a technophobe with modernity forced upon me, I am having a little difficulty finding my way around. Anyway, I do have some thoughts. I am a Wind fan (so to speak), so I do think he is a good starting point for an analysis. May I suggest a doctoral thesis, by Jennifer O'Reilly, "Studies in the iconography of the virtues and vices in the Middle Ages"? Her focus is on representations of the Psychomachia. One of the big problems in iconography during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and particularly in the iconography of the virtues and vices during this time is their rapidly changing nature.
    In Giotto's work in the Scrovegni Chapel one of the virtues has a bowl of fruit (but I do not remember which one). From the same collection of illustrations Invidia (Envy) is shown, not surprisingly, as a woman with a snake coming out of her mouth. This would seem to suggest that the identification of the shell-bearer as Envy, rather than "the Burden of Sin" as does "Giovanni Bellini" by Philip Hendy andLudwig Goldschieder (Phaidon Press Ltd; Oxford; 1945).
    There is a recent television series "The Bible" in the United States. David Letterman has pointed to the mild resemblance of the Devil in this series to the United States president. Letterman has commented that this may be a good think, for it will encourage the Republicans to do a deal with him. And so I am prompted to say this about this conversation with the shell-bearer -
    What's that on your back?
    That's the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS).
    What do you mean?
    Well, it's m' shell (Michelle).
    Two other points -
    (*) The harpy in the Summa Virtus illustration is blindfolded. Phineas was a blind prophet (consulted by the Argonauts) who was tormented by the harpies who stole hsi food. There is also Andrea del Sarto's "Madonna of the Harpies".
    (*) There is a lady at the University of Newcastle (in Australia) who gave a good talk (with web-published notes) on the Tarot.