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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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The Renaissance phase in the history of our subject
begins with the opening sentences of Leone Battista
Alberti's treatise De statua, written about 1430. Here
the origin of sculpture is described as follows:

Those [who were inclined to express and represent... the
bodies brought forth by nature] would at times observe in
tree trunks, clumps of earth, or other objects of this sort
certain lineaments which through some slight changes could
be made to resemble a natural shape. They thereupon took
thought and tried, by adding or taking away here and there,
to render the resemblance complete.

Before long, Alberti adds, the primeval sculptors
learned how to make images without depending on
such resemblances latent in their raw material. This
passage is the earliest statement of the idea that what
sets the artist apart from the layman is not his manual
skill but his ability to discover images in random
shapes, i.e., his visual imagination, which in turn gives
rise to the desire to make these images more explicit
by adding or taking away.

How did Alberti arrive at this astonishing insight?
Classical art theory provides no etiology of sculpture,
and its etiology of painting is purely mimetic: the first
artist traced a shadow cast by the sun. Moreover, in
contrast to the agate of Pyrrhus and the heads suppos-
edly discovered in cracked blocks of marble, the chance
images in Alberti's tree trunks and clumps of earth are
rudimentary rather than miraculously complete. Per-
haps the key to the puzzle is the fact that Alberti
postulates wood and clay, not stone or marble, as the
sculptor's aboriginal materials. If he started out by
wondering what the earliest statues were made of, he
could have found an answer in Pliny (XII, i), who
concludes a discussion of the central importance of
trees in the development of religious practices by
stating that the statues of the gods, too, used to be
ex arbore. In view of the anthropomorphic shape of
certain trees, reflected in such myths as that of Daphne
turned into a laurel, this must have seemed plausible
enough. Another early work of Alberti, the dialogue
Virtus et Mercurius, has Virtus complaining of persist-
ent abuse at the hands of Fortuna: “While I am thus
despised, I would rather be any tree trunk than a
goddess,” a notion suggestive both of the Plinian tree
deities and of the tree trunks in De statua. This “trun-
kated” Virtue-in-distress was translated into visual
terms by Andrea Mantegna (Figure 9), whose image
of her might almost serve as an illustration of the De
text. It also resembles actual idols such as the
pair of tree-trunk deities carved by a Teutonic con-
temporary of Pliny and recently unearthed in a bog
near the German-Danish border (Figure 10).

Like many another explorer of new territory, Alberti
did not grasp the full significance of what he had


discovered. His chance-image theory is subject to two
severe limitations: it applies to sculpture only, and to
the remote past rather than to present artistic practice.
In his treatise on painting, written a few years after
De statua, he merely cites the ancient shadow-tracing
theory but adds that “it is of small importance to know
the earliest painters or the inventors of painting.”
When he mentions the chance images in cracked blocks
of marble and on the gem of Pyrrhus recorded by Pliny,
he does so in order to fortify his claim that painting
is a noble and “liberal” activity, since “nature herself
seems to take delight in painting.” He also explicitly
denies that painting is comparable to the kind of
sculpture “done by addition,” even though the painter
works by adding pigments to a bare surface.

This puzzling gulf that existed in Alberti's mind
between the two arts reflects the singular importance
he attached to scientific perspective as the governing
theory of painting. His treatise focuses on painting as
a rational method of representing the visible world,
rather than as a physical process, and hence leaves little
room for the chance-image etiology he had proposed
in De statua. We do not know who first applied it to
painting and to present-day conditions. The earliest
explicit statement occurs in the writings of Leonardo,
but the passage strongly suggests that he learned it
from older artists:

If one does not like landscape, he esteems it a matter of
brief and simple investigation, as when our Botticelli said
that such study was vain, because by merely throwing a
sponge full of diverse colors at a wall, it left a stain...
where a fine landscape was seen. It is really true that various
inventions are seen in such a stain.... But although those
stains give you inventions they will not teach you to finish
any detail. This painter of whom I have spoken makes very
dull landscapes

(Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, ed. and
trans. Philip McMahon, Princeton [1956], I, 59).

Apparently Leonardo here records an experience he
had about 1480, shortly before his departure for Milan;
Botticelli, then at the height of his career, plays the
role of an “anti-Protogenes” whose views Leonardo
turns to his own advantage. In another passage,
Leonardo recommends that painters look for land-
scapes as well as figure compositions in the accidental
patterns of stained walls, varicolored stones, clouds,
mud, or similar things, which he compares to “the
sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every
name and word you can imagine.” The spotted walls,
clouds, etc., here obviously play the same role as the
tree trunks and clumps of earth in De statua. Leonardo,
moreover, states more clearly than Alberti does that
chance images are not objectively present but must
be projected into the material by the artist's imagina-
tion. While he presents his idea as “a new discovery,”
there can be little doubt that he did in fact derive it
from Alberti, whose writings are known to have influ-
enced his thinking in a good many instances.

That Leonardo should have transferred the chance-
image theory from the remote past to the present and
from sculpture to painting is hardly a surprise in view
of his lack of interest in historical perspectives and his
deprecatory attitude toward sculpture. At the same
time, the reference to Botticelli (whose remark may
well have been aimed at Leonardo himself) suggests
that there was some awareness among early Renais-
sance painters of the role of chance effects in actual
artistic practice before Leonardo formulated his
chance-image theory of pictorial invention.

