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Through a Glass, Darkly

Kircher, let it be clear, also boasted that he could teach anyone to compose beautiful music by using his Combinatory Art, or to survey like a professional with the help of the machine he called his “Pantometrum Kircherianum”; he was a huckster and a showman as well as a first-rate scientist, and a perceptive collector of art, ancient, modern, and exotic. Kircher was also an incurably terrible draftsman, whose charmingly crude renditions of Egyptian scarabs, dragon kites, subterranean lakes, and erupting volcanoes show that he, at least, never learned how to depict “images that will be the envy of any painter” with the help of his machines. Instead, professional engravers transformed his clumsy sketches into lavish illustrations for the dozens of books he published in his fifty-year career. This wily Jesuit, of all people, knew full well that it took an Old Master to paint like one, and that even then, the professionals of his own day could come up short:

Our Painters of the Roman Academy commit errors when they try to paint daytime scenes at night by candlelight, unless they know how to compensate with great and singular industry for the crudity of the shadows cast.4

Not a mark-maker in Hockney’s sense (although he may have marked as much paper in his lifetime as his sometime collaborator Bernini), Athan- asius Kircher probably knew as much as anyone in his day about the effects of light and lenses. He had been trained by a Venetian glazier to grind his own glass, and became an early user of the telescope (he called it the “Astronomical Tube”) and microscope (which he called “Smicroscopium”); he stocked his museum with magic lanterns, a camera obscura, and elaborate devices that used lenses and mirrors to project beams of light or whole images. He argued that smells, thoughts, and fertility itself could be projected just like light in a process he called actinobolismus (Greek for “ray-throwing”). And he knew artists; he certainly worked on two projects with the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona and the obelisk-bearing elephant who stands in front of the Roman church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. It seems more than likely that among the thousand books in the collection of his contemporary, the architect Francesco Borromini, Kircher’s popular accounts of ancient Egypt, light and shadow, magnetism, or cosmology might have figured prominently.

Clumsy draftsman but superb observer, Kircher insisted repeatedly (when not selling his machines) that the basic problems of artistry have more to do with the acuity of eye, mind, and hand than with tools, a basic point that Hockney also makes repeatedly in his own book. Kircher’s criticisms of contemporary art in The Great Art of Light and Shadow focus on the accurate observation of light, shade, and their effects when projected through every kind of instrument or seen by the unaided eye. This enthusiastic creator of truly marvelous machines knew perfectly well that every method brought its own problems along with its insights. Lenses project an image with great accuracy, to be sure, but the image is also diluted, distorted, evanescent, and often upside-down. Some artists surely used them, many did not. Hockney and Falco, in their enthusiasm, exaggerate their prevalence; Kircher, who was in a position to know, probably gets it right by stating that they are no more than an option.

Lenses or no lenses, neither David Hockney nor Athanasius Kircher could or will ever attain the artistic precision of Ingres or Raphael, who were both draftsmen of transcendent manual skill, trained from an early age in a long tradition, any more than either of them could ever carve stone as well as Bernini. (It is no accident that the hypermeticulous Raphael would be the artist with whom Ingres felt a special affinity.) Raphael’s contemporaries saw the hand of God in his work; despite its many protestations to the contrary, there is a part of David Hockney in Secret Knowledge that really does hope, deep down, that it was all done with mirrors rather than by genius married to incessant hard labor. It was a hope that Kircher’s marvelous painting machine also acknowledged, and aimed to exploit. But one man’s limitations do not necessarily provide a sure guide to the abilities of someone else.

Similarly, the limits of Hockney’s “Wall” have set a boundary on his investigation that is entirely arbitrary. As Athanasius Kircher, at least, was well aware, neither lenses nor perspective made their first appearance in the fifteenth century. In Hellenistic Syracuse, nearly two thousand years earlier, Archimedes claimed to wield a concave mirror from the heights above the city that set ships afire in the bay below. Writing to the Christians of Corinth in the heyday of Imperial Rome, Saint Paul compared our perceptions in this life to seeing a mirror’s murky reflection “through a glass, darkly.” Ancient Greek and Alexandrian painting barely survives, but ancient Roman wall paintings played complex optical games with a freedom that admitted multiple, even reverse perspectives, houses growing wider as they recede back into the distance, distinct vanishing points and perspectival systems tailored to individual viewers in a room, or ranked in order of importance to the theme of the decorative scheme.

