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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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With the Renaissance the theory of imitation became
again the basic theory of art and poetry, and only then
reached its apogee. Saved from oblivion, it appeared
as a revelation and made the most of privileges enjoyed
by new ideas.

Modern theory took the term imitatio from the
Romans: imitazione in Italian, imitation in French and
English (while the Slavs and Germans coined their own
equivalents). The translator of Averroës in 1481 used
the word assimilatio; G. Fracastoro wrote in 1555 that
it is irrelevant sive imitari, sive representare dicamus.
Nevertheless the term imitatio won an easy and com-
plete victory.

At the very beginning of the fifteenth century, the
doctrine of imitation was accepted earliest of all in
the plastic arts. It appeared clearly in L. Ghiberti's
Commentaries (1436), where he spoke of having tried
to imitate nature (imitare la natura) “as well as it was
possible for him” (I Com., ed. Morisani, II, 22). L. B.
Alberti adhered to the same theory; he maintained that
there is no better way to beauty than by imitating
nature (Della pittura [1435], part III). Leonardo da
Vinci had even more radical views. According to him
the more faithfully the painting depicts its object—
(conformità co'la cosa imitata; Tratt. frag. 411)—the
more praiseworthy it is. These were the pioneers who
were followed by other Renaissance writers.

The concept and the theory of imitation did not
enter Renaissance poetics until the middle of the six-
teenth century, that is, only after Aristotle's Poetics had
been fully accepted; from that time on it became the


most essential element of poetics. F. Sassetti (1575)
explained in an Aristotelian way that imitation is one
of the four causes of poetry, namely, the “formal” one,
the poet himself being the “efficient” cause, the poem
the “material” one, and the pleasure produced by
poetry the “final” one (Weinberg, p. 48).

The Italian theory of imitation penetrated into
Germany attracting Dürer (Aesth. Excurs. [1528], ed.
Heindrich, p. 277), then to France where it was taken
up by Poussin (Letter to Fréart, 1, 3 [1966]) and many
others. Even in the days of baroque and academism
the Italian theory remained in all countries the basic
theory of art. In the beginning of the eighteenth cen-
tury it was still regarded as an important principle of
aesthetics even by such innovators as Abbé Dubos
and Vico; it was Vico who declared in Scienza nuova
([1774], I, 90) that poetry was nothing else than im-
itation (non essendo altro la poesia che imitazione).

On the whole, the modern theory of imitation held
its position of strength in the theory of art for at least
three centuries. It was not during that period a uniform
theory however. Various meanings were assigned to it
in the theory of visual arts and different ones in poetics.
Some understood it in the Aristotelian way and others
in accordance with Plato and the popular conception
of faithful imitation. Hence there was more agreement
in terminology than in matters of fact; controversies

Various thinkers tried to overcome in many different
ways the obstacles which “imitation” encountered.
Some Renaissance writers stressed the point that not
all imitations serve art but only those that are “good”
(G. B. Guarini, 1601), “artistic” (B. Varchi, 1546),
“beautiful” (Alberti), “imaginative” (Comanini's imita-
tio fantastica,
1591). Other theoreticians tried to inter-
pret imitation more accurately and in doing so they
departed in various ways from the concept of literal
copying of nature. Imitation ought to be “original,”
bluntly wrote Pelletier du Mans. In Alberti's inter-
pretation art imitates the laws of nature rather than
its appearances; according to Scaliger (1561) art imi-
tates nature's norms. According to some, art ought to
imitate nature's beauty; according to Shakespeare
(Hamlet, III ii)

Let your own discretion be your tutor:...
With this special observance that you o'erstep not
The modesty of nature.
The followers of Aristotle (e.g., the Polish poet and
theoretician of poetry, M. K. Sarbiewski, De perfecta
[ca. 1625, 1954 ed.], 1, 4) maintained that nature
should be imitated as it could and ought to be.
Michelangelo assigned a religious meaning to the doc-
trine of imitation; it is God in nature which should
be imitated. Torquato Tasso (1587), concerned with
imitation in poetry, realized what a complicated proc-
ess it is: words (parole) imitate concepts (concetti) and
these, in turn, imitate things (cose).

