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A Magical Critic

Form and Meaning: Essays on the Renaissance and Modern Art

by Robert Klein, translated by Madeline Jay, by Leon Wieseltier, with a foreword by Henri Zerner
Viking, 263 pp., $19.95

Robert Klein was a Rumanian Jew, born in 1918. As was to be expected from this time and place of birth, his life was not an easy one. Before the out-break of the Second World War he studied philosophy in Prague, science in Bucharest. After the outbreak he first did military service, then compulsory labor for Jews; after the liberation of Rumania, he engaged as a volunteer in the war in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In 1947 he won a French government scholarship to study in Paris which was afterward withdrawn. From 1948 to 1962 he supported himself in Paris by odd jobs, which included dish-washing, while working for a diploma in aesthetics with a thesis on Giordano Bruno. He was employed as secretary and research assistant by Augustin Renaudet and Marcel Bataillon. In 1962 he became attached to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and worked with André Chastel on various projects. He was professor of history of art at the University of Montreal for the academic year 1965-1966.

In 1966 he went to Florence as fellow of Harvard’s Berenson foundation at the Villa I Tatti. His many brilliant published essays and reviews had aroused interest in his work and he seemed set for a successful career as an art historian. His attractive personality had won him many friends who were overwhelmed with dismay at the news of his suicide in April 1967.

A collection of his writings was published in 1970 with the title La Forme et l’intelligible. The French volume was itself a selection from the mass of Klein’s essays. Form and Meaning is an English translation of a selection from the French volume, which should still be consulted for the omitted material, particularly the concluding essay on ethics which has dropped off in the English volume.

Klein was above all a Renaissance scholar, though with continuations into the modern period. His field is not easy to define, art historian, historian of culture, he was both of these. Among the subjects studied in this book are Renaissance perspective, utopia and utopian planning, Lomazzo and mannerist art theory, the impresa. The title of the book, which is that of one of the longest essays, suggests that a leading theme is Form and Meaning, applied mainly to the form of a work of art and its meaning. The essay on iconography, based on Panofsky’s work, is obviously concerned with this problem. The concluding essays on modern art contrast this with Renaissance theory and practice.

As reviewer of this book, I am in something of a quandary. Among the most important essays in the book are those on perspective, which are well known to specialists. About these I am not qualified to speak and so shall refrain from discussion, beyond indicating that Klein’s perspective studies are now available in English in this volume. About modern art, I know nothing; on this topic, too, I shall wisely refrain from ignorant prattle. But some of Klein’s interests do cross with mine, particularly his concern with the image and its meaning, which I have studied in relation to the history of the use of imagery in the art of memory, and which can throw light on the history of imagery in art. The change from Aristotelian psychology, dominant in the Middle Ages, in which the imagination ranked low in the hierarchy of the faculties, to Renaissance Neoplatonism in which imagination became the supreme vehicle for the grasp of truth, profoundly affected imagery and its meaning. Such problems which I studied in relation to the memory image are the kind of problem with which Klein was concerned. His interest in magic, and in magic as affecting the image, is also central to my work. And that he saw in Giordano Bruno’s works on memory clues to this problem is again very much in accord with lines which I have attempted to pursue.

I do not think that he can have seen my books on Bruno and on the art of memory, published not long before his death. He visited the Warburg Institute and I met him, I do not remember in what year, but I had then no knowledge or understanding of his work. This now seems to me strangely unfortunate, and I try to present in this review some impression of the many-sided brilliance of this scholar.

The first essay in the book is a subtle discussion of the impresa, and of the possible connection between theory of impresa-construction and theory of art. The book is not illustrated; there were a few illustrations in the French volume but none of imprese. It may be a little difficult for readers unfamiliar with the subject to grasp, without a picture, what an impresa is. It is a statement in visual form of the purpose or aim of its inventor, accompanied by a motto which expresses in words what the little picture expresses visually. A well-known example is the dolphin and anchor with the motto festina lente, the device of Aldus, the Venetian printer, printed in the books published by the famous Aldine press. The swift movements of the dolphin controlled by the stability of the anchor state in visual form the meaning of the motto “Make haste slowly.”

