Classic and modern clash in Italy

Giambattista Vico

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), by Giuseppe Fusitani (1836).

In recent years, groups of Italian students protesting against governmental cuts to education funding and the rise of university fees have gained some popularity in the international media due to their highly original form of opposition. They made padded shields shaped as book covers, and used them as a symbol of literary and cultural resistance to the draconian cuts imposed by Italy’s successive governments.

The canon of works chosen for this very unique form of public protest – ranging from Plato’s Republic to Machiavelli’s The Prince to Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude – has raised immediate attention. With only a couple of exceptions, all the selected ‘book shields’ can be considered canonic books, ancient and modern classics, works whose value has matured over time. Professor Luca Serianni from La Sapienza University in Rome commented that it looked like a second-hand canon, closer to the reading matter of students rioting in the late sixties and seventies. In other words, a canon inherited from today’s students’ parents.

The image of protesters resisting undesired changes in public education policies by raising classical books as shields is a powerful image of Italy’s approach to tradition, change and permanence in culture and education. Italian culture is characterized by a perceived continuity of tradition, both the Greco-Roman classical and that of the so-called modern classics. The metaphor of these book shields further confirms that there is a complex connection between literary canon, tradition and resistance.

Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Drawing by Luigi Lolli, engraving by Gaetano Guadagnini (1830).

Other European philosophical traditions were born instead out of a rupture with the past. Descartes’ ideas can be viewed as an example of modern thought grounded in a fracture with tradition – as Hegel said, Descartes is one of those who ‘restarted philosophy from zero’. Descartes’ thought is grounded in doubting the philosophical foundation of various fields of knowledge, particularly the humanities. Additionally, Descartes doubted that the study of classical sources, rhetoric and history adds anything to human knowledge. Giambattista Vico’s enquiry started from a critique of Descartes’ viewpoint: Vico’s speculation claims that there is a modern, ‘scientific’ method of studying the humanities. Vico’s legacy consists in a new way (a New science) to look at the ancient world and classical authorities, which, in Vico’s view, should preserve their legacy and guarantee their survival in an increasingly scientific world.

A century later, Italy’s continuity with classicism is again endangered in the field of literature with the so-called classic-romantic quarrel, which is also in some respects a quarrel between tradition and modernity. In this context, Giacomo Leopardi, with his 1818 Discourse on Romantic poetry, embodies an attempt to resist the rise of modernity and to preserve continuity with the innocence of origins, guaranteed by the traditional forms of poetry.

I start from this position in my book Rebuilding post-Revolutionary Italy: Leopardi and Vico’s ‘New science’, in which I identify continuity between these two moments and figures. Vico and Leopardi, almost a century apart, renegotiated Italy’s role, identity, and tradition in a modern world and raised the authority of established classics as a shield in an attempt to resist or to negotiate change. In a time that had witnessed large-scale historical transformation with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, within a community that had ‘grown old in Revolutions’, as Pietro Colletta, a reader of Vico, put it in 1815, Italy cultivated its own, distinctive approach to modernity.

– Martina Piperno

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The Future of ruins past: Syria and Italy

At the beginning of his 1791 Les Ruines, Constantin-François de Volney describes himself sitting amidst the ruins of Palmyra, on the edge of the Syrian desert. As his gaze shifts back and forth between the ancient monuments and the open horizon, he sinks into a profound reverie. It is the beginning of a long meditation on the principles that govern the rise and fall of civilizations.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, before its destruction. (Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

A thriving cosmopolitan city in which the Persian and Greco-Roman worlds merged in complex ways, Palmyra was at its height between the first and second centuries AD. Its ruins, a destination for countless European travellers from the seventeenth century onward, bore witness to its greatness. Volney, like many others before him, was fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the sight. For him the ruins of Palmyra evoked not only the glorious past of an ancient Empire, but also a possible future for the great Western civilizations. They echoed the fragility itself of human society, and their shattered architecture was the material embodiment of the incessant cycles of history. By observing the rubble of the past, visitors were also stimulated to reflect on the causes that led a people to ruination. The knowledge of ruins past – for Volney – could help nations avert the eventual collapse of civilization.

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Figure 5: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the subterranean foundations of the Mausoleum built by the Emperor Hadrian, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.9. High Def image also available to view on line.

The ruins of Palmyra are today under attack. As the ancient city has become a battlefield in the war between the Syrian regime and ISIS, we have seen its architectural heritage disappear – razed to the ground with explosives. The latest to fall, after the temples of Baalshamin and of Bel, was the 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph. The eighteenth-century etcher Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose depictions of ruined landscapes are still so eloquent, was convinced that ruins had a voice and that they would continue to speak to our imaginations over the centuries. The ruins of Palmyra are powerful, stirring symbols and the fighters of ISIS must fear their collective voice if they are now trying to silence it once and for all. There is a sense of both disbelief and horror that seizes us at the thought of a piece of our collective history being ruthlessly destroyed.

