Interventions: toward a new model of Renaissance anachronism.

Author:Nagel, Alexander
Position:Cover Story

The Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio pictured Saint Augustine seated at a table in a roomy study, pausing, his pen raised from the paper. Augustine is writing a letter to Saint Jerome asking the older man for advice and at that very moment, in distant Bethlehem, Jerome dies. Augustine looks up from his desk, as his room fills with light and an ineffable fragrance, and he hears the voice of Jerome. Carpaccio painted the picture about 1503 for the Confraternity of S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice, where it still hangs today (Fig. 1). It is a historical picture, re-creating an incident supposedly narrated by Augustine himself in a spurious letter frequently published in late-fifteenth-century Venice as a supplement to biographies of Saint Jerome. (1) The fluttering pages of the open codices, the fall of the shadows, the alerted dog, the poised pen all suggest the momentariness of that moment, the evening hour of compline, as Augustine tells us. This is secular time, the time of lived experience, whose each moment repeats but differs from the previous moment. The saeculum is measured out against a completely different temporality, the time frame of perfect understanding. Augustine had been planning a treatise on the joys of the blessed and was writing to Jerome for guidance on the topic. However, his letter was badly placed in secular time and would never reach its addressee. Instead, at the moment he put the salutation down on paper, Augustine reports, Jerome's voice came to him from that place of the blessed to chastise him for his hubris in attempting to reason about what was beyond his comprehension. "By what measure," Jerome asked, "will you measure the immense?"

The artifacts and the furnishings described by this picture, occupants of mundane, "fallen" time, are all tied to history by their forms, but in different ways and with differing degrees of certitude. It seems at first that everything is much as it might have been in an Italian scholar's well-appointed study of about 1500. At the left is an elegant red chair with cloth fringe and brass rivets and a tiny lectern. A door at the back opens onto a smaller room with a table supporting piles of books and a rotating book stand. Carpaccio portrays writing implements, penholders, scientific instruments, an hourglass, and, on a shelf running along the left wall, under a shelf of books, still more bric-a-brac of the sort that scholars like to collect: old pots, statuettes, even prehistoric flint artifacts, misunderstood by the painter and his contemporaries as petrified lightning. (2) Some of these objects clash anachronistically with the picture's subject matter. One of the small statues is a representation of Venus, an object that a modern clergyman, a man of taste and liberal views capable of distinguishing a shelf from an altar table, might have prized, but that Saint Augustine would not have owned. (3) Augustine was vehement in his condemnation of pagan statuary, as any of his Renaissance readers would have known. (4) On the rear wall is a kind of private chapel, a wall niche framed by pilasters and faced with spandrels with inlaid vegetal ornament, which shelters an altar. The altar looks as if it is in use: the curtain is pushed aside and the doors on the front are open, revealing ecclesiastical equipment. Augustine has placed his bishop's miter on the altar table and propped his crosier and a censer on either side. They are the appurtenances that a modern bishop might have owned. Even so, those modern artifacts, and a modern chapel with its fashionable frame, all had an all'antica flavor that connected them with the Roman past, with Augustine's historical world, more or less. Such artifacts, given a virtual life inside a painted fiction, entered into poetic play with each other, orchestrated by the painter-author.

A Clash of Temporalities

Many fifteenth-century painters mingled historical and contemporary references in their works. Even Carpaccio's Augustine, it is argued by some scholars, was a screen for a modern portrait, a papal official in one account, in another, Cardinal Bessarion. (5) Such deliberate anachronisms, juxtapositions of historically distinct styles in a single picture and stagings of historical events in contemporary settings, fed back into the symbolic machinery of the pictures. Fifteenth-century Flemish painters, for instance, embedded samples of medieval architectural styles as an iconographic device: the round-arched or "Romanesque" style as the signifier of the old covenant, "Gothic" pointed arches as the signifier of the new. (6) Rogier van der Weyden attached an anachronistic crucifix to the central pier of a ruinous Nativity shed, site of maximum condensation and redundancy of epochal time. (7) Sandro Botticelli dressed the characters of his Primavera in the costumes of contemporary festival pageantry, a blend of the still fashionable and slightly out-of-date, creating a delicious tension with the literary premise of a primordial theophany, the invitation to the first spring of all time. (8) The staged collision between the visually familiar and the unfamiliar was one of the ways that modern paintings, to borrow a phrase from Alfred Acres, "customized the terms of their own perception." (9) Such works dared to make reference to a "here" and a "now" relative to a historical beholder, through perspective or modern costumes or hidden contemporary portraits. The "customized," contingent aspect of the work could be folded back into the work's primary, usually nonlocal aims. The internal dissonance between universal and contingent then generated a whole new layer of meanings.

