From about 1864, the year of the publication of Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s New History of Italian Painting, the study of Italian art turned from the imaginative interpretations of Ruskin to the task of amassing information. Ruskin foresaw the change and recommended Crowe and Cavalcaselle as “a book which they have called A History of Painting in Italy, but which is in fact only a dictionary of details relating to that history.” In the 1870s, writers on art, from Morelli downward, set out to discover who painted what pictures, the occupation to which they gave the rather pretentious title of “the science of connoisseurship.”
This new direction of art history was overdue. No one can study an artist’s work without having a fairly correct idea of what he painted, and the accretions that had grown around well-known artists’ names were fantastic. Charles Lamb, writing from Blenheim, says that of the nine pictures by Leonardo da Vinci only two pleased him: needless to say there were no pictures by Leonardo da Vinci at all at Blenheim. The movement totally dominated art historical teaching and produced a vast number of monographs and a few syntheses, of which Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters was the most intelligent and Van Marle’s History of Italian Painting the most dismal. Although Berenson allowed himself some value judgments his fame and fortune rested on his famous “lists,” which aimed at authenticating the works of Italian painters, and I can testify that the young critic of the 1920s thought this was the only respectable course open to him.
This activity had one serious defect: it did not begin to look at works of art in their historical context. Berenson and Bode never considered what contemporary patrons, guilds, princes, or ecclesiastical bodies wanted from their artists. And one reason for this was that Renaissance patrons of all sorts wanted something almost incredibly different from what we want today. Instead of an aesthetic specimen in a glass case they wanted a symbol, or complex of symbols, which should express their thoughts and aspirations. By the mid-nineteenth century no one (except Ruskin) thought symbolically, and it required a man of wholly original mind to do so. Such a man appeared in the person of Aby Warburg. He was a genius. His approach to art history produced a revolution that has lasted till the present day. Since he was also the senior member of a large banking house he was able to found in Hamburg a library and an institution in which his approach to art history could be developed.
Sir Ernst Gombrich has been for many years the head of the Warburg Institute, now fortunately located in London, and most people interested in the subject would agree that he is the most intelligent, the most learned, and the wittiest of English art historians. He is also one of the most prolific. Eight of his volumes stand on my shelves. I have read them all, but owing to my pitiful inability to follow philosophical arguments, I cannot claim that I have always understood them. Fortunately I do not need to write about this aspect of his work since this has been done already by the philosopher Richard Wollheim.* I will consider only the three volumes which deal in a more concrete way with the art of the Renaissance. They are entitled Norm and Form (1966), Symbolic Images (1972), and The Heritage of Apelles (1976). They are not strictly limited to historical questions, because, as Gombrich says of himself, he always fights on the two fronts of theory and practice. But most of the essays they contain take their points of departure from actual works of art, ranging from the most illustrious—Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura—to the most modest. All add something to our knowledge and understanding of Renaissance art.
In nearly all his studies Gombrich follows the Warburgian practice of studying subject rather than form; but it is a humanized Warburgianism, and he avoids the extravagant interpretation of symbols which sometimes gives the air of a metaphysical fantasy to the writings of Panofsky. His outstanding merit, it seems to me, is that he makes us look at works of Renaissance art as they were seen by their contemporaries and by the men who commissioned them. He is able to do this because of his prodigious knowledge of contemporary writers, not only those directly concerned with art like Cennino Cennini and Vasari, but moralists and philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Salutati, whose letters and learned disquisitions influenced both artists and patrons. The result is full of surprises. For example, we learn that the charming cassone fronts of a minor painter called Apollonio di Giovanni, which look to us like decorative charades in quattrocento costume, were accepted by a contemporary humanist named Ugolino Verino, who had a good knowledge of classical literature, as more or less correct records of the great episodes of antiquity. A curious fact, which Gombrich does not mention, is that these fantasies were painted at the same date (c. 1460) as the remarkably convincing reconstructions of antiquity by Mantegna in the Eremetani.
But all Gombrich’s articles show that art does not run a straight course. The fullest, and apparently the earliest, of them is concerned with Botticelli’s Primavera. Here, for the first time, an art historian asks why an artist of the fifteenth century painted a mythological scene of the size and seriousness of a great religious picture; and Gombrich answers the question by interpreting the personages as embodiments of neo-Platonic philosophy, of which the most important is Humanitas, who is Venus. The letters of Marsilio Ficino and the unexpected quotations from Apuleius seem to me entirely convincing and reading these texts adds appreciably to one’s enjoyment of the picture.
There is an excellent example of how the relationship of humanists and artists resulted in a crucial change in Renaissance art in an essay with a title worthy of the early nineteenth century—“Classical Rules and Rational Standards from the Revival of Letters to the Reform of the Arts.” It shows how the cult of the correct spelling of Latin by the early humanists, in particular Niccolò Niccoli, involved the adaptation of Roman lettering; and how this in turn became linked with Brunelleschi’s architecture. Humanist script and Brunelleschi’s style are usually referred to as classical. Professor Gombrich persuades us that both are in fact not Roman but a peculiar form of Romanesque, and that the script is really an adaptation of Carolingian. The connection between our accepted humanist alphabet and the Florentine Baptistry is an inspiration, and will leave other students of Renaissance design besides myself asking “Why did I never think of this before?”