Some of the perspectival effects most characteristic of Renaissance art owe as much to scrutiny of ancient artworks as to contemporary advances in technology; this constant, paradoxical interplay between antiquarian curiosity and scientific curiosity is what make the period so extraordinarily fertile—Raphael’s brand-new mapping tool, a magnetic compass fixed to a revolving table, was invented to measure the ruins of ancient Rome. But if the peculiar qualities of Renaissance art cannot be “explained” by a mechanical device, then Secret Knowledge requires a much more complicated discussion, taking in philosophy and culture, as Athanasius Kircher felt compelled to do in The Great Art of Light and Shadow; he was also compelled, as a man of his time, to discuss religion.

A two-day symposium on Hockney’s thesis, held at the Humanities Institute of New York University in December 2001 under the aegis of its new director, Lawrence Weschler, emphatically, if unintentionally, revealed that what makes the art of the Old Masters so distinctive and powerful seems not to be the spatial placement of figures, not even their color, but rather their modeling, that interplay of darkness and luminosity that the Italians call chiaroscuro (bright-darkness), whether expressed in Caravaggio’s stark contrasts of light and shadow or Leonardo’s subtle “smudged” sfumato. Athanasius Kircher, for his part, called his book The Great Art of Light and Shadow, not The Great Art of Projection. For him, light was the essence of existence, and not only because, as a good Jesuit, he was captivated by the Gospel of John’s description of God as light. He also believed that sunlight carried what he called a universal spermatic power on its rays, eternally ready to fertilize the receptive earth.

At the same time, Kircher could also observe light and shadow with scientific detachment. Without naming particular artists, he notes how Caravaggio and his followers achieved their distinctive chiaroscuro and criticizes it as coarsely unrealistic. Caravaggio’s early paintings, in fact, showed a far broader range of colors and fewer contrasts than his brooding late works, all done in shades of lead white, black, brown, and red. Ironically, one of the inspirations for the Milanese artist’s change of hue in Rome may well have been that bright colorist Raphael, who experimented increasingly in his later years with night scenes and pale figures emerging from darkness. Among them are a self-portrait with his young fencing master, the rugged, contrasting faces of the Venetian scholars Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano, the beautiful blond banker Bindo Altoviti casting a heart-stopping glance, blue eyes and bee-stung lips, over his pale, smooth shoulder.

Caravaggio, unlike Raphael, was not much of a draftsman. Despite Charles Falco’s efforts, in Secret Knowledge and in the NYU symposium, to ascribe the painter’s anatomical distortions to projection of his models’ figures through lenses, the oddities will not go away so easily or for Falco’s reasons—and in the end, the inaccuracies hardly matter when Caravaggio’s paintings have so much else to say. (Besides, a painter like Botticelli, who was a great draftsman, also created figures that defy every rule of human proportion for the sake of his sinuous line.) In telling his intense painted stories, Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting, suggestions of sound, smell, and touch, and searing force of character take precedence over anatomy. For Caravaggio, light, as in Kircher’s universe, gives life as well as form.

Furthermore, there were cheaper ways to produce optical effects than by using lenses, and most artists were living hand to mouth much of their lives. As many of the panelists in New York pointed out, artists like Hans Holbein the Younger used geometric projection—a grid—to produce foreshortenings, or those apparent distortions called anamorphic images: twisted, deformed figures that make sense only when viewed in a mirror. Holbein’s Ambassadors, a formal portrait sliced obliquely by the stretched figure of an anamorphic skull, seems, once again, to be making Saint Paul’s point about seeing “through a glass, darkly” until death shall bring us face to face with God. Holbein’s worldly diplomats exist on an entirely different plane from the memento mori that flits before them with the evanescence of a feather, or a chill breeze; only we see their mortality revealed along with the vanity of their own vanity—and ours as well. (See illustration on page 12.)