That such was indeed the case may be gathered from
some visual evidence which in point of time stands
midway between Alberti's De statua and “Botticelli's
stain.” Interestingly enough, these are images in clouds,
rather than in the more palpable substances that had
yielded chance images in medieval art, thus indicating
a new awareness of the unstable and subjective charac-
ter of chance images. The best-known instance is the
tiny horseman (Figure 11) in Mantegna's Saint Sebas-
in Vienna, which has resisted all efforts to explain


it in terms of the overt subject matter of the panel.
Not only is the image so unobtrusive that most viewers
remain unaware of it; it is also incomplete, the hind
quarters of the horse having been omitted so as not
to break the soft contour of the cloud. Did Mantegna
plan it from the very start, or did he discover the
horseman only in the process of painting that particular
cloud and then, like the primeval sculptors of De
added or took away a bit here and there in
order to emphasize the resemblance? Be that as it may,
we can only conclude that he must have been taken
with the idea of cloud images, and that he expected
his patron, too, to appreciate the downy horseman.
This patron would seem to have been a passionate
admirer of classical antiquity, for the panel is excep-
tionally rich in antiquarian detail; the artist even signed
it in Greek. Apparently the horseman is yet another
antiquarian detail, a visual pun legitimized by the
discussion of cloud images in Greek and Roman litera-
ture. It has been kept “semi-private” so as not to offend
less sophisticated beholders. If this view is correct, the
horseman need have no connection at all with the
chance images of Alberti, even though Mantegna must
have been well acquainted with Alberti's writings.

We know rather less about a second cloud image,
contemporary with Mantegna's horseman, that occurs
in the Birth of the Virgin by the Master of the Barberini
Panels. Here a cloud assumes the shape of a dolphin(Figure 12).
A possible clue to its meaning is the flight
of birds next to it, which may be interpreted as a good
omen for the newborn child according to Roman belief.
Since the scene takes place in a setting filled with
references to pagan antiquity, an “auspicious” flight
of birds would be in keeping with the rest; and the
cloud-dolphin would then be a further good omen
(dolphins having strongly positive symbolic connota-
tions), whether the image was planned or accidentally
discovered. Flights of birds as a means of divination
are mentioned so frequently in Roman literature that
they must have been well-known among fifteenth-
century humanists.

These early cloud images, however small and unob-
trusive, are the ancestors of a wide variety of figures
made of clouds in sixteenth-century painting. Man-
tegna himself institutionalized the technique in his late
work (Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Grove of
1501-02, Paris, Louvre), Raphael introduced
cloud-angels in his Madonna of Foligno and Sistine
and Correggio depicted the amorous Jupiter
as a cloud in his Io (Figure 13). Even the human soul,
hitherto shown as a small figure with all the substance
of living flesh, could now be given a cloudy, “ectoplas-
mic” shape, as in El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz(Figure 14).
What began as a semi-private visual pun
had become a generally accepted pictorial device for
representing incorporeal beings.

It would be fascinating to know whether Leonardo
practiced what he preached. If he did, no evidence
of chance images derived from spotted walls or similar
sources has survived among his known works. A Ma-
donna and Saints
by one of his Milanese followers
indicates that Leonardo's advocacy of chance images
was not confined to the theoretical plane. The group
is posed against an architectural ruin among whose


crumbling stones we discern the face of a bearded man
wearing a broad-brimmed hat (Figure 15). Evidently
the artist, alerted by Leonardo's teachings, felt that
no ancient wall surface was complete without a chance
image. The influence of Leonardo's chance-image the-
ory can be seen also in the work of the Florentine
painter Piero di Cosimo, who according to Vasari was
in the habit of staring at clouds and spotted walls,
“imagining that he saw there equestrian combats and
the most fantastic cities and the grandest landscapes.”
Some of Piero's pictures show extravagantly shaped
willow trees with pronounced chance-image features
(Figure 16)but based on a close study of actual trees,
which he must have gone out of his way to find. Finally,
Leonardo's discussion of chance images may have in-
spired a curious pictorial specialty that flourished


mainly in Florence from the late sixteenth to the
eighteenth century. These paintings are done on the
polished surfaces of agates or other strongly patterned
stones in such a way that the colored veins become
part of the composition, providing “natural” back-
grounds of clouds, landscape, etc., for the figures. They
were prized as marvels of nature no less than of art
(a description cited by Baltrušaitis terms them “an
interplay of ars and natura”) and tended to accumulate
in the cabinets of royalty. Linked with the legendary
gem of Pyrrhus, they might be defined as elaborated
chance images were it not for the fact that the painter's
share always remains clearly distinguishable from na-
ture's. Apparently a real merging of the two spheres
was deemed aesthetically undesirable.

Despite his interest in unorthodox techniques—
confirmed by recent studies which show that he often
painted not only with brushes but with his fingers—
Leonardo did not favor homemade chance images
such as “Botticelli's stain.” Nor does he reveal how
the images found in spotted walls, etc., are to be
transformed into works of art. Apparently he thought
of this process as taking place in the artist's mind,
rather than on the surface of the painting, where the
task of “finishing the detail” would be impeded by the
inherent vagueness of images resulting from thrown
sponges. His ideal of objective precision, inherited from
the early Renaissance, gave way in sixteenth-century
art theory to values more attuned to the concept of
genius. Among them was sprezzatura, a recklessness
mirroring inspired frenzy at the expense of rational
control, which meant a disregard of accepted usage
in literature and a rough, unfinished look in the visual
arts. The story of the sponge-throwing Protogenes
could now provide a supreme example of such reck-
lessness, as it does for Montaigne (Essays, I, xxiv, xxxiv),
who cites it to illustrate the close relationship between
chance (good luck, fortuna) and inspiration.