Born Under Saturn is a classic work of scholarship written with a light and winning touch. Margot and Rudolf Wittkower explore the history of the familiar idea that artistic inspiration is a form of madness, a madness directly expressed in artists’ unhappy and eccentric lives. This idea of the alienated artist, the Wittkowers demonstrate, comes into its own in the Renaissance, as part of the new bid by visual artists to distinguish themselves from craftsmen, with whom they were then lumped together. Where the skilled artisan had worked under the sign of light-fingered Mercury, the ambitious artist identified himself with the mysterious and brooding Saturn. Alienation, in effect, was a rung by which artists sought to climb the social ladder.
As to the reputed madness of artists—well, some have been as mad as hatters, some as tough-minded as the shrewdest businessmen, and many others wildly and willfully eccentric but hardly crazy. What is certain is that no book presents such a splendid compendium of information about artists’ lives, from the early Renaissance to the beginning of the Romantic era, as Born Under Saturn. The Wittkowers have read everything and have countless anecdotes to relate: about artists famous and infamous; about suicide, celibacy, wantonness, weird hobbies, and whatnot. These make Born Under Saturn a comprehensive, quirky, and endlessly diverting resource for students of history and lovers of the arts.
The Wittkowers’ entertaining and micro-informed study dissects the pervasive image of the moody, alienated artist. Cautious and provocative, presuming to balance theory and anecdote by happily indulging the latter, Born Under Saturn reads like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists rewritten as an appendix to Burton—a colorful tour of eccentricity and genius, populated by all manner of rogues, gentlemen, pennypinchers, hypochondriacs, and enduring masters. Every page has a diverting tale, and the cumulative effect sets the reader’s mind reeling.
— Modern Painters
[The authors] have had a wonderful time and so should the reader…Their feat is impressive enough as it stands in this giant popcorn-ball of a book, where surely all the anecdotes and existing documents about artists over a period of some 2,000 years have been stuck together with the syrup of scholarship…into a mass at once unusual, tasty and nourishing…Born Under Saturn is good reading…”
— John Canaday, The New York Times Book Review
Artists are just like people, only more so is the implied conclusion of this delightful, scholarly and gossipy romp through the character and conduct of artists from antiquity to the French Revolution.
— The New York Times
[F]ascinating to read because of the abundant quotations which bring to life so many remarkable individuals.
— The New York Review of Books