Indeed, the larger question raised by the conjunction of optical technology and art (and one that both Hockney and Falco should perhaps be addressing with more urgency) involves identifying what precisely it was that lenses enabled early modern eyes, and not only those of artists, to see, both physically and in the imagination. Galileo’s telescope famously turned him into a “Starry Messenger” who saw both new flaws in the universe and sublime visions: pockmarks on the face of the moon and new stars beyond number.

Athanasius Kircher’s smicroscopium led him to marvel, like van Leeuwenhoek before him, at the complexity of creation, at all the tiny things unseen by human eyes until the seventeenth century:

If you examine the powder of rotten wood under the Smicroscopium, an immense pullulation of little worms will be found, of which some are outfitted with little horns, some have wings of a sort, others are not unlike centipedes, and you will see eyes like little black dots along with noses; thus God, Greatest and Best, shows Himself as marvelous not only in the vast bodies of the world, but also in the tiniest little animals, imperceptible to every eye, when he gave them their individual parts, without which they could not move nor perform any of their other vital acts. Because they themselves have been placed in the world with bodies so tiny that they are beyond the reach of the senses, how tiny can their little hearts be? How tiny must their little livers be, or their little stomachs, their cartilage and little nerves, their means of locomotion?5

Initially, the sudden revelation of these things unseen lent strength to the Neoplatonic idea that our physical sense of sight penetrated no further than “through a glass, darkly.” Reality clearly lay somewhere else, far beyond the capacities of the naked eye. Art, that supreme figment of sight, drove the point home by creating layers of meaning: Holbein’s ambassadors and skull; Raphael’s simultaneous portrayal of God as a bearded man with a halo and as a shower of light in his Disputa of 1508; Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, where a beam of light singles out the future martyr with far more authority than the languid gesture of Jesus (see illustration on page 10). And yet, both this layering of art and this Neoplatonic view of the world were legacies from the ancient past, compatible with, but not caused by, new technology.

Even when science became a viewpoint in itself in the eighteenth century, its insistence on elegance and order proclaimed—and still proclaims—its Neoplatonic heritage. We who are entirely at ease with the Hubble telescope’s revelation of stars being born deep inside baroque clouds of gas are equally comfortable with the Platonic conviction that the world is wrought with ineffable elegance. Perhaps this is one reason why Jan Vermeer’s lucid vision of seventeenth-century Delft, long thought to have been executed with the help of a camera obscura, could still bring solace to the present-day judges who are compelled to endure the tales of Bosnian war crimes while holding court in The Hague. The greatest art of light and shadow has always involved the spirit as much as the hand and eye, and in elucidating this truth a very good art historian can sometimes make an essay about art into a work of art in its own right, as Hockney implicitly acknowledges by citing the art historian Roberto Longhi at the beginning of his book.

In the debate engendered by Secret Knowledge David Hockney spoke of his own deafness, and it is hard to resist taking this condition metaphorically; it brings on inner visions at the price of stopping conversation. He and Charles Falco have become true believers in a world that is to a great extent of their own making. The Old Masters who inhabit this world are not always made more vivid by the authors’ excess of enthusiasm in the service of a grand theory. Instead, these real and talented people are more literally than ever seen through a glass darkly, objects of what Athanasius Kircher called “projection of the imagination,” actinobolismus imaginationis—fantasies of powerful suggestion, but fantasies none- theless. Hence, despite all its misinformation, superseded science, and tendentious opinion, Athanasius Kircher’s redoubtable Great Art of Light and Shadow, an Old Master in its own right, is still probably the most informative book to read on how Old Master artists used the technology of lenses in creating their art.

  1. 4

    Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, p. 142: “Similes errores nostri Academici Pictores Romani committunt, qui noctu ad lumen candelae similia attentare solent, nisi maxima, et singulari industria umbrarum cruditatem emendare sciant.”

  2. 5

    Athanasius Kircher, Scrutinium contagiosae luis, quae pestis dicitur (Rome, 1658), p. 45.

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