Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe.
Caroline van Eck. Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii + 225 pp. index. illus. bibl. $80. ISBN: 978-0-521-84435-2.
This is a fundamental book on an important but elusive subject. The author examines how the arts of persuasive oratory, well-known through writings by Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, influenced the theory and practice of the visual arts and architecture in early modern Europe. Rhetorical training was a standard part of the curriculum for the educated classes, which led an intellectual like Leon Battista Alberti to recognize that lessons drawn from treatises on the subject could be used to fill the void caused by the loss of almost all ancient theoretical writing about the arts. Vitruvius's Ten Books on Architecture and Pliny the Elder's Natural History were the only sources dealing with the arts that had survived from antiquity, and neither author had aimed to provide a treatise on artistic theory. Greek and Roman writers on oratory had interjected vivid examples from the visual arts to illustrate their points about convincing rhetorical techniques, a practice that suggested a kinship between the verbal and visual arts that warranted reciprocity.
Van Eck divides her subject into three sections: theory, invention, and interpretation. In the first she evaluates how ideas derived from classical oratorical writings were absorbed into the theoretical discourse about the arts in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Italy. The second part of her argument deals with artists' adaptation of these techniques into design strategies, and the third, spectators' reception of them.
The most explicit, comprehensive evidence of rhetoric's influence is provided by the first theoretical treatise on the visual arts in early modern Europe, Alberti's De pictura, written in 1435 and translated by the author into Italian the following year. Scholars have long recognized that Alberti derived from classical rhetorical writings his treatise's structure, aesthetic vocabulary, and key theoretical concept, the definition of a pictorial historia. Van Eck emphasizes Alberti's role as the first theorist to consider painting in terms of representation, not as an activity or product. She stresses that Alberti structured his treatise as an exacting analysis of the pictorial image from the point of view of the spectator, discriminating between what was represented and how, much as an orator had to distinguish what to say from how to say it.
Rhetoric's influence on architectural theory is more difficult to pin down. Van Eck focuses on the sixteenth-century Italian writers Daniele Barbaro, Vincenzo Scamozzi, and Gherardo Spini, drawing parallels between their discussion of the architect's selection of appropriate ornamentation for his buildings and the orator's choice of figures of speech, and the need of both to please their audiences.
In part 2, van Eck explores how oratory's strategies work in the visual arts. She contends that the artist, like the orator, must persuade by creating a common ground with his audience so that it can identify with what is represented. The artist relies on techniques like compositional arrangement and linear perspective to create a continuum between the viewer's world and the fictive space of the painted illusion. According to van Eck, the artist's goal matches the orator's: each aims to move his audience by awakening a vicarious response through convincing description and adroit use of persuasive techniques.
Architects marshall their more limited means, specifically building forms and ornament, to evoke a shared history or cultural memory among viewers. For theoretical evidence not available elsewhere, van Eck turns to England and the country's first architectural treatise (1624), occasioned by the controversies surrounding the introduction of Italian Renaissance architectural models and the demands for an identifiably Anglican church design. Van Eck concentrates on Inigo Jones's efforts to construct a classical past for the nascent kingdom of Great Britain through his sets for royal masques and reconstruction of Stonehenge as a Roman temple, and suggests that enthusiastic reception of the first-century treatise on the sublime, attributed to Longinus, ushered in Hawksmoor's and Vanbrugh's new architectural styles.
Part 3 deals with viewers' reception of rhetoric's persuasive techniques by analyzing the language and literary devices employed in poems and essays written about works of art. Despite gaps in evidence, van Eck crafts convincing arguments.
SARAH BLAKE MCHAM
Rutgers University, New Brunswick