Looking at little things has its rewards, though what rewards those are may be a little oblique. Today’s post is relegated to looking at the sidewalk on a stroll rather than the surroundings, and the sidewalk view is more like Baudelaire’s sidewalk botanist than Proust’s golden Parisian sidewalks. So it goes.
Petrus Ciacconius Toledanus (Pedro Chacon,1525-1581) was a scholar who wrote on many things; this book, De Triclinio sive De modo co
nvivandiapud priscos Romanos…(printed in 1664, 63 years after the author’s death) , takes a wide and classically scholarly look at bathing practices…and that includes bathing in water or in wine, and bathing once or six times a day, with dinner in the water or not, what to wear bathside, and all sorts of other bathing entertainments and necessaries.
But that’s not why I’m making this short stop here—it’s the odd bit in this illustration that has my attention. I’m also not sure about the activity in the print—I’m fixed on the little bit of shrubbery that we can see in the background windows. Having looked at thousands and thousands of images like this, I must say that seeing natural nothingness like this outside a window is very unusual. In the unknown, unused and non-existent
art appreciation genre of “Boring Things Seen Through Windows”, this print would be standard fare.
But the real issue here for me is that the window is just a window in this print. It doesn’t have any of the heavy significance associated with windows-in-art of the past, the window dripping with symbolic/spiritual significance (illumination, enlightenment, vision, godhead, divinity). The window as a simple source of light or vehicle to relieve crowded interiors seems to be
overwhelmed by the religious/needy windows at least t
hrough the first half of the 17th century. (At least that’s my sense of it—I haven’t a single figure to back anything up.) The little windows that creep into the work of Van Eyck--especially in the famous “The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami” of 1434—are interesting examples of the window as a simple source of light. (In the “Marriage” painting the window is much more visible in the iconic reverse double-painting seen in the mirror on the wall in the background.)
Same too for the windows in some Vermeers, where you can virtually feel the breeze coming through them and into the occasionally stuffy rooms. And also for Durer: while his great study of St. Jerome has a presiding possibility of Pure Holy Light coming into his room, it might also just be sunlight; on the other hand there is little doubt that the windows in his famous depi
ction of an artist working a perspective study of a model through a dividing screen have nothing to do with the spiritual, and are just simple mundane windows.
By the 17th century there is a new genre of paintings having people looking out of windows (as with the case of Gerrit Dou, where we observe what seems like every one of his subjects looking out through a window),
which means I guess that the observer is the one who might shine in. Enter the 20th century and the window takes on new meanings, as in bent/draped windows in Dali, or floating windows looking into the lonely world of Magritte, or the solitary nothing-but-a-window sculpture of Duchamp.
The unintended nothingness of the 16th century is what I think I like the best.
For some pretty interesting books written on the window in art, see: Carlo Gottlieg, The Window in Art (University of Michigan, 1981, and which is a nice chronological treatment of the window, plus some psychological stuff) and Suzanne Delehenty, The Window in Twentieth-Century Art (1986), among others. These will point the way.