S.J. Freedberg   Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting.
Harvard University Press, 114 pages, $25

Sydney Freedberg, who retires this year from Harvard and will assume the position of Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Art in the fall, is one of America’s best-known art historians and the author of the standard English-language history of Italian High Renaissance and Mannerist painting. Here he publishes three lectures, originally given at Cornell, each devoted to one of the three great masters of the emerging Baroque style in Italy: Annibale Carracci, his cousin Ludovico Carracci, and Michelangelo da Caravaggio. The book is densely illustrated, and its text informed by an acute and consistent critical intelligence. Because it also represents in a lively and sophisticated way the current state of thought about its subject, it provides an ideal introduction to the painting of these extraordinarily interesting and complex masters. This is a timely accomplishment, for, although Caravaggio is certainly well known, Annibale Carracci is considerably less so, while Ludovico Carracci, about whom almost nothing has been written in English, is scarcely known at all except to specialists. And yet it is the Carracci who rose to one of the rarest of human achievements, comparable to those of Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci. They not only mastered their own styles, but also established the conventions and standards of a period style, the style we call Baroque, which was to dominate European painting for two centuries to come. Caravaggio was the first painter to create a personal style on the basis of their discoveries. And it was he who made problematical the twin foundations of their art—the imitation of nature on the one hand, the imitation of the idea on the other.

The most frequently stated theme of Counter-reformatory criticism, ever since the unveiling of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in 1541, had been that the artist had a duty to represent the truth, and that the inventions, ornaments, and difficulties of art should not be exalted for their own sake. This was especially true with regard to religious art, which had as its purpose the instruction of the ignorant, not the appreciation of the knowledgeable. The question of purpose thus raised is essential to an understanding of the critical antinomies of seventeenth-century art. The reform of painting initiated by the Carracci (and the linguistic parallel with Church reform is not fortuitous) was based first of all on investigating the means for establishing a convincing illusion of external reality. There was an attempt to make the image verosimile by manipulating the effects of light and color (effects Freedberg aptly calls “optical”) and by avoiding the artificiality of pose and expression that appears in Mannerist painting of the previous generation. Second, it was based on investigating the idealized perfections of nature and on selecting those perfections in the manner of the great classical masters, with the purpose of leading the spectator to an understanding of eternal reality, the veer. The idea of truth, in other words, had to be expressed with naturalistic verisimilitude.

Renaissance painters had conceived of practice as the first step on a ladder leading to the discovery of theoretical principle, knowledge that was itself expressed in the perfection of style. But the Carracci placed theory and practice in parallel, conceiving them both as means to an end. Caravaggio, who exploited the illusionistic techniques they had developed in dazzling counterfeits of quotidian reality, polarized the two ideas of truth they had attempted to unite in their reform. For to distinguish the imitation of natural appearances (as his paintings were perceived to do) from the imitation of idealized perfections (as the Mannerist paintings of the Cavaliere d'Arpino were perceived to do) reopened the question of purpose, and in the very act of painting itself. At any given moment, one had to decide whether one was imitating the natural or imitating the ideal. In this decision lay the fundamental question of the conception of truth to which one’s art was committed. For the seventeenth-century critic Bellori both painters had fallen into error. He characterized them both as slaves to practice, the one merely copying nature, the other merely copying an already defined idea of style. On the one hand painting had become an optical technique for giving an illusion of reality, and on the other it had become an imaginative technique for representing an artistic idea. In either case painting had become, or seemed to have become, only painting, an illusionary phantasm unattached to any permanent truth.

If the painters of the High Renaissance, on the basis of antiquity, reinvented the concept of style, a concept central to the period of Mannerism, then the painters of the Baroque first confronted the question of style as a matter of critical and moral choice. The solution of the Carracci had been to assimilate the various ideas of natural perfections discovered by the canonical masters—imitating the perfection of chiaroscuro discovered by Titian, for instance—and then to join these to the naturalistic effects of possible experience. They thereby extended the particularities of reality into the permanence of history, while simultaneously endowing history with immediate verisimilitude. The realism of Caravaggio was a particular reality outside history, and the idealism of the Cavaliere d’Arpino represented a historical idea divorced from experience. For all painters, however, as the Italian critic Argan has acutely observed, painting remained a technique, and specifically a technique for persuasion.

At one time the rhetorical foundation to Baroque art seemed very obvious, and it was accordingly anathematized in the nineteenth century as an art that was false and propagandists, serving an authoritarian church whose political and religious policies bore a close resemblance to those of the Church of Pius IX. It is certainly true that the persuasive capabilities of art were used by the Church for its own ends. It is true too that the Carracci reform of painting must in part be understood as a response to problems raised in Counter-reformation criticism. At the same time it would be absurd to reduce the whole of Baroque art and its themes to the articles of faith published by the Propaganda Fidei. Within that art is deep poetry and a profoundly new, recognizably modern sensibility. The criticism of this century has attempted to explain this by denying the connection between sensibility and the “speciousness” of rhetoric and the “formulas” of the academies. Accordingly, the rhetoric of Baroque art no longer seems so clear as once it did, and Freedberg is an able spokesman for this prevailing critical position.

