- A Note on Deleuze and Renaissance Art
“Perspective is much more than a secret technique for imitating a reality… It is the invention of a world dominated and possessed through and through.” These inimical words by Maurice Merleau-Ponty encapsulate a customary philosophical position, as explicit and implicit references to early modern culture by critical theorists and continental philosophers lead to an uninviting and even sinister picture (251). Because of its emphasis on the human eye, quantitative spatial relations, and the virtual incising of pictorial space via linear perspective, the Renaissance was cast as a formidable villain in order to uphold modern artistic production (Zorach, “Renaissance Theory” 9). It is an accusatory characterization that in turn empowers linear perspective as a technique that not only dictates a unified visual space on a flat surface, but also stipulates control over nature and urban spaces. The linear system is understood to have cut and hollowed the medieval urban fabric in order to create wide and straight avenues where “the tyranny of the geometrical does not allow for dirt, irregularity or ultimately life” (Schich 33). The disembodied eye of perspective looms. Withdrawn and private, the Renaissance appears not as a compelling or enticing adversary, but a bureaucratic administrator of the state machine, instituting universal regulations and a system of surveillance without concern for the specifics of site, life, or dwelling.
The image of the Renaissance as enforcing quantitative spatial relations is palpable in the writings of Gilles Deleuze, though the French philosopher does not appear centrally concerned with the period. Within early modernity, his interests ostensibly remain within the Baroque. In fact, Deleuze often avoids referencing the Renaissance as such, which is even omitted from his more comprehensive accounts of art historical trajectories. When the Renaissance is mentioned, the reader finds a series of critical exchanges with the primacy of optical distance and representation. In A Thousand Plateaus, written in collaboration with Felix Guattari, linear perspective is seen as a striated and hierarchical mode of representation that implements an optical apparatus of social control (495). For Deleuze and Guattari, the constrictions promulgated by perspective are symptomatic of a larger concern with identity and linearity that signifies a departure from Gothic art. In a striking though unflattering interpretation of Giotto’s proto-Renaissance Stigmatization of St. Francis (Fig. 1), the image of Christ is described as a “kite-machine” and a “veritable airplane” that [End Page 44] creates a system of power in which both space and body are regularized. The image articulates “the landscapification of all milieus” (178; Deleuze, Francis Bacon 10).
The rhetorical effect of such exclusions and criticisms seems un-yielding. But despite a discernible aversion towards the Renaissance as a period, one detects in Deleuze’s oeuvre scattered positive engagements with Renaissance artists like Uccello, Michelangelo, Rosso Fiorentino, or Tintoretto. What is more, Deleuze developed the concept of ligne de fuite, which plays a central role in his philosophy. Though commonly translated as “lines of flight,” it is a French technical term associated with linear perspective, literally meaning “receding lines.” Exploring the interstitial gaps in Deleuze’s thought as openings onto Renaissance and contemporary theory, this essay sketches the significance of Deleuze’s engagement with the period, in turn complicating the common understanding of perspective as a hierarchical apparatus of social and visual control. My goal is not to parse Deleuze’s references, but to explore and problematize both how Deleuze saw the Renaissance and how the Renaissance can inform Deleuzian thought.
Un-Demarcating the Renaissance
In retrospect, the Italian Renaissance appears as a predictable choice for a foil, especially given the mid-twentieth-century discourse on Renaissance art, which often emphasized a reductive and teleological notion of the period itself. Stranger still, historiographic interpretations of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art as a homogenous system of optical and territorial coercion have not dissipated, despite contemporary challenges to pictorial unification, naturalism, the disembodied eye of the viewer, the idea that geometric city planning did not exist in the Middle Ages, the importance of geometric accuracy for artists, and even the validity of the term “Renaissance” itself.1 But the Renaissance that critical theorists and philosophers studied...