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Friday, November 29, 2013

Pietro da Cortona

Triumph of Divine Providence, 1633-39, Pietro da Cortona (sometimes called the
"Triumph of the Barberini," because of it's ceiling location in the Barberini Palace
in Rome). The headcount is close to one-hundred.
Should art be about theoretical principles, intent upon narrating a story, propounding a viewpoint, perhaps expounding upon some important social issue, or, should it be purely decorative, intent upon nothing more than exciting the senses? Before anyone comes down firmly on either side, go back and read the first word: "should." Remember, what art should be is often very much at odds with what art is. And, to add further complexity, as silly as it may have sounded at the time, Bill Clinton had a point: "It also depends upon what your definition of "is" is." The common definition involves present, momentary, facts. However, in our minds, we all too often broaden the definition of "is" to encroach upon the word "was." All to often we mentally include in the definition of "is" the concept of "always has been." That is, of course, incorrect, but nonetheless unconsciously frequent. In other words, what art "is" not only does not include what it "should" be, but also does not include what it has been. We could also get into the definition of art in general, but that's a whole other can of worms.
Pietro da Cortona Self-portrait,
ca. 1640
Andrea Sacchi, 1650-55,
Carlo Maratta
There are those, of course, who would try to have it both ways, asserting that art should be both principled and decorative. I suppose it can be argued that sometimes this fence-straddling may be valid. Michelangelo could be said to have demonstrated that with his Sistine ceiling, yet he veered sharply to the opposite extreme with his Last Judgement, which, though heavily populated, certainly could not be considered decorative in any sense. As one might suspect, there is nothing new about this debate. Art today is mostly decorative. Outside of the comic pages, the editorial page, YouTube, and Netflix, art today seldom narrates, propounds, or expounds. Back in the 17th century, around 1637, Pietro da Cortona, the director of Rome's Academy of St. Luke (the painters guild) formally debated this question with Andrea Sacchi, who, like da Cortona, was a leading Baroque painter at the time. Not surprisingly these two "union" painters pretty much defined art as painting, with perhaps a patronizing nod toward sculpture and maybe architecture. Beyond that, they boiled the question down to how many figures should populate a painting. Da Cortona argued for lots and lots of them, in order to accomodate subplots and add depth to the central natrrative theme. In looking at his (to our eyes) over-populated Triumph of Divine Providence (top), he obviously practiced what he preached, considering his figures to be highly decorative.
Allegory of Divine Wisdom, 1628-33, Andrea Sacchi.
Compare this to da Cortona's "family reunion" depicted on the Barberini ceiling (top).
Sacchi (above) argued that painting should incorporate only a few figures since it was impossible to convey any distinct role or individuality to more than a limited number. During the next hundred years, as the Rococo era evolved from the Baroque, da Cortona's views would seem to have dominated as painting practically divorced itself from meaningful narration. Then as painting "got serious" again, during the Classical era of the early 19th century, Sacchi viewpoint seems to have won out. Of course, to us today, the whole arguement seems as silly as the arguing among medieval theologians as to how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. For starters, we no longer include beauty as a mandatory element in our definition of art. Likewise, today, painted figures more often involve prurient interests rather than either social narrative or decorative motifs. In which case, "the more the merrier" may support da Cortona's viewpoint.

Cortona may have been guilty of painting too many of them, but when it came to the human body, he certainly knew it from the inside out. He got his start in 1618 by etching anatomical drawings. Though highly accurate, the plates were considered so disturbing they were not printed until around a hundred years later. Strangely, the figures seem
very much alive. One might say that Cortona's models "spilled their guts" for him.


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