It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Monday, March 22, 2010

Norris Kelly Smith : The Lost Tavolette

Smith's reconstruction of Brunelleschi's
painting of the Piazza della Signoria
c. 1425

Smith's reconstruction of Brunelleschi's
painting of the Baptisty

Antonio Manetti wrote in Brunelleschi's biography that "he propounded and realized what painters today call perspective....he originated that rule which is essential to whatever has been accomplished since his time in that area".

(This was written 35 years after his death, coincident with Piero Della Francesca writing "De Prospectiva Pigendi" (1480-5)).

And that rule was presented in two panels (now lost) which presented two famous buildings as one might actually see them when standing on the pavement in Florence. (shown above as Smith has re-imagined them)

Norris Kelly Smith argues that:

1. No rule was necessary to produce those paintings; they could simply have been done from observation

2. Their purpose related to the subject matter of each: one represented the church, the other the state, and how one stood in relation to each of them (by making a picture that was based upon a specific P.O.V. on the pavement before them)

3. The message was a version of "two allegiances are the secret of civilization ... every monism leads to slavery" (quoting that controversial 20th C. religious philosopher, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy )

Smith argues that the mirror used to see the painting properly (by standing behind it and looking through a small hole to see its reflection)could not have given a clear reflection because plate glass had not yet been invented.

But Manetti does testify that he himself had used this method to see the image quite clearly.

So what can we conclude, given that Manetti, and then Vasari, were only interested in how these two tavolettes exemplified perspective?

In support of Smith, I would note that Manetti, in general, was primarily interested in mathematics. (he even did a "geometry" of Dante's Inferno). While Vasari was primarily interested in technical achievement.

And would Manetti or Vasari have had access to any literature at all which involved the interpretion of paintings? Also, not being churchmen, they would have been unqualified to discuss theology, which was something of a life and death issue back in those centuries.

Could they possibly have written with any candor concerning those conflicting allegiances toward church and state that defined political factions in Medieval Italy and would be the theme of Smith's book?

So, while there's no disputing that some leading intellectuals of that period were mostly interested in mathematics and technology -- I don't think that would account for the kinds of things that artists, and their patrons, wanted to see.

Smith quotes Richard Sennett :

"The inability to imagine secularity as an independent social force comes, I think, precisely from the present day inability to conceive of the act of belief as real in itself. And this comes in turn derives from our peculiar inability to comprehend the sociological realities of religion - regligion being, as Louis Dumont has observered, the primary social structure for most of human society during most of its existence"

Which encourages Smith to assert "In Brunelleschi's day the ordering of church architecture and of Christian paintings was still believed to point to, or to reflect, an ultimate and unchanging truth"

And in further support of Smith's thesis -- if B. had been mostly interested in exemplifying a system of perspective --- wouldn't one tavoletta have done the job?

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