Naming the Graces

Charles Hope

  • The Art of Humanism by Kenneth Clark
    Murray, 198 pp, £12.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4077 1
  • The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art by Edgar Wind, edited by Jaynie Anderson
    Oxford, 135 pp, £25.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 19 817341 5

In the last forty years Kenneth Clark did more than anyone else to create an interest in the art of Renaissance Italy, but Edgar Wind had a much greater influence on the way in which this art has been studied. Both men were outstanding lecturers and gifted writers, and both, in very different ways, were influenced by the work of Aby Warburg. Both, too, were particularly drawn to the early Renaissance in Florence and to the High Renaissance in Rome, to those masterpieces, in fact, which occupy the central place in the English and American canon of great art. But there the resemblance ends. Whereas Clark was a populariser who wore his learning lightly, Wind was exactly the opposite. His best-known work, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, was an attempt to relate the ideas of Neoplatonism to Renaissance paintings and sculptures; and his main contention was that such works could only be fully appreciated by someone deeply versed in this unusually abstruse and now unfamiliar philosophical system. Clark appeals to those who like their art easy, Wind to those who want it difficult.

A major factor in Clark’s success was that he wrote about works of art which his readers knew to be outstanding even if they could not always say why. This is particularly evident in his famous television series Civilisation. The title gives the impression that he was providing a survey of Western art, but this was by no means the case, as he himself admitted. The works he chose to talk about were carefully selected, and the omissions are extraordinary. Not merely did he say next to nothing about Spain: he tended to avoid works that were overtly emotional, sensual or even unfamiliar. Thus the mythologies of Titian and Rubens were not mentioned, nor the Mannerist art of Italy and Northern Europe, while even Grünewald was confined to a walk-on part, in a discussion of Holbein, with the comment: ‘Now I suppose everyone would prefer Grünewald’s Isenheim altar, where the sense of tragedy makes the very word civilisation falter on our lips.’

Although Clark can be criticised for keeping within the parochial bounds of English taste, we must be grateful that he chose to concentrate on the masterpieces which he most admired. No one since Ruskin has written so well in English about works of art, or has been so uninhibited in expressing his emotional responses or in making sweeping generalisations. But Clark was not only unusually sensitive: he was also very knowledgeable. His early work on the Leonardo drawings at Windsor more than established his credentials as a scholar; and all his best books, above all the monographs on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, were based on wide and intelligent reading.

The Art of Humanism is again concerned with the 15th century, but it is certainly not of the quality of these earlier publications. It consists of five lectures composed over a period of 40 years. Although the earliest, on Alberti’s treatise on painting, retains a certain interest, even if it is seriously out of date, the others, on Donatello, Uccello, Mantegna and Botticelli, are altogether less significant; and the discussion of Donatello, in particular, is marred by the fact that one crucial work, the St John in Venice, is misdated by 15 years. Even John Walker, in his preface, is hard put to find anything very remarkable in the text. The best he can do is to claim that ‘Italian 15th-century art needs an apologist like Kenneth Clark,’ as if no one visited Florence any more, and to tell us that after reading the book, ‘improbable as it is for one who hates and fears Communism as I do, [I am now eager] to cross into East Germany to see the originals of Botticelli’s illustrations to Dante. I can give the author no higher praise.’

Throughout his life, Clark believed that the modern viewer could understand an artist’s intentions largely through his own aesthetic response, that the appreciation of art was above all a matter of feeling. Wind, by contrast, thought that the art of the past, and particularly of the Renaissance, was the product of a culture – and above all of a literary culture – which could only be reconstructed by immense labour; and he supposed that the artists often illustrated ideas that had been formulated by Humanists. The notion that Renaissance art is now accessible only through the study of texts has an obvious appeal to anyone who does not possess Clark’s gifts for articulating his feelings about paintings or sculptures; and it also transforms the study of art history into an academic activity of a reassuringly familiar kind that can be done as effectively in Oxford or Chicago as in Florence.

Edgar Wind himself was an exceedingly learned man. His publications are full of untranslated passages in Latin and Greek, with long discursive footnotes. But these often serve to obscure the extreme shakiness of his arguments, even to a scholar as acute as Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Thus in his biographical memoir of Wind in the volume under review, Professor Lloyd-Jones states that Wind’s now famous identification of the Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera as Chastity, Pleasure and Beauty is ‘precisely documented in Ficino’s Theologia Platonica’. This is certainly the impression that Wind tried to convey; and it takes a very close reading of Pagan Mysteries to discover that it is wholly untrue: despite the pages of references to Neoplatonic texts about the Graces, Wind produced not a single instance in which they were given this combination of names. And in an entirely characteristic way, he himself failed to draw attention to this difficulty.

