Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.11

Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, The Mastery of Nature: Aspects of Art, Science, and Humanism in the Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. 325. $39.95. ISBN-0-691-03205-X.

Reviewed by Christiane Hertel, Bryn Mawr College.

Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann is today the leading American expert on the culture of Rudolf II's court in Prague. This book makes conveniently available to us his scholarship on the subject over a period of two decades by assembling articles published between 1975 and 1992. Moreover, it allows us, invited by Kaufmann in his introductory essay to do so, to see them in light of each other and to reflect upon their arguments and implications in a broader context.

To begin with the title, it suggests, precisely by moving from the singular of The Mastery to the plural of Aspects, that in the Renaissance art, science, and humanism partook in the enterprise of mastering nature. This implies a symmetry between the mastery of nature and the mastery of art, science, and humanism. In the dedication of the book ("To my teachers at Collegiate and to their memory"), in the "Preface and Acknowledgements," and in the introduction, "The Mastery of Nature: Paradigms and Problems," Kaufmann pays homage to James Ackerman, E.H. Gombrich and, further, to Frances Yates, the Warburg Institute and Harvard University. He recounts how these have educated him to become the scholar he is today, making clear that he considers their work on Renaissance art as a legacy to him and thinks of his own task in turn as one probing their arguments by further differentiating certain issues. The most prominent among these are, first, problems arising from a mistakenly assumed exclusivity of humanism and classical art theory on the one hand and natural science on the other; second, the implications of the artistic and scientific "discovery of the world" for the modern state and its social life; third, the relationship between naturalism and bourgeois-civic humanism; and, finally, the negotiation of ethical or religious beliefs, the "new" science, and naturalism in art. Kaufmann hopes to "offer glimpses of solutions" to these problems. The warm, personal tone of the introductory essay does not correspond directly to the factual, at times authoritative style that characterizes the following chapters. The framing essays, the introduction and Chapter VII, were written for this book, the others, articles published elsewhere, have been edited to include cross-references and to update the bibliography cited in the notes. Chapters I to VI do not follow in a chronological order, a choice which suggests a versatile continuity within Kaufmann's scholarship and a parallel, factual continuity in the topics he addresses. Thus, the thematic arrangement of the articles offers part of the thesis governing their argumentation, namely, that the "ability to turn with confidence to the texts of the past" (p. 6) is not only a scholarly qualification and paradigm but mirrors and is characteristic of the renaissance scholar as well, be he "learned artist" -- a frequently used expression --, scientist, or humanist courtier.

Kaufmann accepts neither the one-sided understanding of the identity of art and science alone in the sense of the strife for inclusion of the fine arts among the liberal arts nor in the sense of their rationalization as empirical science. Instead he argues that while indeed art and science increasingly distinguished themselves from each other in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they did not go separate ways but influenced each other ever more, especially in the self-conscious atmosphere of the court of Rudolf II (Holy Roman Emperor between 1576 and 1612) in Prague, where the reciprocal communication, advice, commentary of artists and scientists served to enhance their common tasks. Seen this way, Rudolf's court and what Kaufmann once calls with a scientific metaphor its "interdisciplinary cross-pollination" (p. 150) provide a factual and a structural paradigm for times to come, not the least ours. For Kaufmann it is clearly an epistemological paradigm which implies that artists, scientists and humanist court officials spoke in a general but essential sense a common language. This language draws its strength and commonality to a considerable degree from the ancient Roman rhetoric and literature which also enables scholars today, provided they are sufficiently trained as philologists to grasp this court culture of mastery and confident exploration as a by and large harmonious entity. This conviction sustains Kaufmann's argument throughout the book. That such analogies, if taken to be paradigmatic, might hide problems, for instance of historical difference and of gender, either goes unnoticed or is left to others to address.

In his own outline of its contents the author does not ask whether or not the four major issues listed earlier are resolved in it but rather how: Chapter I "suggests how a perspective informed by anthropology and history provides a way of seeing how motivations related to religious beliefs and practices may have contributed to the creation of illusionistic imitations of the natural world." Chapter II "suggests how, once the imitation of nature became a goal for the visual arts, traditions of astronomy and optics were coordinated with writings on art in the conceptualization of responses to problems of pictorial illusionism." Chapter III interprets an artist's poems "to show how naturalistic images can be related to academic ideals" (my italics, p. 9). Words like "relate", "coordinate", "employ", and, elsewhere, "emulation" (pp. 88, 164) emphasize that The Mastery of Nature presupposes equality among the members of a given cultural and social configuration. Kaufmann proceeds from chapter to chapter by alternately investigating relationships between small groups of individuals at Rudolf II's court in combination with contemporary and ancient texts. A certain historical progression, from late medieval book illumination over the metaphors of micro- and macrocosm and hermiticism to the foundations of modern physics and astronomy is suggested.

