The Mastery of Nature: Aspects of Art, Science, and Humanism in the Renaissance.
The first essay in the book may serve as an introduction to the study. The author explains trompe l'oeil nature studies, especially those of the court artist Hoefnagel, as part of a genre enjoying independent status at the Prague court. This essay allows the reader to gain insight into continuities of religious pursuit and artistic conceptions during the transitional cultural time period from the fifteenth century, during the time of Durer, Erasmus, and Melanchthon until the Prague court around 1600. Further, Kaufmann interprets the development of trompe l'oeil effects, particularly those decorating the margins of Netherlandish book illuminations, as being linked to the then popular wayfaring Christian piety and a sense of privacy which allowed such aesthetic innovation. Unfortunately, the author does not set into context the phenomenon he describes with the increasing general prevalence of illusionistic painting in Europe since the fifteenth century. His attempt to establish a new interpretation that can serve as a general explanation for the appearance of illusionistic illustration therefore lacks a crucial link in the argumentation. Furthermore, the pious collection of dead specimens in books is in contradiction to the trompe l'oeil effect which derives its characteristic vividness from contemplation of living organisms.
Especially interesting is Kaufmann's successful interpretation of Arcimboldo's famous bust paintings. The author rejects the long held notion that the "learned Egyptian" frolicked in the creation of simple visual games by assembling a variety of objects. He argues convincingly that the curious portraits present a sophisticated, if hidden, symbolic claim to royal power over the kingdom of nature, and, by extension, within the monarchy. Arcimboldo's "grilli" cannot be explained any longer as the artistic whim of a self-conscious Renaissance mind, but as a meaningful and complex statement. The author uncovers a more appropriate definition of "grilli" in a German translation of Rabelais's Gargantua from 1575. In the preface, the translator Johann Fischart discusses the word not as a humoresque piece in the tradition of Pliny, but in connection with the image of the Greek satyr Silenus, whose grotesque appearance concealed his internal seriousness. The possible further application of Kaufmann's thesis to elements of humor in Renaissance culture may reveal similarly interesting parallels.
The dense network of cultural affairs at the Prague court is disentangled in Kaufmann's interesting discussion of the events surrounding the entry of Rudolf II in Vienna in 1577. based on documentary evidence, Kaufmann is able to elucidate the role of the physician and astronomer Fabricius who, as a member of the Vienna court academy, played a pivotal role in designing the decoration for the procession. Fabricius consulted with the court painter Spranger on specific aspects of the decoration, including a depiction of the Ptolemean terrestrial and the Copernican celestial spheres combined with a figure of Pegasus, symbol of virtue and support of artistic aspiration. (This motif possibly derives from royal French iconography, since the entry of Henry II in Rouen in 1550 also featured the display of a Pegasus appearing in the center of a terrestrial sphere and surrounded by a circle of fire. Was the Rudolfian iconography more often indebted to French sources? Another parallel indicating this is found in Jurgen Miller, "Per aspera ad astream. Eine neue ikonographische Interpretation of B. Sprangers Triumph der Weisheit," in: Ekkehart Mai et al., eds., Die Malerei Antwerpens [Cologne, 1994], 47-57.) Kaufmann concludes his discussion of the Prague court with an analysis of the concept of the Kunstkammer assembled by Rudolf II. Extending the discussion of one of his previous publications, the author continues to revise the traditional view of the Kunstkammer as an esoteric secluded space, previously regarded as a man-made paradise serving escapist notions. Instead, he stresses Rudolf's serious ambition to figuratively emphasize the concept of royal power through the display of the intricately organized collection to a select audience. Rudolf's pursuit symbolically embraces the Habsburg ambition to hegemony, although it may not have been free of wishful autosuggestive thinking. Overall, Rudolf follows the Aristotelian ideal of noble distractions befitting a member of the aristocracy, characteristic also of other European courts.
Only one of the essays digresses from the focus of the book on the Prague court. It discusses the complex genealogy of the shadow theory, the scientific explanation of the visual phenomenon. Although worthwhile reading, one could envision other contributions in its place, supplementing the main thrust of Kaufmann's work which centers around Habsburg culture. For example, a systematic analysis of the intellectual and religious currents of the art at the Prague court and the historicizing attitude of its renascence (as seen in the Durer renaissance) could have been further thematized. Also, considering the interest of Kaufmann's book for a varied readership, a translation of the appended source texts would have been useful.
Overall, the author's ambitious investigation illustrates the close interrelation of cultural historic forces, shows how useless monocausal historic explanations have become and illustrates how necessary it has become to amalgamate research from different scholarly fields to form a viable historic explanation. Kaufmann proclaims the "conquest of reality" as the cultural paradigm of early modernism, and this thesis appropriately describes the meritorious results of his own work. The standard set in this intelligent book may serve as a model for the future.
WOLFGANG BRUCKLE Hamburg, Germany
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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