A free and easy use of textual evidence is a constant feature of Wind’s work. In Pagan Mysteries, for example, he almost never provided the dates of the texts he cited; and the unwary reader could be quite unaware that his interpretations were often based on passages post-dating the work of art in question by fifty years or more. Inconvenient lacunae in the evidence, as in the case of the Primavera, were frequently just disregarded. Central to Wind’s approach, therefore, was the assumption that Renaissance artists picked up their philosophy in informal conversations with learned men. But if such conversations took place, they must have been very one-sided, for there is singularly little to indicate that Humanists as a group took much interest in works of art, or for that matter that Renaissance artists commonly sought out their company. In fact, the only evidence that Wind produced for his contention was a letter of Celio Calcagnini containing the remark that Raphael’s greatest pleasure was ‘to be taught and to teach’. If one troubles to look up this letter, it comes as a surprise to discover that the passage specifically concerns Raphael’s architectural and archaeological activities, and his discussions on these subjects with Fabio Calvo, the translator of Vitruvius. An equally striking example of historical wishful thinking comes in the concluding chapter of Pagan Mysteries, in which Wind asserted, without any supporting evidence, that the kind of decorations known as ‘grotesques’ ‘represented to perfection what Pico della Mirandola had defined as the Orphic disguise: the art of interweaving the divine secrets with the fabric of fables’, omitting any reference to the considerable Renaissance literature which stressed that such decorations were fanciful and without meaning.

It might seem from all this that Wind consciously set out to mislead his readers: but this is almost certainly not the case. It was rather that he seemed to lack any kind of self-doubt or self-criticism. How else could he claim, in his interpretation of the Sistine Ceiling, that Julius II’s ‘favourite theologian’ was a man whom the Pope may never have met, and whose work he may never have read? The bizarre combination of exceptional erudition and a complete lack of any acceptable historical method was one of the reasons he was such a compelling lecturer. The material itself was new to his audience, the conclusions often paradoxical and wholly unexpected; the delivery was supremely confident, witty and engagingly spiced with asides about personalities he was discussing, which seemed to be based almost on personal acquaintance. He opened up a new world, and no one was to know that it was largely fantasy.

It was no accident that some of Wind’s best work was concerned with that most elusive branch of Renaissance imagery – emblems, personal devices and hieroglyphs. These were often meant to be obscure or ambiguous in their meaning, and they explicitly drew on learned and esoteric texts. Indeed, during the Renaissance the discovery of new and unexpected significance in such images was a popular intellectual game. Wind would have made an ideal Renaissance court Humanist, because he could play the game to perfection. The problems arose when he applied the same methods to large-scale paintings and sculpture, simply because there is very little evidence that these were customarily interpreted in a similar way.

Of course, if Wind had actually succeeded in producing coherent and plausible readings of major works of art, this would have helped his case. But his conclusions have not gained widespread acceptance, because on close examination they seem so extraordinarily contrived. One famous example shows just how far he could be misled. It concerns Bellini’s painting of The Feast of the Gods, about which he wrote an entire book, arguing that it was based on a complex programme by Pietro Bembo, and showed, in a burlesque form, the marriage of the patron, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, with Lucrezia Borgia. It was subsequently discovered that the picture is actually a very faithful illustration of a Medieval version of an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Bellini must have taken from an Italian prose paraphrase of the Metamorphoses published in Venice; there was no learned programme, and the picture subsequently had to be changed because the artist had overlooked the fact that his patron wanted a representation of an authentic Classical story.

The case of The Feast of the Gods is important for two reasons. First, it shows how easy it is, using an approach like Wind’s, to construct an entirely fictitious interpretation of a major Renaissance work of art, simply because the range of potentially relevant texts is so large and their relationship with the painted imagery so imprecise. Secondly, it undermines one of his basic preconceptions: namely, that patrons of the period habitually provided artists with detailed programmes devised by learned Humanists – that they thought painting was an appropriate medium for elaborate and erudite allegory. Indeed, if such a programme was ever used, this would have been the occasion on which one would have expected to see evidence of it, since The Feast of the Gods is the only major mythological picture that Bellini is known to have painted, it was probably the largest work of this type produced in Venice up to that time, and it was commissioned by a sophisticated patron.