Chapter I, "The Sanctification of Nature: Observations on the Origins of Trompe L'Oeil in Netherlandish Book Painting of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century" (1991), is co-authored with Virginia Roehrig Kaufmann. Here the authors present a very intriguing thesis, namely, that these origins lie in a practice of collecting objects, such as amulets and naturalia like pilgrimage shells, and possibly flowers, and of inserting these into books of hours serving as sanctifying scrap-books. They suggest further that a contact between the artist-empiricist Georg (Joris) Hoefnagel and examples of such practices existed and that a link between religious and profane trompe l'oeil, e.g. in autograph albums (Stammbücher, Alba Amicorum), might be established. Chapter II, "The Perspective of Shadows: The History of the Theory of Shadow Projection" (1975), summarizes with a sometimes difficult density Kaufmann's M.A. thesis on this subject. Here, Dürer and Leonardo but also other renaissance artists serve to focus the critical survey. Their theoretical writings are compared with those by astronomers and mathematicians and thus suggest an analogy between art and science. Chapter III, "The Nature of Imitation: Hoefnagel on Dürer" (1989), coordinates Hoefnagel, Dürer and Melanchthon with Seneca, neo-Stoicism, and Horatian poetics to account for connections "between Hoefnagel's imitation of Dürer and issues of art theory" (p. 99). Chapter IV, "Metamorphoses of Nature: Arcimboldo's Imperial Allegories" (1976), interprets Guiseppe Arcimboldo's paintings of Rudolf II as Vertumnus and the earlier series of the Seasons and the Elements in light of Giovanni Baptista Fonteo's and Gregorio Comanini's poems written to accompany and elucidate the paintings in close cooperation with the artist. This interpretation is then amplified in an "Excursus" on "Arcimboldo and Propertius." There Kaufmann probes the possibility of Arcimboldo's direct reference to Propertius' elegy on Vertumnus, a reference he takes to be prominent in Comanini's poem on Arcimboldo's Vertumnus. He argues that, taken together, the paintings and their references represent Rudolf II's claim to political power over the known world and his aim to defeat the Turks not so much on behalf of Christianity as on behalf of nature and of a genealogical providence for a never-ending Habsburg dynasty (pp. 127, 119). Chapter V, "Astronomy, Technology, Humanism, and Art at the Entry of Rudolf II into Vienna, 1577: The Role of Paulus Fabritius" (1992), takes us back to a time shortly after Rudolf II became emperor. It discusses mainly Bartholomäus Spranger's work on the triumphal arches for the occasion in cooperation with the influential court physician, astronomer and "humanist adviser" Paulus Fabritius (p. 147) along with van Mander's account of one of the arches in Het Schilder-Boeck of 1604 and thematically related artefacts to argue that the integration of art and technology and the public display of this integration were seen from the outset as the achievement of Rudolf's rule and so should be considered as "another piece of evidence that artists connected with the imperial court were themselves learned" and that "[a]rt, science, technology, and humanism were interrelated in the circles of the imperial court of Rudolf II" (p. 150). Chapter VI, "'Ancients and Moderns' in Prague: Arcimboldo's Drawings for Silk Manufacture" (1983/84), alludes to the much later "Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes" to suggest a certain continuity leading up to it from Arcimboldo onwards. The chapter brings together Arcimboldo, the nobleman Ferdinand Hoffmann, president of the imperial Hofkammer, and, once again, Melanchthon, through an investigation less of the drawings than of Arcimboldo's introductory letter where he calls them crottesqui (grotesques) (p. 152). From its rhetoric Kaufmann retrieves complex references to renaissance art theory and also to Horace, Plinius, Cicero and Tacitus. He thus credits the artist with a "self-conscious modernity" (p. 151) and a self-enhancing notion of difference between the modern and the ancient paradigms, a difference regarding technological advancement (silk manufacturing). Finally, he considers Kepler's, Brahe's and Arcimboldo's "modern stance" to be a forecast of the Querelle and of "the more important scientific discoveries that can be associated with the advent of our own 'modern' age" (p. 173). In Chapter VII, "From Mastery of the World to Mastery of Nature: The Kunstkammer, Politics, and Science," Kaufmann interprets the Kunstkammer as an interdisciplinary practice of the kind envisioned by Francis Bacon and shared by the emperor with his scientist Kepler and his artists such as Spranger and Hoefnagel. Such practice increasingly delivers art, science, and political representation at the imperial court from esoteric hermeticism, intertwining them instead through objective common interests. It is to be distinguished from the mere Wunderkammer, a collection of curiosities without any substantial epistemological claim. That the Kunstkammer could already be mistaken for a Wunderkammer by Galilei Kaufmann considers to be a historic irony within scientific progress, as such progress soon questions and obliterates the very force that brought it about (p. 194).