It would be unjust to say that Gombrich is concerned solely with subject rather than form. On the contrary, his comments on the formal and artistic qualities of the works analyzed are remarkably perceptive. But in the end his chief aim is to discover the meaning, in the fullest sense, of a work of art, and he shows how changeable and elusive the meaning of a work of art can be. The theme is wittily illustrated in the first essay in Symbolic Images, which deals with a fountain erected in Piccadilly Circus to commemorate the good Lord Shaftesbury. Naturally it is more fully documented than a work of art of the quattrocento, and it has changed its significance within living memory. Eros is chosen as the subject in rather the same spirit as Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera, a symbol of Humanitas, and Mr. Gladstone composed an inscription which appears on the monument, “An example to his order, a blessing to this people and a name to be by them ever gratefully remembered” (Mr. Gladstone’s prose was as unidiomatic in small things as in great).
I first remember it in the peaceful possession of elderly flower-sellers, but gradually the proximity of theaters, cinemas, and restaurants (one of the most respectable restaurants in the district is now called the Sex Centre) has given the god Eros a significance more in keeping with our normal idea of him. I doubt if a single one of the young people in blue jeans who mill around the monument has ever heard of Lord Shaftesbury. If such a transformation can take place in less than a hundred years, how much, we may ask, do we “understand” the meaning of a work of the fifteenth century. The answer is “probably rather more” because a work like Donatello’s Annunciation in S.ta Croce was done with a full tide of conviction behind it, which could allow of great simplicity, whereas Gilbert’s Eros with its pretentious symbolism ran contrary to the spirit of the time. In the nineteenth century official art was a fake.
Given his desire to unite the image with the written word, Gombrich is naturally much occupied with Leonardo da Vinci. He is frequently quoted, and three of the essays are concerned with aspects of his work. Characteristically Gombrich concentrates on two branches of Leonardo’s art which are least attractive to the contemporary eye, the grotesque heads and the innumerable studies of the movement of water. I have written something about the first, to which he pays a generous tribute, but the movement of water I lazily gave up as a bad job, although for over fifteen years Leonardo wrote more notes on this subject than on any other. Every student of Leonardo will be grateful to Gombrich for relieving him of this unwelcome task. As he says, these drawings represent “a test case for those of us who are interested in the interaction of theory and observation, and are convinced that the correct representation of nature rests on intellectual understanding as much as on good eyesight.” I am prepared to agree with this up to a point. The most famous of all Leonardo’s water drawings (Windsor 1266° verso) is an abstraction, or as L.H. Heydenreich says, “a visualization of forces.” But higher up on the same sheet are two studies that are not so far from observation. Although I shirked the subject I did spend some time carrying around facsimiles of Leonardo’s drawings and comparing them with streams, waterfalls, and tidal races, and I was struck by the accuracy of his observations.
Rather the same is true of three of the grotesque heads. Of course some of them are exaggerated to the point of fantasy, but how many of them can we still see in queues, and this in spite of the fact that modern dentistry has given people the upper lip which Leonardo has frequently omitted. He was prone to give his profiles very large chins; otherwise I do not find his “caricature heads” so extraordinary. In fact, if I may express a slight difference from Professor Gombrich in the only field where I am qualified to do so, I believe that Leonardo lived through the eye more than he allows. But this does not mean that I disagree with the doctrine of his Art and Illusion that “making comes before matching.”
Gombrich makes no attempt to lure the reader into his work by giving his essays attractive titles. “Icones Symbolicae: Philosophies of Symbolism and Their Bearing on Art” might seem rather daunting to the average reader. In fact this section, although it is the most severely Warburgian of the three volumes, is completely fascinating, and contains, among other surprises, an admirable analysis of Rubens’s Horrors of War.
On the whole the volume called Norm and Form is that in which the historically minded reader, as opposed to the philosophical, will find most to interest him. In addition to the discussion of Apollonio di Giovanni, there is a fascinating lecture on “The Medici as Patrons of Art,” which shows how Cosimo, like all great patrons, became himself a kind of artist, acting through the architects whom he employed. Gombrich prints some of the letters he received. Here is one from Filippo Lippi: “I am one of the poorest monks there are in Florence, that is me, and God has left me with six nieces on my hands, all sick and useless.” Fra Filippo was twenty-three years old, and already successful. Patrons continued to receive letters like this throughout the nineteenth century, and if they do not do so now it is because patrons are poorer and artists, subsidized by art galleries, are richer. Norm and Form also contains an admirable essay on Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia. It is a model because, although it does not analyze the picture in purely formal or stylistic terms—in fact it tends to reject them—it discovers all the characteristics that would have appealed to Raphael’s contemporaries.
I hope I have made clear my enormous admiration for Sir Ernst Gombrich’s writings, and that I may be allowed to end this review with one criticism, not so much of Gombrich himself as of all Warburgian critics. It seems to me that the chief aim of the art historian is to give the reader some idea of why great artists are great. I know that in the eighteenth century, when various critics allocated marks to painters as if they were examiners, Giulio Romano often came out top of the class. But we all know that, compared to Titian, the industrious Giulio Romano was a second-rate artist. The first duty of criticism is to try to describe why Titian was superior to Giulio Romano. This may be almost impossible, but Berenson, and even Wölfflin (who takes a beating in Norm and Form), tried to do so. Perhaps I am only saying that criticism should be more concerned with values than with symbols, and Gombrich is well aware of that; but sometimes the Warburgian approach seems to obsess him, and is worked out in such great detail that we begin to grow a little impatient.
November 24, 1977