Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.54

Caroline van Eck, Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xii, 225; ills. 54.  ISBN 978-0-521-84435-2.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by David Cast, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2046 words

Caroline van Eck is well known and well respected for her studies in the history and theory of architecture and it is nicely appropriate that an image of Sir John Soane's wonderful, picturesque façade at Pitzhanger Manor graces the outside cover of this book. But here she cuts a wider swathe to include painting and sculpture in her examination of the role of rhetoric and the practices of classical rhetoric within what she calls the visual persuasion of the arts in Early Modern Europe. In classical philosophy there had always been a language to speak of the arts as depiction, "the visual representation of the thing" as the English humanist George Puttenham put it in 1589. But such an account of art, as Erwin Panofsky so memorably explained, measuring painting and sculpture against the concepts of cognitive truth, "i.e. correspondence to the Ideas", was unable to do them justice and allowed no room for what he described as an aesthetics of representational art as an intellectual realm, sui generis. Yet always also there was rhetoric; and if within classical epistemology this might also be called into question for its value as truth, oratory as a practice known from the writings of Aristotle and Cicero and Quintilian was always there in the Renaissance to fill the gap left by the loss of almost all classical writing about art and to suggest structures of expression, adaptable to the tasks of art, whether these were terms to define secular authority or the description and justification of the doctrines of religion.

It is this topic, the relationship between such rhetoric and the visual arts of the Renaissance, that van Eck examines in this intelligent and suggestive study. As van Eck acknowledges the subject itself, however variously defined, has been a focus of scholarly attention for many years now. But here, taking up her brief in what she calls a series of case studies to show how this worked in practice, van Eck is able to examine in a number of instances how rhetoric, or more particularly the training in rhetoric that was a standard part of the educational curriculum in the Renaissance, informed the processes of design and theory and the interpretation in the arts of Europe between about 1400 and 1800. This text is not a historical survey of the roles rhetoric played then, nor is it, to borrow the phrase van Eck herself uses, a contribution to the many debates now about the distinction between words and images, whether to argue for the textual nature of all objects of art or for what she calls the irreducibility of the visual character of the visual arts. Rather the subject here is persuasion and how works of art acted or were thought to act on viewers, whether in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or then, extending the material beyond the figurative arts and further afield culturally, to architectural practice in France and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where, within the context of the appropriation and transcription of the style of Italy beyond its first national boundaries, many such questions of meaning and effect were considered and commented upon.

The materials here are divided into three sections; theory; invention; interpretation. And if, so obviously and necessarily, van Eck begins with Leon Battista Alberti and the text of the De Pictura (1435/6) to speak of the figurative arts, when then she turns to the more elusive subject of the rhetorical persuasiveness of architecture it is later and less familiar names that she invokes, Daniele Barbaro, Vincenzo Scamozzi and Gherardo Spini, all of whom in varying degrees of specificity attempted to draw parallels between the selection of appropriate and affective ornaments for a building and the figures of speech chosen by an orator. At one level, architecture can be considered essentially as science and indeed, as Vitruvius so openly stated, in the operation of his business the architect must be equipped with a knowledge of many branches of study. Yet it is also an art of persuasion, establishing and defining society in ways that can be considered close enough to all the social functions of rhetoric, a form of design, as Barbaro suggested, as particular and differentiated in its effects as oratory, whether elegant or vehement or grandiose or severe. It is at this juncture that van Eck considers in some detail how such activities were realized in practice, to suggest that all art in the Renaissance worked by creating a common ground between audience and object, whether in linear perspective where a continuity exists between the space of the viewer and the space as pictured or then, within architecture, from the persuasive effects of beauty or power, whether in the iconicity of the gesture of the piazza before St. Peter's, mimicking the arms of the mother Church, or in the gracefulness of design and ornament which, as Alberti put it, can influence even the enemy, preventing the destruction of the building itself.

In the final section here van Eck considers how far rhetoric provided strategies of interpretation or what she is prepared to call a hermeneutics, noting here the traditional etymological association of the Greek root for this term with Hermes, the messenger of meaning. For Aristotle, such an activity, such hermeneia, was semiology, rhetoric serving to teach the mind how to express itself and find the fitting formulations for every thought or mental image. And here van Eck, searching for one instance of interpretation fostered within rhetoric, turns to the interesting account of a discussion between Bartolommeo Maranta and his friend Scipione Ammirato of Titian's Annunciation in San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, written in the 1560s, which is full of references to the meaning of gestures and to the effect such gestural attitudes could carry. And then she identifies some of the terms of criticism used to describe the effects of art, that of vivacity for example, or then the parallel so often seen between art and the theater, the pictorial plane, as she puts it, becoming a stage on which the key moments in a story could be represented, as if frozen in time. The final section here, when she turns to architecture, considers the expression of meaning by typology or by the optical effects of buildings or the character and style of designs, especially as described in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Charles Perrault and Germain Boffrand. She ends with a coda to question how far this whole tradition could survive the onslaughts against rhetoric by Kant and the definition of a different domain, that of the aesthetic, where the Enlightenment subject was allowed, in new and exciting ways, to enjoy a freer play of the cognitive and emotional faculties, set in the disinterested contemplation of art. This possibility, van Eck notes, is a very recent Western invention and rhetoric, when we look around, can be seen to be as widely found as is the making of images. For using art to get in touch with fellow humans, so van Eck concludes almost triumphantly, is a universal phenomenon.