This last insight on Kaufmann's part into the dialectics of progress is an important one. It corresponds to the kind of secondary sources he employs in this final chapter, works by Elias, Habermas, Blumenberg and Warnke. They do not inform the book's earlier parts, which are very much concerned with the reconstruction of historic accuracy, if not truth. Expressions such as "absolute certainty," "exact relation," "much evidence," "piece of evidence," "in any case/event," "I once suggested," "I still believe" (pp. 41, 105f, 144, 150, 162, 167, 181, 182 and elsewhere) are abundant and stressed, letting the reader glimpse the author's passion for his quest for historical accuracy. Another place where second thoughts enter Kaufmann's factual account is the end of Chapter II on the "Perspective of Shadows" (p. 78). There Kaufmann presumes a continuity of an ever progressive science which he thinks overtook art and its notions of time and space with quantum physics at the turn of the century. Once this breach is acknowledged, even by locating it at such a late point in history, the issue of methodology is raised. Why, for instance, does Kaufmann dismiss the possibility of approaching Arcimboldo through Kafka or Surrealism ("The popular present-day image of him as the grandfather of fantastic art and surrealism is not the historical Arcimboldo. The world of Arcimboldo is not Kafka's Prague." p. 103) and marginalize Barthes' interpretation of what he perceived to be the surreal element in Arcimboldo as a subtle and playful linguistic disruption and intervention at the imperial court?1 -- I should like to mention that the Surrealist periodical Minotaure included in 1936 the juxtaposition of a series of Arcimboldesque Seasons, identified as "École Française du XVII Siècle (Anonyme)" with collages by Gilbert Lély, and also a reproduction of L'Amiral, ascribed to Arcimboldo and located in the collection of Wolfgang Paalen, as evidence for a more serious modern reception of Arcimboldo than the "popular present-day image" suggested by Kaufmann.2 Given Kaufmann's willingness to take the Querelle as a lead to argue Arcimboldo's "self-conscious modernity" in Chapter VI, it would seem very useful to reconsider, for example, Oskar Kokoschka's essay on Arcimboldo (1951), where, weary of technological and scientific "mastery of nature," he takes issue with modern abstraction and writes: "The inversion of cause and effect in Arcimboldi's surrealistic painting consists in the fact that man becomes an addition of objects, that he is, as it were, what he eats, and that he represents the sum of all that exists or that he produces." Kokoschka further wonders whether Arcimboldo, by contrast to Surrealism, "had his eyes open in both directions? ... Could it be that a seer created these picture puzzles as a warning against the logical extreme, following a complicated psychological mechanism of self-protection?"3

It is precisely Kaufmann's confident approach to the past that enables him to master his domain in such a way as to evoke vividly for the reader the contents and dynamics of intellectual relationships among key figures at the imperial court in Prague. Yet this emphasis makes Rudolf II an almost elusive figure, as much a product of these relationships as their mastermind. Kaufmann credits the learned individual with much influence on the course of cultural history as well as on its record. How the sixteenth-century artist and the twentieth-century scholar are -- in this spirit -- thought to interact in the latter's effort to reconstruct historical accuracy is shown by the following historical analogy: "Much as Arcimboldo's contemporaries could not immediately comprehend the meaning of grilli, so art historians have not unanimously identified all his paintings of the Seasons and the Elements" (p. 108). Kaufmann also assumes the reliable clarity and validity of ancient and renaissance rhetoric both as a structure and in the form of particular phrases. In his 1985 review of Svetlana Alpers' The Art of Describing (1983), Kaufmann writes that "[i]t should help to restrain the excesses of those who can find eleborate emblems in every sketch of a twig."4 By the same token, however, one might ask whether a turn of phrase always, necessarily, and intentionally refers to a paradigm, whether, for example, Hoefnagel's distich on Dürer's Melanchthon refers directly to Horace and also expressly intends a comparison of Dürer with Homer (p. 85), leading Kaufmann to further conclusions about Hoefnagel's imitation of Dürer. Just as a twig might only be that -- whatever this then may mean as a form of representation -- so a certain phrase or word might only be a reference to Horace without further implications, even as the twig does occur in some emblems, even as the phrase occurring in Horace's Ars Poetica there refers to Homer. This reader is certainly left with the impression that Kaufmann entrusts words with a great deal more intentional precision and intellectual capacity than images, for he analyses images sparsely, interpreting them mainly in terms of texts. This priority of text to image may lead one to think further about how the semiotic ambiguity and unreadability of images implied by Kaufmann is related to his understanding of The Mastery of Nature and the role of humanism in it.