Another famous impresa was that of the Emperor Charles V, two columns with the motto Plus oultre, or “Further yet,” alluding to his vast empire extending beyond the confines of the ancient world (bounded by the Straits of Gibraltar known as the pillars of Hercules) into the New World. The idea seems fairly simple, not to say childish, an idea similar to that underlying chivalric coats-of-arms and their obscure mottoes. In fact, one of the Renaissance theorists suggested that the impresa was a development out of the heraldic device arrived at by the Italians who were impressed by the heraldry displayed by the French knights in the French invasions of Italy.

For the Renaissance mind, the impresa held profound meanings. Collections of famous imprese were published, with treatises on the subject. These include strict rules on how a good impresa is to be constructed, and they explore the philosophies underlying these images. The impresa is related to the emblem, though the rules distinguish carefully between the two forms; its diffusion and the seriousness attending its construction illustrate the Renaissance attitude to the image.

Klein’s analysis of the impresa treatises attempts to show how their theories concerning the impresa, which is, after all, an art form, have a bearing on Renaissance theory of art in general. He finds that the psychology underlying impresa theory is basically Aristotelian but with the addition of Neoplatonic influence. These writers conceive of the image in a mystical sense, as itself containing ultimate truth (in the manner defined by E.H. Gombrich in his celebrated essay “Icones Symbolicae“), but the treatises also use Aristotelian definitions. I believe that this problem could be further pursued through sources which Klein does not use, namely the memory treatises, in which the classical mnemonic, using places and images, is philosophized according to Aristotelian psychological theory, as, for example, in the treatises of Romberch, Dolce, Rosselius, and others. The change to Neoplatonic theory of the image can be traced, in some cases overlapping with Aristotelian theory, in the later memory treatises. Above all the change can be fully realized in Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theater, a fully Neoplatonic memory construction in which medieval theory of the memory image is replaced by Neoplatonic theory.

I think that Klein’s study of the treatises on imprese, and his suggested link with art theory, can best be understood through comparison with the memory treatises, also linked with philosophical discussion and with artistic practice. The memory treatise, I would suggest, is the ancestor of the impresa treatise, which is a development of the philosophizing about the image transposed into a Neoplatonic world. The impresa is in fact classed as a memory image by some of the writers on memory.

The great exemplar of the Renaissance Neoplatonic transformation of the medieval art of memory is the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo. In my Art of Memory I give a rather full description of Camillo’s Memory Theater reconstructed from the description of it in L’Idea del Theatro di Giulio Camillo (1550). Based on the classical rule that memory systems must use places and images, Camillo’s Theater is a memory building divided into seven sets of places labeled with the names of the seven planets. These are described by Camillo as “seven governors,” an expression taken, as Camillo explicitly states, from the Pimander, one of those mysterious treatises, deeply revered as supposedly by “Hermes Trismegistus,” which had an enormous diffusion in Ficino’s Latin translation. These “seven governors,” though called by the names of the seven planets, are not to be classed as “astrology” in the normal sense. They are rather the planets as archetypal images, to be used as ladders on which ascent and descent is to be made by the seeker after gnosis or illumination. Camillo’s Theater is a Hermetic memory system, based, as Camillo frequently states, on the philosophies of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. On these philosophies, the Hermetic-Cabalist core of Renaissance Neoplatonism, Camillo constructs his Theater, a plan of the psyche stocked with an elaborate system of images.

This introduction of Camillo’s Theater may seem to be leading us away from Robert Klein. On the contrary it is leading us straight back to him, for, through one of those remarkable insights which the student of the Renaissance finds in Klein’s work, Camillo’s Theater becomes a very important guide to mannerist art theory.

One of Klein’s essays, actually the one on Form and Meaning which gives the title to the book, is on Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, the well-known theorist of mannerist art. Klein was interested in Lomazzo, devoting several years of study to his works. One of these has the title L’Idea del Tempio della Pittura (1590). Klein pointed out (in an essay not included in the volume of English translations) that Lomazzo explicitly states that his Idea of the Temple of Painting is based on Camillo’s L’Idea del Theatro.