Yet rhetoric in itself is morally neutral, and exists as a means to describe the techniques and effects of style. To conceive of painting as a means of persuasion is necessarily to set a value on individual experience and the phenomena of psychological response. It is also to give special importance to the role of the spectator, to whom the painting is addressed and whose own experience and presence become integral to the act of painting. Freedberg writes eloquently of the effects of this new sensibility in Caravaggio’s St. John with a Ram: “Caravaggio here has created a voyeuristic situation into which the spectator, as he takes the painter’s place in front of the completed canvas, must necessarily fall .... [W]hat is meaningful comes from the relationship established initially between the artist and the model and then, as we are the surrogate for the painter when we look at the picture, between the model-image and ourselves.” This is the same kind of experience, merging artist and spectator in the act of painting, that Michael Fried has characterized in Courbet’s paintings. It also informs Freedberg’s description of the absorptive character of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist: “The violence and drama have not been described, but instead the moment that is the aftermath of one and the prelude to the other. The tonality of this situation is in fact contrary to that of drama, especially if we imply by drama something that conveys the sense of being staged. What we have been presented with appears, oppositely, an actuality, a moment of present truth, a ‘now.’”

For Freedberg such effects are not rhetorical, but their opposite. He uses the word “rhetorical” regularly and consistently to designate characteristics in painting that might otherwise be called “stylizing,” or even “classically derived.” Such characteristics are opposed to “reality” or “verisimilitude.” In other words, his use of the word is metaphorical, not technical or historical. This is not of itself objectionable in a book that presents itself as based almost entirely on the author’s confrontation with the “visual substance” of the works of art. At the same time, insisting on the exclusive use of the eye, even so critical and knowledgeable an eye as Freedberg’s, carries with it obvious dangers. Assessing art that is expressly conceived as a means of persuasion through sensory illusion offers special difficulties. Thus Freedberg writes of Annibale Carracci’s first dated altarpiece, the Crucifixion with Saints of 1583, that “it conveys an instant sense of reality,” portraying figures who “convince us still more that they reproduce an ordinary truth because they have abjured altogether the effects of artifice,” and that “never before this within the sixteenth century had an image been created with so minimal an intrusion of the processes of idealization, with such avoidance of the means of rhetoric, or with so blunt a confrontation with the simple truth,” Freedberg writes of another early painting by Annibale, the Dead Christ, that its religious subject is not its primary meaning, but may be only a pretext for a tour de force of realism, conceived in the manner of a still life or genre piece.

It is instructive to compare these observations with what another perceptive critic, Argan, has written about the art established on the basis of the paintings of the Carracci and Caravaggio:

Art became a technique of persuasion that must take into account, not only its own means and possibilities, but also the dispositions of the people to whom it is addressed. Like rhetoric, and not differently from dialectic, it does not have its own subject but applies itself to all subjects and therefore has an infinite variety of species. It does not investigate nature proposing to increase knowledge, but investigates with almost scientific detachment the human soul, elaborating with all possible means the ways to unveil its responses. Thus it creates a landscape, which certainly does not derive from a new and more vivid experience of nature, it makes astounding perspectival constructions that do not derive from new meditations on the problem of space, it invents the genre of still life without any special interest in the quality of objects, and it paints scenes of popular life without concrete social interest. But each of these modes corresponds to a profound public need, touching upon and moving the affective sensibilities. It affirms the proposition in Aristotle’s Rhetoric that the verisimilar is not substantially different from the true, even as the enthymeme is not substantially different from the syllogism. Nor is this an indication of cynical or desperate indifference in confrontation with the true, but only proof of the analogous effect of the true and the verisimilar aimed towards the goal of persuasion. It is certainly true, as also appears in the Rhetoric, that technique, in the very moment that it produces the verisimilar or the probable, must conceal itself and not reveal its own artifice. Ars est celare artem, or, in the words of Tasso, “1’rate che tutto fa, nulla si scooper.”

Freedberg acknowledges the power of that “art which hides all art” when he writes that Annibale’s figures “convince us that they reproduce an ordinary truth,” and that Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptistappears an actuality, a moment of present truth, a ‘now’” (italics mine). What he does not acknowledge is the source of his conviction, which has been elicited by a refinement of the techniques of art, not their opposite. He has been persuaded by the plain and unadorned style, the simple and finely woven style called subtilis by the orators. He is not alone among modern scholars and critics in denying the existence or the relevance of the very means—abstract, systematic, academic, and rhetorical—by which artists made considered choices, and by which he himself has been convinced of the present truth, the “now” in their art. Specific analysis of the techniques for creating verisimilitude and the effects of the probable is one foundation to Baroque style. The other is an intensive investigation of the means of artifice. It is the combination of the two, an enhanced naturalism and an enhanced artificiality, that distinguishes art after the Carracci reform from an art that flaunts its own skill, from the kind of display for which Michelangelo had been attacked and which characterizes the art of Mannerism.

Freedberg is himself a master of rhetoric. The strength of his perceptions is enhanced by the clarity and consistency with which he employs a series of specific terms (optical, rhetorical, Mannerist, Baroque, Classical, and the like). They are terms that belong to a contemporary rhetoric of stylistic description, not to the seventeenth century. This inevitably produces occasional anomalies. To call Correggio “proto-Baroque,” for example, suggests that something may be wrong with our model of High Renaissance style if it cannot absorb the optical coloristic effects of a painter who died in 1534. The chapters on Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio are excellent and filled with illuminating insights, especially with regard to Caravaggio. The chapter on Ludovico is less good, and precisely because much less has been written on this astonishingly original artist than on the other two. But it is especially welcome to have a profusely illustrated essay about him in English, especially by so thoughtful and experienced a critic.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 10, on page 87
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Circa 1600
S. J. Freedberg
Circa 1600
Harvard University Press, 140 pages, $65.00

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