An involuntary irony of this book lies in the fact that the continuity and community proclaimed in its contents is not matched on its editorial level and therefore will be matched only with difficulty by its reading audience. Some problems need to be mentioned: As most chapters were previously published, it appears that they followed different editorial rules as regards quotations in foreign languages and their translation; these differences are not eliminated in the book. On the whole, Kaufmann provides translations for quotations in modern languages such as Italian, German, and French. This is, however, several times not the case with Latin sources. Only the reader of Latin can avoid mistaking paraphrases not explicitly signalled as such for interpretations of the cited passage or sentence. Unnecessary exclusion of readers occurs when Kaufmann mentions, for example, "the punning reference to engraving" in Hoefnagel's allusion to Horace's phrase "expressi vultus per aenea signa" without telling less learned readers eager to learn that aeneus means "made of bronze" (p. 94). Another editorial problem is posed by the footnotes. Each bibliographic reference is fully quoted only once and henceforth identified in an abridged form without reference to the first footnote containing the full citation. The notes to Chapter III, for example, refer the reader five times to Kaufmann's earlier piece "The Eloquent Artist." The reader who wants to compare the two must go back through all the footnotes to find the complete reference in Chapter I, note 26, and is, indeed, better advised to use RILA. Given the importance, elaboration and bibliographic richness of the notes, which take up ninety-five pages of the book and truly supplement the reprinted articles, their inclusion in the "Index" would have been very desirable and appropriate. This would also have helped to integrate the earlier articles with the recent and current scholarship acknowledged and discussed in the notes. For example, the notes to Chapter II (1975) refer five times to Kemp's The Science of Art (1990), yet Kemp is not mentioned in the index which includes only the names of scholars mentioned in the text. Finally, it is painful to have to stumble over at least forty-three misprints in a publication by Princeton University Press.

These editorial problems contrast drastically with Kaufmann's explicit dedication to philological and historical accuracy and rhetorical transparency which led him to include three appendices of primary sources, partially quoted earlier (in translation) to support his arguments, in their original language and orthography. This inclusion is not only a clear consequence of his approach, as it explicitly acknowledges the different levels of accessibility of his scholarship to different audiences -- an acknowledgement with a paradigm in the Rudolfinian Renaissance (p. 147: "cleft") -- , it also allows his linguistically and philologically apt readers to engage critically with Kaufmann's own "ability to turn with confidence to the texts of the past."


  • [1] Roland Barthes, Die Zeichen des Menschen Arcimboldo, introduction by Achille Bonito Oliva (Parma and Geneva: Franco Maria Ricci, 1978).
  • [2] Minotaure, III: 10 and 12/13 (1936), facsimile reprint (Geneva: Albert Skira, 1981), no pagination.
  • [3] Oskar Kokoschka, "Guiseppe Arcimboldi," in Aufsätze, Vorträge, Essays zur Kunst, Das schriftliche Werk, vol. III, ed. Heinz Spielmann (Hamburg: Hans Christian Verlag, 1975), pp. 93-108. The quotations are my translation of the following passages: "Die Umkehrung von Ursache und Wirkung des surrealistischen Bildes von Arcimboldi besteht darin, daß bei ihm der Mensch zur Addition des Dinglichen wird, daß er gleichsam ist, was er ißt, und die Summe dessen vorstellt, was da ist oder was er produziert" (p. 102), and "[Sollte der Erzvater des Surrealismus vielleicht, im Unterschied zu unserer eit,] seine Augen nach beiden Seiten offen gehalten haben? ... Sollte ein Seher diese Vexierbilder geschaffen haben zur Warnung vor dem logischen Extrem, einem komplizierten psychologischen Mechanismus des Selbstschutzes folgend?" (p. 98) Benno Geiger, who coined the expression of Arcimboldo as the "Erzvater des Surrealismus" ("the arch-father of Surrealism"), included Kokoschka's essay in lieu of an epilogue in his Die Skurrilen Gemälde des Guiseppe Arcimboldi (1527-1593) (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1960).
  • [4] Anthony Grafton and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, "Holland without Huizinga: Dutch Visual Culture in the Seventeenth Century," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XVI:2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 255-265, p. 264.