History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past
With his splendidly written and beautifully produced book Francis Haskell has broken entirely new ground. There are libraries full of books on the history and method of historiography dealing with the development of historical criticism, the use of charters and documents, and (more recently) with the statistical evaluation of personal records, but none of them is much concerned with the use of visual evidence by historians. Not that the reader should expect or fear to encounter lengthy disquisitions on method. Instead, the author adopts the good old approach that goes back, at least, to Aristotle of first confronting any fresh problem by reviewing the contributions of his predecessors. True, while Aristotle generally devoted a few perfunctory sections to such retrospection, Haskell has filled no fewer than 495 learned pages, rich in vivid anecdotes and half-forgotten incidents.
That, all the same, he had to be selective in this pioneering effort should go without saying; selective not only in the figures he chose to deal with, but also in the problems posed by visual evidence in the wider sense. In this respect the book clearly divides into distinct parts. The first four chapters deal with what the author calls “the discovery of the image.” Here he is mainly concerned with the factual information that, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, numismatists, antiquaries, and archaeologists tried to extract from the monuments of the past about portrait likeness, rituals, and what was called realia, the form of weapons or apparel and other equipment. The ninety-two excellent illustrations enlivening this section help to introduce the reader to an important but rather neglected episode in the history of historiography.
At this point however the author breaks off his account of the extraction of information from visual evidence, though his preface reveals that he is fully aware of leaving it incomplete. Indeed to fill this gap would need a companion volume of at least the same size, taking the history of archaeological investigations up to the present day. It would have to pay tribute, for example, to the Protestant theologian Ferdinand Piper, whose oddly named Einleitung in die Monumentale Theologie (Gotha, 1867) has still not been superseded as a guide to Christian archaeology.1 Neither could it omit such spectacular uses of visual evidence as the discovery some sixty years ago by a French cavalry officer Lefebvre des Noëttes that the methods used by the ancients for harnessing their horses deprived the animals of their strength by cutting off their windpipes, and that it was only in the Carolingian period that we find illustrations showing the reform that multiplied what we still call “horsepower.”2
However, it was certainly not this kind of incidental information that Ruskin had in mind when he wrote in 1884 that
Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these can be understood unless we read the two others; but of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.