Particularly important was the following: many
writers thought that art should not imitate nature in
its rough state but after its faults have been corrected
and a selection has been made. This view was held
mainly by the French classicists. Other theoreticians
stressed the fact that imitation is not a passive act;
first nature has to be “de-coded” and its beauty has
to be extracted (herausreissen, as Dürer said). Some
writers assigned to imitation such a broad meaning that
it embraced not only imitation of nature but also of
ideas (Fracastoro, 1555). Others included in imitation
even allegories (as Petrarch had done) and metaphors
(E. Tesauro: metafora altro non è che poetica imita-
see Cannocchiale Aristotelico [1655], p. 369).
Eventually Varchi (Lessioni [1590], p. 576) thought that
(if correctly understood) imitation is indeed nothing
else but spinning of fiction (fingere). G. Del Bene (1574)
was of a similar opinion; imitatio is the same as
finzione. Those writers might have seemed revolu-
tionary but in fact they were close to Aristotle. Some,
like T. Correa (1587) differentiated two kinds of imita-
tion; one is literal, the other one free, imitatio simulata
et ficta.
Similarly, when R. de Piles separated two kinds
of truth: the simple and the ideal, he had in view two
imitations, i.e., one that is faithful copying and the
other which is preceded by selection and which syn-
thesizes the elements of perfection scattered about in
nature (Cours de peinture [1708], pp. 30-32).

However, many Renaissance and baroque writers
reached the conclusion that it is pointless to stick
stubbornly to the old theory instead of producing a
new and a more accurate one. They were prompted
by two entirely different reasons. A minority main-
tained that imitation is a task too difficult for art be-
cause imitation can never equal the model. A majority
thought the opposite; imitation is a task too insignifi-
cant and too passive. The term imitatio was gradually
being replaced—not by creatio however which be-
longed to theology—but by inventio. Ronsard offered
a compromise; imiter et inventer, one should “imitate
and invent.” In V. Danti's view the aim of art was not
imitare but to portray, ritrarre (Trattato [1567], II, 11).
F. Patrizi said (Della poetica [1586], p. 135) that the
poet is not an imitator but a “facitor” (which, after
all, was a literal translation of the Greek “poet”—
poietēs). Danti maintained that the poet produces new
wholes, if not new things. F. Robortello was bolder;
art presents things such as they are not (Explicationes
[1548], p. 226). In the next century the great Bernini
was to say “painting shows that which does not exist”


(F. Baldinucci, Vita di Berńini [1st ed. 1682; 1948
ed.], p. 146). And G. P. Capriano in his poetics said:
Poetry is an invention out of nothing (Della vera poetica
[1555]; cf. Weinberg, p. 733). If that is so, then art
indeed does not imitate.

The new idea was that art may be more perfect than
the object of its imitation, i.e., nature. M. Ficino called
art “wiser than nature” (Theol. plat. [1482], 1, XIII,
Opere [1561], p. 296). Michelangelo professed that he
makes nature more beautiful (più bella); Dolce wrote
that the duty of a painter is to surpass (superar) nature,
and G. Vasari (1550) stated that nature was conquered
by art (natura vinta dall'arte; Vite, VII, 448).

The Renaissance introduced a new thesis which
although of doubtful value was, nevertheless, rich in
consequences; the object of imitation should be not
only nature but also, and foremost, those who were
its best imitators, that is, the Ancients. The watchword
of imitating antiquity appeared as early as the fifteenth
century and by the end of the seventeenth century it
supplanted almost completely the idea of imitating
This was the greatest revolution in the history
of the concept of imitation. It changed the classical
theory of art into an academic one. A compromise
formula was devised for the principle of imitation;
nature should be imitated but in the way it was imi-
tated by the Ancients. This meant that sculpture ought
to be modelled on Apollo Belvedere and writing on
Cicero. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries called for
more imitation of Antiquity in poetry, and the seven-
teenth and the eighteenth centuries asked for the same
in the visual arts. However, dissenting voices were
sometimes raised. During the Renaissance at least three
protests against the imitation of Antiquity took place:
Poliziano (1491) against Cortesi said that “only he
writes well who has the courage to break the rules”;
Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1512)
maintained against Cardinal Bembo that aemulator
veterum verius quam imitator;
and finally Desiderius
Erasmus (1518) argued that he acts truly in Cicero's
spirit who, in keeping with the changing times, departs
from Cicero.

To give a very general outline of the development
from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century we may
say that some theoreticians defended the principle of
imitation at the expense of some concessions, while
others abandoned it completely. It was abandoned by
those who adhered to the radical (Platonic) concept
of imitation and maintained by those who voiced the
moderate (Aristotelian) concept.

All in all, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth
centuries there was no principle more commonly ap-
plied than imitatio. And it is hard to understand how
Ch. Batteux could announce in his Les beaux arts
Réduits à un seul principe, (1747), that he had discov-
ered the principle for all the arts, namely, imitation.
The point of it is that countless earlier treatises applied
the principle of imitation but only to a particular group
of arts—some to poetry, others to painting and sculp-
ture. Batteux generalized this principle for all arts. He
could manage to make such a generalization because
he had a vague idea of imitation; he regarded it as
a faithful copying of nature. He was apparently the
first to say: Imiter c'est copier un modèle, and on the
other hand, is a selection from nature, is imitation of
a beautiful nature.