Thursday, March 17, 2016

Seeing Through Fifteenth-Century Eyes

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Baxandall begins his contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history" (Preface). In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, in addition to documents, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal" (153). In order to show how this works in connection with fifteenth-century painting in Italy, he presents his case in three parts.

In Part I, "Conditions of Trade," Baxandall identifies a fundamental point of departure: "Money is very important in the history of art" (1). Artists have to put food on the table. Consequently, art is among other things a business. In fifteenth-century Italy, a painting was the result of a contractual relationship between an artist and his wealthy client. Baxandall quotes extensively from intriguing letters that reveal this relationship. He notes that as the fifteenth century progressed a change unfolded. Early in the century, clients were most interested in the quality of the painter's materials. They especially valued shiny gold and silver, and a blue color known as ultramarine, which came in several grades of varying cost. Later in the century, the emphasis shifted from the quality of materials to the quality of the painting itself. In other words, clients no longer cared so much about the value of the materials. Instead, they cared about the skill of the artist. The author concludes Part I by raising the question of how people determined the relative skill of a painter and quality of a painting. Upon what basis did people make such distinctions?

Masaccio (1401-1428), St. Peter Distributing Alms
In Part II, "The Period Eye," Baxandall identifies how painters and public "attended to visual experience" in ways that were distinct to fifteenth-century Italy, and "how the quality of this attention became a part of their pictorial style" (27). He notes that, above all, painters cared about the opinions of the people who cared the most about art and who took the greatest pleasure in it, "the patronizing classes" (38). So, then, how were the assumptions and cognitive skills of these viewers related to what painters actually did? In other words, how did expectations about what viewers knew, and might want, make a difference in how painters did their work? (40). In reply, Baxandall points out that we moderns simply cannot have the same kinds of experiences with fifteenth-century paintings that people at that time surely had. Why? Because the artists knew and shared what people of their own time would bring to a painting--their experiences, knowledge, skill sets--and painters did their work in conscious relationship to them (48). For example, because people in fifteenth-century Italy grew up in a Christianized society and had heard the sermons of popular preachers, painters could be certain that everyone would recognize a biblical story. Painters could also include distinct hand gestures that people of the time would instantly recognize.

Other commonplaces of the culture were also factors. The author describes, for example, the relationship between fifteenth-century painters and dramatic productions of the day. Some characters or narrators in contemporary drama never left the stage. They merely sat until it was time for them to speak again. Not surprisingly, such characters appear in contemporary paintings as well. Too, some painters depicted subjects performing certain dances that were well-known at the time. To provide yet another example, Baxandall explains that Italian school boys learned a very practical mathematics they would use throughout life. At the time, no staple items came packaged in a standardized quantity. Consequently, it was important to be able to figure the surface or the volume of something being considered for purchase or trade. Unique barrels and jars meant that one needed to be able to take a measurement or two and, using geometry and mathematics, quantify the volume or surface of an object. This became second nature to most men. Baxandall suggests that painters appealed to their viewers by displaying hats, bodies, columns, etc. in ways that would provoke this sort of calculating on the part of viewers and, thus, draw them in.

Finally, in Part III, "Pictures and Categories," Baxandall addresses the question of just how well his idealized fifteenth-century Italian man represents historical reality. He implies that, in fact, many people of the time possessed the essential "equipment for looking at Quattrocento paintings" (111). In 1480, Cristoforo Landino provided a summary of this "equipment" when he set out to write an overview of the paintings of his time. A paragraph from Landino's text includes sixteen terms he used to describe four Florentine painters. These sixteen terms provide the outline for Baxandall's discussion. Throughout, he identifies the links between these terms and their contemporary cultural values.

As he concludes, Baxandall circles back to the beginning of his book. He started "by emphasizing that the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances." Now, he ends the book "by reversing the equation--to suggest that the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society" (151). So much of history depends upon texts, words. But as every historian can attest, these do not often reveal the past as well as we would like. Baxandall concludes that because "visual sense is the main organ of experience," pictures certainly can and should be considered "documents as valid as any charter or parish roll." In this particular case, "they offer an insight into what it was like, intellectually and sensibly, to be a Quattrocento person" (152).

No comments: