restricted access 1. Allegory, Poetic Theology, and Enlightenment Aesthetics
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31 c h a p t e r 1 Allegory, Poetic Theology, and Enlightenment Aesthetics Victoria Kahn Included in Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors , and Architects (1672) is an engraving of an allegorical figure of “wise imitation” (imitatio sapiens), which Stephen Halliwell has described in the following way: “Classically draped and seated inside an architectural perspective , [she] self-admiringly gazes into a mirror, symbol of her own idealized potential, but simultaneously treads resolutely on an unprepossessing ‘ape,’ traditional metaphor for the debasement of mimesis into the empty simulation of a world of vulgarly reflective surfaces.”1 This allegorical figure of imitation aptly illustrates two common (and ultimately entwined) ways of telling the story of the relation of the Renaissance to the history of aesthetics. One version is a story of the rupture with the Middle Ages brought about by the recovery of the classical traditions of rhetoric and poetics, and their various ideas of the imitation of nature or nature’s laws. A second version concedes the superficial continuity of allegorical interpretation from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, while emphasizing the Renaissance break with habits of medieval allegorizing. Instead of gods and goddesses in medieval dress, we find a new sense of historical anachronism and a new attention to the formal properties of ancient art 32 Victoria Kahn and art more generally, properties which in turn provoke imitation on the part of Renaissance artists. Particularly in this second story, Renaissance art is described as gradually liberating itself from the theological strictures of medieval theorizing and as anticipating something like the autonomy of the eighteenth-century aesthetic artifact, with its formal purposiveness for disinterested contemplation.2 Ultimately, as Bellori’s image suggests, these two stories are two aspects of the same rich development of Renaissance art. But for the purposes of this essay, I would like to tell the story of Renaissance aesthetics from the perspective of the long history of allegorical interpretation, not least of all because of the prominent role Kant has frequently played as the telos of this narrative. In my version, however, this is a story not so much of rupture as of transformation, one in which Aristotelian and rhetorical ideas of imitation commingle with late antique and medieval traditions of Neoplatonic allegorizing. As in the other stories, so in this one the Renaissance could be said to discover the autonomy of artistic form. But I argue that it is conceding too much to the eighteenth-century discourse of aesthetics to say that Renaissance ideas of form are important because they anticipate Immanuel Kant, as Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky were wont to do. Instead, it is better to see the Renaissance as helping us historicize the idea of the aesthetic. That is, it helps us understand that the aesthetic is not a Hegelian idea that achieves its full realization only at a certain moment in history or indeed at the end of history. Instead, even as we concede that something new emerges with the idea of aesthetic appreciation as disinterested contemplation in the eighteenth century, it is possible to trace a distinctive Renaissance engagement with questions of aesthetics that contributes to later notions of the autonomy of art, at the same time that it complicates any attempt to locate the origin of aesthetics in the eighteenth century. The use of the term aesthetics is not common in the scholarship on the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, as in antiquity, art, it’s argued, was most often seen in a moral, pedagogical, rhetorical, and pragmatic context rather than being conceived in purely aesthetic terms.3 Although Renaissance artists were just as preoccupied with the rhetorical and ethical failures of art to persuade to virtue as with its successes, such rhetorical failure was, according to this argument, not yet recuperated as a higher form of art: the aesthetic conception of the work of art as an autonomous artifact designed for the sole purpose of the reader’s or viewer’s pleasure was still only rarely articulated.4 But perhaps in our attention to programmatic defenses of poetry, explicit statements about the rhetorical function of art, or Allegory, Poetic Theology, and Enlightenment Aesthetics 33 examples of art’s failure to persuade, we have been looking in the wrong places for the Renaissance contribution to the history of aesthetics. Once we turn to the history of reading, specifically of allegorical hermeneutics, we find a new attention to the form-giving power of...