Lomazzo presents his Tempio as a more limited and inferior form of the vast conception of Camillo, that “divine man” as he was called, who had included the whole universe in his Theatro. Lomazzo’s more modest aim is to include the whole of art in his Tempio.

Like Camillo’s Theater, Lomazzo’s Temple is divided into seven sections representing “seven governors,” that is to say the seven planets as archetypal forms, or “shadows of ideas” as Giordano Bruno calls them, forms intermediary between forms in the lower world and the “ideas” in the divine world. The expression “seven governors” used in this sense comes ultimately, as Camillo states, from the Hermetic Pimander. Lomazzo no doubt knew the Hermetic source, as well as the use of the term by Camillo, and also by Cornelius Agrippa. Into this basically Hermetic-Platonic system, Lomazzo introduces seven great artists whom he associates with the seven governors. With the Saturnian governor, he places Michelangelo; with Apollo-Sol, Leonardo da Vinci; with Venus, Raphael; with Luna, Titian; and other artists with the remaining planetary governors.

One cannot quite realize the full force of Klein’s discovery of Lomazzo’s dependence on Camillo’s Theater without looking at the plan of Camillo’s system (drawn out in my Art of Memory). Lomazzo’s placing of the artists with the seven governors implies the whole series of Saturnian, Venereal, and so on, images which are ranged in Camillo’s Theater behind the planetary governors. Thus associated with Michelangelo would be Saturnian-style images; with Raphael, Venus-style images, and so on. I have used the word “style” of these variations, but the word which Lomazzo uses is “maniera.” There is a Saturnian maniera, exemplified by the power and sternness of the great Saturnian artist, Michelangelo; there is a Venus maniera, typified by the softness and beauty of the exquisite Raphael, and so on. Pondering on these things one begins to wonder whether there is here an important clue to mannerist art theory. Was the mannerist artist one whose powers of expression were linked to astral maniere, not in the sense of astrology or astrological determinism but in the sense of this astral psychology, of the varying styles or maniere imprinted on the soul in its descent through the spheres?

In his suggestive pages on “Magic and Art,” Klein pursues these problems further. He notes during the Renaissance period a “slow ascendancy of magical themes in the intellectualist theory of art.” This tendency was not restricted to the later years, but, as he says, it “attended Neoplatonism,” that is to say it belonged to the movement initiated by Ficino and Pico, the movement of Renaissance Neoplatonism which, as we know, had a core of Hermetic and Cabalist magic. Klein finds that in its application to art, it is clearly and openly theorized in the mannerist movement, and particularly by Lomazzo, both in his Tempio della Pittura (1590) and in his Trattato dell’arte della pittura (1584). Klein showed—and this again was a discovery of his—that both these works are heavily influenced by Cornelius Agrippa with many quotations, acknowledged and unacknowledged, from the De occulta philosophia. He concludes that in his magical conception of art, Lomazzo found “confirmation, support, even guidance, in Agrippa.”

The magical conception of art includes the application of the astral psychology to the formation of magical, or talismanic, images in art, designed to influence the beholder through a kind of sympathetic magic. Klein acutely points out that Giordano Bruno in his De vinculis in genere sets out a comprehensive theory of “links,” and that this theory “welded together in the strongest possible manner form and the meaning it bears. It was a general aesthetic of fascination, carried to its extreme, which, taken literally, would exclude the very possibility of a theory of art.”

The talismanic, magical view of art was, I believe, present from the start of the influence of Neoplatonism, in Ficino’s magical theories applied to talismans, applied by Camillo to memory-images in his Theater, expounded by Agrippa in his De occulta philosophia (which is compounded out of Ficino and Pico), and finally brought out into the open by Lomazzo in his so-called mannerist theory of art. This word “mannerist,” with its suggestion of affectation, has lost its magical connection with astral maniere.