There is much here to think about here and the very act of bringing this material together in so compact a form serves in itself to enrich the sense we might have of the possibilities and qualities of this tradition of discourse, whether we are thinking of critics, or of the audience, of then of those, the humble artists, who set the subjects of their works into form. But to this reviewer one of the most interesting passages in this study is where van Eck suggests a new way to think about the architecture of Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. They themselves offered little by way of explanation for their art and if later architects, from Soane to Robert Adam and then Denys Lasdun and Robert Venturi recognized immediate meaning in the expressive force of their designs, historians, as van Eck notes, have always found it difficult to deal with this particular moment of English architecture. But here she brings up an obvious if previously unconnected source, that of Longinus, a text indeed known in England in a number of XVIIth century editions, long before Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and then Edmond Burke made the notion of the sublime so much a part of aesthetics.1 The language of Longinus is shot through with what van Eck calls intensely visual terms; and if we want to find a corresponding philosophical language to set beside the forms in Hawksmoor's churches -- and here van Eck takes note of the work of her student Sophie Ploeg -- it could come from such a passage as that where Longinus speaks of Homer, of his forcing prepositions into an abnormal union not usually compounded, the impending disaster of the parts, "things that ruin the whole by introducing, as it were, gaps and crevices into masses which are built together, walled in by their mutual relationships". This description, van Eck suggests, immediately recalls the abrupt transitions of St. Alphege, Greenwich, the articulation of Christ Church, the disproportional keystones at St. George in the East, the conflicting facades of St. Anne's, Limehouse. This is not to say, she quickly notes, that Hawksmoor, or even Vanbrugh, had read Longinus but merely to suggest that such a text, introduced first in England in 1652 in a translation by John Hall -- there had been some earlier editions in Greek and Latin -- served to open up in the culture new ways to think about architectural design and its perception and how, in a way perhaps unique in those years to England, this architecture, in all its somber imposing grandeur, played out its impact on its beholders. Here also she turns to Soane, at the end of the classical tradition, who in his lectures delivered at the Royal Academy from 1809 onwards, offered a deeply articulated account of how buildings affect the spectator, basing what he said on the annotations he made to so many of the classical writers on rhetoric. Here, beyond these formal lectures, so usefully republished in 1996 by David Watkin,2 for such notions as disposition or the unity of the visual arts van Eck was also able to turn to passages in Soane's manuscripts, still there in his house at 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.

The description of the forms of art that van Eck offers here in invoking the practice of classical rhetoric is immediately interesting, quite apart from the possibility of how we might think it serves to define what we can see in all the varied visual forms of the Renaissance. And if, to speak of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, I myself have offered a description of the context for their work that referred more to the psychology of associationism or the interest in England in those years in the very idea of Englishness, the invocation here of this other rhetorical tradition merely adds one more possible layer to the meaning or meanings we might give to all they did in their particular forms of design. But like all art history, this is essentially language about language, and if in this guise it serves to cover well two of the parts of this tradition that van Eck identified -- namely theory and interpretation -- we may always wonder how far it works as a source of the forms of visual art, however so defined, whether those of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor or Masaccio or Palladio or of any of the many other artists she takes here as her subjects. Art, as Clement Greenberg once remarked in a characteristically snappy sentence, can get along very well enough without art criticism. To which we might add that perhaps art also gets along very well without philosophy or the traditions of rhetoric, even if on some occasions we can indeed imagine the artists themselves knowing something of these subjects. All this accounting, in a sense, comes after the fact of the art, serving the audience, be these philosophers or mere passers by or even historians of art who, by the conventions of their professional practice, revel in suggesting such connections and possibilities and the order they bring upon the immediate experiences of the art. And that, we might say, is enough.


1.   It is interesting, in this context, to read the remarks on the significance of Longinus in the eighteenth century in R. Wittkower, "Classical Theory and Eighteenth Century Sensibility" (1966), as reprinted in R. Wittkower, Palladio and English Palladianism, London, 1974, p. 193-204, and especially p. 201.
2.   Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge, 1996).

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