Upward Mobility

Bruce Boucher

  • Venetian Villas by Michelangelo Muraro
    Rizzoli, 514 pp, $85.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 8478 0762 2
  • Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550-1700 by Zirka Zaremba Filipczak
    Princeton, 247 pp, £37.60, February 1988, ISBN 0 691 04047 8
  • The Painful Birth of the Art Book by Francis Haskell
    Thames and Hudson, 64 pp, £5.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 500 55019 0

There are serious works that masquerade as coffee-table books, and Venetian Villas by Michelangelo Muraro is one of them. Large and elegantly packaged, it contains over four hundred colour plates on a topic of perennial fascination, the villa in the Veneto: but it would be wrong to dismiss it as just another recycling of familiar images. The author is a distinguished art historian who grew up among the buildings he describes and has made them a principal object of study in the intervals of a career as teacher and superintendent of historic monuments in Venice. With Muraro’s words and Paolo Marton’s images, Venetian Villas captures better than any other book I know the full sense of life in the Veneto villa. The title itself plays on Venetia as the old name for Venice and for the Roman province which, over the course of centuries, became the city’s hinterland. For Muraro, the identification of the island-city and its land-based empire is crucial to an understanding of the architecture of both. As he describes it, Venice is ‘an amphibian city ... enriched by her double connotation, her maritime and land identities’.

The villa has not suffered from neglect in recent years, but the tradition against which Muraro battles is one that tended to regard villas as little more than three-dimensional paintings by Andrea Palladio. Of course, such an attitude is now well out of fashion, but it has shaped our conception of the villa and the ways in which villas have been studied until recent times. Muraro has been a pioneer among those who focused on the continuum of villa architecture from the Medieval to the modern period, thus embracing the pre and post-Palladian forms of its existence. This imparts to his survey a richness and variety in keeping with the multivalent nature of the villa. My one major regret is that the rather dubious theory of the survival of Roman villa architecture via Byzantium and Venetian palaces has been given fresh currency here just as recent research has begun to show that this theory misinterprets the evidence of how Venetian palaces acquired their distinctive physiognomy as well as overstating the ties between Venetian and mainland architecture. The colonnades that form such a notable feature of Venetian palaces were a late grafting onto a more introspective type of structure which resembled large blocks built around courtyards. The tripartite division of Gothic and later palaces was not apparently original to Venetian palaces, and when these forms were adopted on the terraferma, as, say, in Vicenza, it was often more a question of facade motifs than the comprehensive adaptation of a building plan. In fact, the gestation of a villa architecture was more complex and involved the assimilation of Gothic and, later, Renaissance motifs onto a simple, vernacular matrix. By the time Palladio arrived on the scene, villas already anticipated many of the features to which he gave a Classically-inspired solution.

This development is glossed in the first half of the book and abundantly documented in the second. The selection of houses is well-informed, beginning with Petrarch’s house at Arqua Petrarca, near Padua, and includes important though less well-known 15th and early 16th-century works like the Villa dall’Aglio and the Villa Giustinian, both in the preferred area of Venetian villeggiatura around Treviso. Palladio is represented by a score of works which demonstrate how comprehensive and convincing was his approach to design. Muraro also deals with the ways in which the intimate rapport between house and countryside in the 16th century gradually disappears in the overblown copies produced by Palladio’s imitators. But not all the later examples suffer from a lack of proportion: Vicenzo Scamozzi’s spectacular Villa Duodo and Rocca Pisana show a capacity to improve on the lessons of Palladio, while the Villa Pisani at Stra and Meduna’s Villa Revedin of the 1860s bring into play the sense of landscape and country park. Finally, we are given a recent re-creation of the villa concept by Carlo Scarpa.

Villas can be seen as part of a neo-feudalism embraced by Italians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their Flemish counterparts were no less interested in hierarchy and rank, but they found different ways of celebrating it in art. The upward mobility of artists and patrons lies at the heart of Zirka Zaremba Filipczak’s new book on Flemish painting. On its cover is a detail from one of the most celebrated of 17th-century genre paintings, William van Haecht’s The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Gheest. A gentleman is admiring a hunting scene while his companions study bronzes by Giambologna or gesture towards Classical statuary. With this jacket, one would be forgiven for thinking that the book will address such interesting topics as how works of art were exhibited and studied by connoisseurs, but these concerns are marginal to the author’s purposes. Van Haecht’s painting and others like it are here employed as reflections on art-theory and status, topics which were apparently never far from the minds of patrons and artists alike in the period under review. Evidence for these preoccupations comes not so much in the form of written statements as in the guise of pictures about art, especially the type that Filipczak terms ‘gallery paintings’. These works depict an interior scene with the walls and sometimes the ceiling hung with paintings; they purport to show collections of distinguished patrons like van der Gheest or the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, as well as mythological subjects like the studio of Apelles. Paintings of this kind were a staple of Antwerp art and seemingly not produced elsewhere, but the question remains: what did they mean and to what extent were they the product of an active debate on the nature of art and the status of artists?

Filipczak begins her story with the late 16th-century painter Frans Floris, who reached gentlemanly rank and created a house for himself which served as a model for Rubens’s more famous home a generation later. Floris and his architect brother were typical of a new kind of artist in the Netherlands, whose intellectual attainments and large fees took them out of the realm of journey-men painters and artisans, thus anticipating the enhanced status of artists in the next century. Filipczak makes good use of statistical information about wages and rewards to trace the rise of artists during the first part of the 17th century, and she rightly sees the phenomenal success of Rubens, particularly his ennoblement, as a double symbol of the aspirations of the more successful painters and of their patrons. The newly-enhanced status of art and its practitioners gained further recognition through the creation of an academy like those of Paris and Rome; and the winning of a legal case against the powerful militia companies proved that the painters’ guild was a force to be respected. By 1700, the social acceptability of the artist was assured. At the same time, the whole nature of art underwent a revaluation, leading towards the development of modern aesthetics and an alignment with feeling rather than reason. This, too, is captured on canvas, but now the subject was the artist’s studio rather than the gallery.