In my book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836 I discuss the layered symbolism of ruins in Italy during its transition to modernity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I explore how the multiple meanings assumed by ruins are inextricable from the way we think about history, the relationship between past, present, and future, and categories such as progress and change. Ruins are never neutral symbols. If their destruction is an act of war, it is one aimed at rewriting history.

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Figure 6: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View showing a part of the foundations of the Theater of Marcellus, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.32. HD image.

As George Orwell suggested, far more terrible than the power that desires to control the future is one that attempts to dominate the past as well [1]. By erasing ruins, historical memory is destroyed. There is no more effective way of delegitimizing the present in order to lay the ground for a new regime and its new historical narrative. While the preservation (and reinvention) of its ancient ruins was both a poetic and a political act in Italy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Syria today it is an imperative of salvation.

There is some hope on the horizon. In October 2015, a group of activists started #NEWPALMYRA, an online archive of 3-D models that reproduce Palmyra’s monuments with the aim of “rebuilding” the city. The Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology has also launched the Million Image Database project, whose goal is to construct a 3-D photographic record of objects from endangered sites across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palmyra. To save the ruins of the past is an act of resistance crucial to saving the future.

– Sabrina Ferri

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Sabrina Ferri, Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, December 2015. ISBN 978-0-7294-1171-4.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ (1943), in Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays. See also Orwell, 1984 (1949).

Learning art in Rome… à la française

Can art be taught? Certainly. The larger question is, can it be learnt? And if so, how?

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Charles-Joseph Natoire, Life class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (detail), 1746, The Courtauld Institute, London

From at least 1298, when Philip IV sponsored a court artist’s study-tour of Italy, French monarchs and ministers believed art was best learned by reproducing the frescoes, paintings, statuary and Roman ruins found beyond the Alps. While the origins of Philip’s respect for Italy are unclear, not so that of the Valois kings who profited aesthetically from sixty-five years of warfare on the peninsula (1494-1559) and issued invitations to Italian masters upon their return. Perhaps inspired by their work, French artists and architects made their separate ways to Florence and Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some with government support, others on their own. Whether they selected a mentor or allowed curiosity to lead them, their experiences were necessarily uneven, but the glories of French Renaissance and Classical art and architecture leave no doubt that they did indeed ‘learn’.

Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

Individual artists continued to study Italian masterworks throughout the Ancien Régime, but in so far as official France was concerned, structured curricula replaced independent study – even in Rome itself. In Charles-Joseph Natoire and the Académie de France in Rome: a re-evaluation I discuss how Jean-Baptiste Colbert instituted advanced training in the papal city for a select group of young men who had been awarded Grands Prix by the Académies royales de peinture et de sculpture (1648-1793) and Architecture (1671-1793).

For some twenty years, Grands Prix painters and sculptors were further prepared for Rome through the government-sponsored programme at the Ecole royale des élèves protégés in Paris (1751-1774). Each step in the educational programme decreased students’ control over their art, for financial support brought obligation. Even if, from 1676 onward, the Académie de peinture reviewed portfolios to determine who had to compete for that year’s Grand Prix, students were still at liberty to conceptualise and develop the topics assigned. As the king’s protégés, however, they copied artwork held in the Louvre and, in general, chafed under the rules Colbert had developed for the pensionnaires of the Académie de France in Rome (1666-1793), whose goal was to form artists ‘capable of serving the king well’. Colbert interpreted this literally.

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In its early years, the Académie de France functioned more like a boot camp than an art school, as students reproduced ‘everything beautiful’ in the city and Colbert dispatched cargo ships from Marseilles to collect work intended to enhance the halls and gardens of the king’s multiple properties. That need eventually diminished: in 1742, Philibert Orry, who then directed the Bâtiments du roi, served notice that no more copies of antique statuary were required. The pensionnaires were still not free to explore their own interests, however. In 1752, Bâtiments director Marigny, told Natoire that students’ ‘real business’ was to copy the work of the great masters and do this ‘without ceasing’.

Did students learn from these experiences? Certainly, all were competent and many became successful, as Bourbon France defined that success: admitted to the royal academies, exhibiting at the Salons and working for French and European courts. Looking back, though, only the autonomous Jacques-Louis David has proved as influential as certain seventeenth-century painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun, whose independent study in Rome transformed the Ecole française.

– Reed Benhamou, Indiana University

Further reading:

Reed Benhamou, Regulating the Académie: art, rules and power in ancien régime France, ISBN 978-0-7294-0972-8 (SVEC 2009:08)