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8. Strokes of Wit: Theorizing Beauty in Baroque Italy
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194 c h a p t e r 8 Strokes of Wit: Theorizing Beauty in Baroque Italy Jon R. Snyder 1 Few, if any, artistic and cultural movements in the West have been contested as bitterly and for as long as the Baroque. There is little agreement among scholars over what it was, and even the source of the term “Baroque” today remains uncertain. What is beyond controversy is the fact that, in the first half of the eighteenth century, critics began to apply this term pejoratively to works of seventeenth-century anticlassicism, especially those from Italy.1 Throughout the 1600s well-heeled foreigners flocked to the peninsula to revere its antiquities, explore its cities, admire its landscapes, and absorb the art of the Renaissance. Most of these northern European tourists did not take, however, more than a passing interest in contemporary Italian culture, with the exception of music, and few likely noticed that in the Po valley of northern Italy there appeared, only a few years apart, two hugely ambitious apologies for anticlassical art: Emanuele Tesauro’s Il cannocchiale aristotelico (The Aristotelian spyglass, 1654 first edition) in Turin and Marco Boschini’s La carta del navegar pitoresco (The map of painterly navigation , 1660) in Venice.2 We have no conclusive evidence today that these Strokes of Wit: Theorizing Beauty in Baroque Italy 195 two writers knew of each other’s work. Both were, however, admirers of Giovan Battista Marino (1569–1625), certainly the most famous—as well as controversial—Italian poet of the age, although by the midway point of the Seicento his reputation was on the wane.3 The principles of Marinist poetics, which constitute the cornerstone for the Baroque rethinking of the arts, connect these two points along the “continual periphery” of Seicento Italian culture.4 Although unlikely bedfellows in many ways, Tesauro and Boschini further Marino’s frontal assault on the rule systems of classicism. In so doing, these writers put to work in their respective treatises the aesthetic premises on which rest Marinism and, by extension, the Baroque itself, while pushing these toward a position concerning art so extreme that few thinkers anywhere in Europe would follow for more than a century to come. The Seicento witnessed the first full-fledged crisis in modernity of the core critical-aesthetic principles inherited from classical antiquity, such as proportion, harmony, unity, decorum, and so on, that had long governed, guaranteed, and stabilized Western thinking about artworks.5 Prior to this crisis, the arts in Italy had generally engaged the logic of “representation,” although the latter was by no means to be understood as a passive reflection of, or transparent window onto, reality. Starting in the later years of the sixteenth century, however, the centrality of mimesis—and all that was predicated on this selfsame notion—in the production and evaluation of contemporary artworks began ever more insistently to be called into question . The system of rules and genres that had been derived in large part from the study of classical antiquity and that was grounded in the logic of verisimilitude (i.e., representation) was increasingly the target of painters, poets, sculptors, architects, musicians, and critics. Although classicism was very far from spent as a cultural force, it was to be gradually challenged by a rival movement that in its own time had no banner other than “the modern.” Appearing in print long after this epochal cultural turn had occurred , both Il cannocchiale aristotelico and La carta del navegar pitoresco exalt the shock value of the “new” in the arts, dissolving the borders traditionally separating genres, arts, and disciplines in favor of the transgressive and the extreme, without laying claim to the unity, harmony, or decorum that supposedly distinguished both nature and its greatest imitator, namely ancient art. The treatises are in agreement, moreover, that the two most prominent arts of the age are poetry and painting. If Tesauro’s inquiry favors the former and Boschini’s the latter, both poetry and painting play a central role in these thinkers’ respective accounts of early modern anticlassicism. In 196 Jon R. Snyder seventeenth-century Italy, poetry still clung to its long-held privileges, asserting supremacy among the arts, but the visual field in point of fact provided the essential paradigm for the Baroque.6 Thus the intermingling of painting and poetry in these two treatises is inscribed in a particular cultural logic of the age, namely hybridization, and is far from being a nod in the direction of...