The trouble with the book is that it presents a body of material which does not add up to a coherent picture of art or Antwerp in the 1600s. Although the paintings and drawings cited form a notable corpus, the paucity of written sources from the period has forced the author to read pictures as reflections of the great debates she believes were taking place. At the heart of the book is the account of gallery pictures, those imaginary scenes of works of art enjoyed by connoisseurs. Such paintings contain a hidden irony because they generally depict fictive galleries and invented figures rather than reflecting the actual state of art and collecting. As a genre, this kind of painting was probably invented by Frans Franken or Jan Brueghel the Elder, and its earliest versions were allegories of the five senses. The pictures displayed therein are often identifiable works by Rubens and other Flemish masters, and they were sometimes joined by displays of natural curiosities, sea shells, flowers and the like. Filipczak tells us that these are not simple genre scenes but have a wider significance in terms of art’s ability to instruct us in the virtuous life. They also represent a type of large collection not normally found in Antwerp, and the author suggests that gallery paintings might be bought as a compensation for not owning a large collection. Their moral qualities were underscored by the presence of paintings with subjects such as the Madonna in a garland of flowers or Christ’s healing of the blind man. Those studying the pictures can be identified as gentlemen or possibly noblemen by their accoutrements of swords and staffs: the galleries and their inhabitants appear to reinforce a concept of art as a noble and scholarly preserve, a concept which will undergo subtle changes in the latter part of the century.

Filipczak draws attention to the career of another upwardly-mobile painter, David Teniers II, who fashioned a variant of the gallery picture at mid-century: shells, scientific instruments and so on are jettisoned in favour of works of art placed in an environment reminiscent of a modern picture collection, a constcamer. This change of context reflected, according to the author, a progressive tendency to judge art in terms of feeling rather than reason or science. Gallery paintings eventually drop out of fashion by the end of the century, to be replaced by paintings of the artist’s studio. Here, the novelty is that sculptors feature as often as painters, but the sculptors were shown carving works of an already in the public domain, like Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine. What was significant here was not the historical re-enactment of Giambologna’s creation but the commentary on the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, with recent work championed at the expense of Classical models.

Even a brief résumé of a book like this cannot fail to reveal the abrupt changes of track and lapses in the development of its theme. At bottom, there is a dichotomy here which has not been reconciled. As the author tells us in her introduction, the illustrations were selected only after the major part of the study had been finished, and the two aspects of the book do not cohere. There is also a certain misplaced emphasis in her interpretations of paintings, as when she interprets gallery pictures as a means of inculcating virtue. Few would disagree that these paintings have a moral, even virtuous meaning, but the key, surely, must be that they are allegories of painting itself. This is art as the ape of nature, an old tag recalled by the frequent presence of a monkey in the galleries. ‘Painting figures is the most glorious part of our work,’ Karel van Mander wrote, ‘but it is better to be universal.’ Universality is precisely what the artists of the gallery pictures strove to achieve, and the insistence upon sight is not merely a metaphor for spiritual insight, but refers to the Medieval tradition which stressed the importance of optics for epistemology.

It would be easier to accept Filipczak’s contention about the ‘progressive’ nature of later gallery paintings and of artists’ studios if she could adduce some Flemish commentary on a given painting. Instead, French theorists of the 17th century and modern worthies like Foucault and Kristeller are brought in to support her theory of the isolation of art vis-à-vis reason in Flemish painting in the later 17th century. It might have been better to have put these ideas forward in a short essay, for in their present form the author’s more interesting observations are overshadowed by ingenious interpretations of a few paintings.

There is nothing arduous about the latest of the Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures, except, perhaps, its title. Francis Haskell’s subject is the painful or rather protracted development of the art book, those large volumes built on superior illustrations of painting and sculpture. In tracing its origins, he returns to the field which he exploited so successfully in his first book, Patrons and Painters, the operation of the international art market during the 17th and 18th centuries. Haskell sees the origins of this kind of publication in Papal Rome, with its traditions of engravings after sculpture and architecture. In particular, the activities of the De’ Rossi family in cornering the market in such plates led to the commissioning of a suite of plates on the most famous antique statues in Rome in 1703. Negotiations became protracted and soon involved Pope Clement XI, who arranged for an accompanying text to be written but then insisted on vetting it himself, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who stipulated the engravers to be used for the plates after his own antiquities. Attention was focused on the images rather than the words, and as Haskell notes, the story of the Raccolta di statue antiche has a depressingly familiar air about it, conjuring up images of the modern, multinational world of publishing where pictures are draped around what is now termed ‘word furniture’.

The main part of the story concerns the famous Recueil Crozat, one of the most ambitious publishing ventures of all time. It began as a project to publish prints after the important collection of Italian art which the Dued’Orléans had purchased from the Odescalchi of Rome. The chief protagonists were the banker and connoisseur Pierre Crozat, the young Comte de Caylus and the greatest drawings expert of the day, Pierre-Jean Marietie. Between 1721, when first mooted, and the appearance of the first volume in 1729, the project evolved to embrace a survey of paintings and drawings of all the European schools. Mariette’s text grappled with basic problems of connoisseurship, questioning received opinion and formulating a methodology for attributions.