Klein is quite exceptional in pointing to Bruno’s works on magic images as guides to “mannerism.” This investigation could be carried much further, as no doubt Klein intended to do. In one of his books, the one on the composition of images, Bruno gives lists of images grouped under astral maniere. Bruno does not use this word, but he is doing what Camillo does in the Theater, though with more pronounced magical intention to fascinate. In a list of magical Venus images, Bruno describes one which sounds vaguely reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus. This is due to common dependence on the classical source, but to meet Venus rising from the sea and crowned with flowers in a list of images intended to fascinate the beholder and to induce in him a Venus maniera is interesting, because this is in fact what Botticelli’s picture does.

Klein’s style is difficult; sometimes he seems to contradict himself; but he is trying to say difficult things. Another example of his acute but involved discussion of magic is the essay on the concept of “spirito peregrino” in Dante which leads from an analysis of the trance, in which the spirit “peregrinates” from the body, to a theory of magical psychology of the love-conceit.

The chapter on “Utopian Urban Planning” is rich in detailed knowledge of utopian theory and its expression in architectural plans:

…the elementary forms out of which ideal-city plans are made serve to transform the draftsman into a magus. It is difficult to suppress the thought that the well-ordered labyrinth of Christianopolis had for Andreae the effect—however unconscious—of an exorcism, and that when Campanella transposed his abortive republic into the plastic vision of the City of the Sun, he sensed in himself the beneficent effect which the plan of that city was supposed to work upon its inhabitants.

Klein does not mention the magical city in Picatrix which regulated the life of its inhabitants through drawing down favorable astral influences. There is no doubt that magic of this kind underlies Campanella’s plan for his City of the Sun (and the related Christianopolis of Andreae). The use of such city plans as memory systems is relevant to the understanding of their meaning. We know that Campanella’s City was to be used in this way, and is related to Giordano Bruno’s more complex memory schemes. The utopia chapter well illustrates Klein’s double gift for detailed learning and scholarship combined with the understanding of underlying mental attitudes, or of the meaning within the form.

Much of Klein’s writing consisted of reviews and criticism, in which he excelled. Examples of his gifts in this direction in the collected volume are his logical analysis of the principles of iconographical interpretation, based on the work of Panofsky whom he greatly admired as an art historian; and his essay on “Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance Today.”

The enormous influence of Burckhardt’s book throughout the later nineteenth century and up to our own day is impressive testimony of the brilliance of the writing and of Burckhardt’s power of presentation of many aspects of Renaissance culture to form a comprehensive whole. He was a pioneer in his attempt to use many types of material—for example festivals and their imagery—in building up his interpretation of a period.

While paying full respect to Burckhardt’s brilliance and originality, Klein also analyzes the aspects of his work which are now out of date. Burckhardt treats the Italian Renaissance as a complete break with the Middle Ages, whereas we now know that there was no such definite break. He assumes that the Italian Renaissance contrasted with northern medieval backwardness, whereas we now know that northern elements formed an integral part of the Italian culture, and that it can be argued that contemporary Flemish or Burgundian cultures were equally advanced and, in fact, strongly influenced the Italian towns. And Klein notes how little attention Burckhardt pays to history of ideas, mentioning, for example, Florentine Neoplatonism only in passing, and without understanding that yearning for return to ancient sources which permeates the Renaissance outlook. Klein’s own work is in striking contrast to the Burckhardtian approach, with his concern for inner motives and attitudes informing outward changes. Klein’s essay is useful to recommend to students on how to read Burckhardt today.

Klein’s analyses in the final chapters of the breakdown of the Renaissance tradition and the rise of modern art raise questions which to many readers may be the most important aspect of his studies but which I have excluded from this review. Headings such as “Notes on the End of the Image,” “The Eclipse of the Work of Art,” “Modern Painting and Phenomenology” may give some idea of the scope of these chapters. The last chapter on “A Season in Hell” does not appear to refer to modern art but only to Rimbaud, though one wonders whether the End of the Image may have had anything to do with the ultimate despair.

It is with deep regret for the untimely disappearance of a brilliant mind that one lays down this subtle and complicated book.

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