The condition of possibility for such complex feedback effects was the idea that form would be legible to the beholder as the trace of an epoch, a culture, a world--as a "style," in other words. Behind the idea of historical style stands a theory about the origins of formed artifacts. According to this theory, the circumstances of an artifact's fabrication, its originary context, are registered in its physical features. A clash of temporalities of the sort we find in Carpaccio comes about when patrons and artist and beholders all agree to see the artifacts "cited" in the painting, the buildings or statues or costumes, as traces of historical moments. One can characterize this theory of the origin of the artifact--which is equally a theory of the origin of the artwork--as performative. The artifact or the work, according to this theory, was the product of a singular historical performance. Any subsequent repetitions of that performance, for example, copies of the work, will be alienated from the original scene of making.


This theory of origins came into especially sharp focus over the course of the fifteenth century. An artist was now conceived for the first time as an author, an auctor or founder, a legitimate point of origin for a painting or sculpture, or even a building. The author, more generally the entire context of fabrication, leaves traces in the fabric of the work. By the third quarter of the fifteenth century, the image of the stylus or pen, the writing instrument that both in ancient rhetorical treatises and in modern Petrarch had come to stand symbolically for the individual author's peculiar, inalienable way of putting things into words, was carried over into the contemporary discourse on painting. The Florentine Antonio Filarete, in his Treatise on Architecture (1461-64), wrote that "the painter is known by the manner of his figures, and in every discipline one is known by his style." (10) A character in Baldassare Castiglione's dialogue The Courtier (1528) says of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, Raphael. Michelangelo, and Giorgione that "each is recognized to be perfect in his own style." (11) Since the late fifteenth century some version of this theory of origins is inscribed into every European painting. (12)

Carpaccio's painting dramatizes the clash between temporalities. At the heart of the picture, inside the wall niche, the system of anachronistic citations reaches a crescendo and then collapses in upon itself. On Augustine's private altar stands a statue of the resurrected Christ. Here Carpaccio has imagined an Early Christian altar, adorned not by a carved and painted retable but by a freestanding bronze. Of course, no such work would have stood on a fifth-century altar. Carpaccio in fact was describing a modern work, a bronze statue today in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (Fig. 2). The work was made in the Veneto in the early 1490s and could be found, at the time Carpaccio painted his picture, on an altar in the Venetian church of S. Maria della Carita in Venice. (13) It was commissioned, together with an elaborate chapel, by the wealthy jeweler and antiquarian Domenico di Piero. (14) At 54 3/8 inches (138 centimeters), it is significantly larger than a statuette, though under life-size. (15)

Since the Christ figure on the altar was a modern work, it seems to match the other anachronisms in the room, the modern furniture and the bound codices. But this statue is presented as an ancient work. Of course, no such artifact had survived from Early Christian times. The literary tradition, however, mentions an ancient bronze statue of Christ. The early-fourth-century church historian Eusebius had described a bronze statue group in Paneas (present-day Baniyas, north of the Sea of Galilee) that showed a woman kneeling in supplication before a man with a cloak draped over his shoulder and with his arm outstretched to her. (16) Eusebius's account was retold and embroidered throughout the Middle Ages and in the thirteenth century made it into the pages of the Golden Legend, one of the most widely read devotional texts of the later Middle Ages. In the Golden Legend the two-figure group had become a single statue of Christ. (17) The story was frequently invoked by iconophiles during the...

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