Wind’s influence on later students of Renaissance imagery, like that of a much greater scholar with whom he is commonly associated, Erwin Panofsky, depended on the fascination and universal applicability of his method. The present volume, mostly devoted to his relatively early publications, is of interest principally because it illuminates the origins of his approach. In fact the subtitle, Studies in Humanist Art, is slightly misleading, since the contents, apparently selected by Wind himself before he died, range over a much wider area. Thus in addition to a group of articles on Renaissance art and thought, there is a long early essay on Plato’s philosophy of art, the text of a lecture on the ideas of Aby Warburg and a short piece on the religious art of Rouault and Matisse. Finally, as a companion to the Warburg text, Wind chose to republish his review of E. H. Gombrich’s biography of Warburg, which originally appeared anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement. If one were not assured by Professor Lloyd-Jones that this was written ‘as a matter of duty’, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that Wind was here motivated by personal animus. Why else should he have claimed, for example, that ‘no account at all’ was taken of the influence on Warburg of the aesthetics of Friedrich Robert Vischer, when Gombrich devoted four pages to this very subject? Whatever his motives, the inclusion of this piece at least shows the severe standards by which he expected to be judged.

Although Wind’s own approach to Renaissance art is often described as Warburgian, his essay on Warburg makes it clear that this is not strictly accurate. Warburg was certainly interested in pictorial symbols, but he understood the term in an unusually wide sense which covered any phenomenon that retained, in however attenuated a form, some symbolic significance. Thus his study of the Renaissance revival of motifs from Classical art was prompted by his curiosity about the ways in which these had preserved their expressive connotations. In this respect, Warburg’s closest follower writing in English was Kenneth Clark, in The Nude. Wind, by contrast, was not concerned with Renaissance culture in the broadest sense, in its accidental and marginal manifestations, but in a particular type of high culture which happened to be richly documented in Warburg’s library. The early iconographic studies reprinted here already reveal the preoccupation with philosophical and Patristic texts that was to inform all his later work on Renaissance art. They also illustrate his characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and include a brilliant and convincing study of Erasmus’s personal device, a sensible identification of a small panel by Botticelli, and a thoroughly far-fetched reading of one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, in which the obvious objection – that he has provided an interpretation for only three of a group of five children – is simply passed over in silence. Since Wind was not a prolific scholar it is a pity that he decided not to reprint all his articles on Renaissance art, especially as some are less easy to find elsewhere than those included in this volume. It is possible, of course, that he himself no longer found all of them convincing: this may, for example, explain the omission of the characteristically-titled study ‘Dürer’s Männerbad [Men’s Bath]. A Dionysian Mystery’. But others, such as ‘The Saint as Monster’, a witty note about St John Chrysostom, retain their validity. Fortunately, the editor of the present volume, Jaynie Anderson, has provided a comprehensive bibliography of Wind’s writings. She has also tactfully brought the references up to date; and this is particularly helpful in the article on Grünewald’s St Erasmus, since more recent scholarship has overturned several of Wind’s conclusions.

A selection of Wind’s work on his other main area of interest, English art of the 18th century, is to be published in a companion volume. But at present there seems to be no prospect that his hitherto unpublished manuscripts will become available. That will be a disappointment to many readers, since Wind’s reputation was founded on his lectures, and in these he proposed many ideas – for example, about Raphael and Michelangelo – which have never appeared in print. But whether his theories would have stood up to detailed scrutiny is open to question. In particular, it is doubtful that he could have provided a complete and plausible reconstruction of the programme for the Sistine Ceiling, as he promised in a published lecture on Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls, given that even the limited conclusions which he advanced there have already been in part discredited. Moreover, the one interpretation of a work by Raphael from the Oxford lectures which Professor Lloyd-Jones mentions in his preface hardly makes one wish for more. It involves Raphael’s Transfiguration, completed in 1520. Wind saw this as a depiction of the two kinds of madness which Plato distinguished in Phaedrus, the one a mortal infirmity, the other a divine release. The theme seems singularly inappropriate for an altarpiece, especially for one that was not even destined for a city like Rome, where a few people had read Plato, but for Narbonne; nor does the interpretation seem to fit the text on which Wind based it, a poem by Achille Bocchi. This was published in 1555, accompanied by an engraving of the upper part of Raphael’s composition and a motto which all students of Renaissance art ought to take to heart: Archana quaerens curiosius, perit – ‘it is fatal to investigate mysteries too closely.’