JF Ptak Science Books Post 1093
I love the idea of being able to look at things like a child. To come towards things with such an authentic and unpolluted curiosity would be an enormous gift for anyone past this age of discovery and exploration–its where some of the great questions are asked. I have learned so much from my daughters and their friends over the years that it makes me want to be around kids all of the time. (Well, maybe not “all”...)
In the history of benchmarks of creativity I’d have to say that the one for the Child’s Question stands among the greatest–at the very least it can show a careful listener how look at things differently–and sometimes savagely so.
For me these attempts come in strange ways–sometimes it comes in the form of just imagining that I knew nothing whatsoever about the topic. (I remember a story about told by the mother of the American dustbowl-era artist Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was a late speaker–nothing came out of him until he was one and a half years old. But when it came, it came with a bang: standing on his porch in the early evening and looking at the Moon, he turned to his mother and said “What is that?”. Magnificent.)
For example there’s the glorious work by by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) in the Castello di San Girogio in Mantua (mainly La Camera degli Sposi). The oculus is the focal point of a ceiling that stands over what some people consider to be the most beautiful room in the world, painted in almost every aspect and surface by the great Mantegna.
It is a magnificent thing created by a great Renaissance master. But what in the world is going on up there above everyone’s heads? I guess that you could infer all sorts of mythological and symbolic bric-a-brac to explain the scene, but, if you forgot about all of that, what it looks like is that everyone up there is waiting for a bucket of water (or something) to be poured down on the folks below. Simple explanations are sometimes the best–and so are the obvious ones.
And so I turned to a book that I’ve breezed through but never read, a staple I guess for anyone interested in the history of art, Bernard Berenson’s The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1952) to see what he had to say about this work. But before I got there I stumbled my way through Berenson’s long and thick paragraphs, filled with commas and very long sentences, tumbled my way across the name of Paulo Uccello. And it wasn’t a pretty fall.
I was introduced to real appreciation of the great Uccello (1397-1475) by my wife Patti Digh, who had thought long and hard about him through the Great American Novel The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. (Credit where credit is due: I never read the book before meeting Patti, and it is she who first supported the GAN claim for the problematic Gaddis.) It’s a long and complex book, The Recognitions, and we won’t get into it here–just the part about Uccello. And it is here that Gaddis makes a wonderful operation about the solids in Uccello.
Uccello was coming out of the Gothic era (sort of) and into the Renaissance (sort of) with a remarkable and just-about revolutionary control of the idea of perspective. Maybe it was gotten through the polishing of the early doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, or something else, I don’t know–he was a very private, deeply secretive man whose life (and philosophy) is mostly mystery. Anyway, he was among the first scientifically-based artists to work in perspective, and he was just simply an important guy in the history of art. But what Gaddis recognized that in all of this fabulous detail and naturalism, that there are great expanses of pure, unmodified, non-detailed colors. Horse rumps can be simply white; parts of armor, just big flat blacks. Beautiful. The question was: what was he thinking? In this great porridge of color and scientific delight, where was the detail? Why did he leave out muscles and shadow and sinew and sweat and whatever, content for some reason to just dress that particular part of the painting in pure color? It seems very 20th century to me.
And so now that I had moved away from Mantegna, I wanted to see what Bereneson had to say about Uccello. And with an open mind I was completely invaded: Berenson didn’t really see Uccello as a artist, at all.
As a matter of fact, Berenson wrote that there wasn’t much of a difference between Uccello’s paining and a map, and didn’t think of Uccello’s efforts “as a work of art”. He felt that Uccello was more of a scientist whose interest and ability didn’t necessarily relate its subject in an artistic way.
“Uccello had a sense of tactile values and a feeling for colour, but in so far as he used these gifts at all, it was to illustrate scientific problems” Berenson wrote. Ouch. He continues, “In Uccello’s “Sacrifice of Noah’...there is mathematical certainty but certainly...no psychological significance”, which is where he sees no difference between Uccello’s painting and a map. He claims that Uccello and his successors “accomplished nothing artistically” but did provide the tools for more gifted artists who would come later.
Strong stuff from someone who knew his stuff–I only knew the book by looking at the pictures. Berenson isn’t out there alone in his feelings for the beautiful Uccello * and I tried to open my head up to seeing what these guys saw. But, as Patti said, “they’re just wrong”.
I’ll take that over trying to figure out a new way of looking at the fabulous Uccello.
* For example, Donatello found his friend to be lacking in a certain creativity, lacking a depth of uncertainty; also Alberti does not include him in hist famous list of artists in De Pictura.