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Reviewed by:
  • Perpetuum mobile. Métamorphoses des corps et des œuvres de Vinci à Montaigne
  • Deborah N. Losse (bio)
Michel Jeanneret. Perpetuum mobile. Métamorphoses des corps et des œuvres de Vinci à Montaigne. Paris: Macula, 1997. 331 pp.

Michel Jeanneret’s most recent work, focusing on the infatuation with movement, mobility, and transformation in Renaissance arts and letters, captures in its structure the very mobility it is describing. The author moves adeptly through the works of natural philosophers, sculptors, painters, and writers as he convincingly argues that the Renaissance creative spirit held a deep fascination with the world and its creatures in the art of becoming.

La Semaine of Du Bartas (1578) exemplifies the tension existing in Genesis between the notion of creation as a fixed, perfect order and the concept of the creator as an artisan, constantly shaping and perfecting form from shapeless matter. Du Bartas, along with Ronsard, draws on the tradition of Plato and later clarified by Aristotle that matter is in the continual process of transformation. It is the diversity of forms—the constant renewal of forms—that so intrigued Montaigne.

Ovid’s work, the Metamorphoses, serves the humanists in their interest in metempsychosis. Ronsard returns again and again to the renewal that springs from cataclysm. The fall of Rome gave way the rise of the European monarchs. His “Hymne de la mort” details the positive cycle of life in other forms emerging from death. The sonnet “Sur la mort de Marie” depicts Marie’s transformation at death and subsequent rebirth in flowers—notably the rose. In a similar way, Rabelais shows Gargantua’s conflict when his wife Badebec dies at the birth of his son Pantagruel. Should he weep from sadness or laugh with joy (Pantagruel, chap. 3)? Metamorphosis offers the thwarted lovers of Petrarch and Ronsard the possibility of taking another form to gain access to the lady and to satisfy unfulfilled desire. The poet assumes the form of mobile, fluid structures: water, smoke, and clouds, to approach his beloved. Even cartographers were inspired by the notion of the world in gestation as new worlds were discovered and mapped.

Present in Renaissance art is the notion that everything is alive: “tout vit.” Jeanneret sets Giordano Bruni’s effort to find a common rule guiding the universe within the context of new scientific revelations where the planets no longer have perfect forms and the world is stripped of its fixed center. Bruni settles on the concept of vitalism in which everything is in perpetual [End Page 980] movement. Objects are thought to have a universal soul propelling them constantly from one state to another in the quest for perfection.

Leonardo espouses Bruni’s notion of perpetual motion, and he, in visual imagery, and Montaigne, in words, are the two great proponents of movement in the Renaissance. One of the great strengths of Jeanneret’s work is the fusion of pictorial and verbal imagery. The author has a gift for selecting artwork which reflects the verbal imagery of writers of the same period. Hence, Leonardo’s sketch of a horse, a lion, and a human head conveying a similar look of aggression corresponds to Montaigne’s recording of related inclinations in animals and humans.

The Renaissance artist, whether painter or writer, delights in representing the destructive power of nature—wind, rain, lightning. Leonardo’s sketch of a hurricane descending on horsemen and trees or Rabelais’s storm in the Quart Livre are just two examples. Chaos plays a colorful role in humanist literature, and is depicted as the whore who seeks to produce offspring in the work of Leone Ebreo. Chaos represents matter’s desire for form. Scève’s Microcosme describes the divine power which gives shape to matter. The protestant Du Bartas is more explicit in in defining God’s unique, original role in shaping matter. The context of the religious wars in France gave rise to the negative image of chaos, where order gives way to unruliness. The humanists latch on to Ficino’s concept, expressed in his commentary on Plato’s Symposium, that love impresses on the elements a desire for form. Love is the propelling force to perfection, as we see in...

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