Sunday, February 01, 2015

BOOK: Federico Borromeo, "Sacred Painting, Museum"

Federico Borromeo: Sacred Painting. Museum. Edited and translated by Kenneth S. Rothwell, jr. Introduction and notes by Pamela M. Jones. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 44. Harvard University Press, 2010. 9780674047587. xxxvi + 298 pp.

The texts in this book are of a somewhat later date than most in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, having been written in the early 17th century. Borromeo was an archbishop of Milan, but he also took a considerable interest in art; among other things, the founded the Ambrosian Library in Milan and later extended it with a museum and an academy of design (p. xv).

As you might expect from a clergyman, his interest in art is not entirely for the sake of art itself, but because suitable works of art can strengthen people's religious faith, move them into a pious mood, etc. (p. xiii). So to a certain extent, he regarded his interest in art as a part of his job as a bishop: the Council of Trent “stipulated that bishops use art to teach and inspire members of their dioceses” (p. xii).

Sacred Painting

The first of the two short works in this book, Sacred Painting, arose out of these concerns of his. Borromeo points out that religious art is a way of conveying some additional religious instruction to the masses, similar to what you would accomplish with a book, except even more so since you will also reach the (still very numerous) illiterate people (1.1.2). And just like theological errors and the like wouldn't be tolerated in a book, they shouldn't be allowed in paintings and statues either (1.4.1, 1.4.4).

Thus, his Sacred Painting discusses various details that makers of religious art should pay attention to, and points out things which they often get wrong. There are of course the obvious concerns that people in religious paintings should not be too naked, or too muscular, or too sumptuously dressed, or placed in convoluted poses which draw attention to their bodies, etc. — basically, he is very keen to ensure that a painting will lead its viewers towards pious thoughts rather than fleshly ones. And how could you resist thinking fleshly thoughts when reading descriptions such as: “scarcely any of today's artists are ashamed of clothing the Virgin in drapery so tight that it clings distinctly to each of her limbs, as if she were wearing a simple veil” (1.7.3). :)

But in addition to that, he is very keen on historical accuracy; painters should, he says, stick as closely as possible to established and reliable christian traditions; “painting a false story is no different from writing a false book” (1.4.1). Sometimes I thought he went a bit too far in this direction, complaining against things that were obviously not intended to be taken literally (e.g. a painting that showed Francis of Assisi as being present at the birth of Jesus; 1.4.5). In any case, this interest in details of historical fact behind early christianity was not just Borromeo's personal quirk, but part of a bigger trend in the Catholic church of his time, known as ‘Christian archaeology’ (p. xi; stimulated by actual archaeological discoveries, e.g. of early christian catacombs in Rome).

In any case, I don't want to make him seem more fanatical than he really was. For example, in 1.9.2 he condemns the censorship of a puppy on Titian's Adoration of the Magi, which had been ordered by an “austere and inflexible member of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo's archiepiscopal household”. The translators add in a note: “Restoration of the painting in the 1990s revealed that the dog was urinating on the manger shed [. . .] It is not clear if Borromeo knew this.” (N. 30 on p. 233.)

On the subject of historical accuracy, he includes descriptions of the appearance of Jesus (2.2.10) and Mary (2.5.5), both from Nicephorus, a 14th-century Byzantine historian. Nowadays it is fashionable to complain about how Jesus is typically painted as too pale and too blond, whereas he must obviously really have been swarthy and black-haired (see e.g. here and here). And yet we already find all this in Nicephorus' description: “He had blondish, not very thick hair that fell in loose curls; [. . .] His beard was blond and not worn long. He wore his hair rather long [. . .] his face, which had a complexion of the color of wheat [. . .] he bore a striking similarity to his divine and immaculate Mother” (2.2.10). He says similarly of Mary: “Her complexion was the color of wheat, with blond hair, keen eyes, and pupils yellowish-brown and almost olive-colored” (2.5.5). Admittedly, Wikipedia's extensive page on the “race and appearance of Jesus” says that Nicephorus's “account was most likely without basis and was inspired by the prevailing artistic images of Jesus”.

On a related note, “[w]e know that Eusebius and Nicephorus wrote that likenesses of Sts. Peter and Paul, copied from life, survived to their own day” (2.8.3). But Borromeo doesn't include those descriptions here.

His commitment to historical accuracy can be a bit peculiar at times. Frankly, it's more of a commitment to consistency with tradition. In 2.3.4, he discusses whether, when Jesus was crucified, the nails went through his palms or through his wrists (a very popular question). He admits that the palms might not have been able to support the weight, but says that he should be shown with nails though the palms anyway, because “the common custom and tradition of the Catholic Church must be maintained”. (Whenever I hear these discussions, I can't help imagining a Roman executioner, with a malevolent glint in his eye, saying “why not both?” and driving a couple extra nails into the poor guy :])

His dedication to realism can reach hilarious proportions: when showing how Jesus divided a loaf of bread by hand, it “should not be shown cut into two equal parts, as if sliced in half by some sort of razor, for this seems to endorse the absurd view that the Savior was recognized because of his miraculous ability to bisect bread perfectly” (2.4.10) :)))

Apparently, religious art was a serious business already in pagan times: “The first and foremost rule of the ancients regarding the noble arts of painting and sculpture was that only the most celebrated artists could make images of the gods.” (1.2.3) And also: “Famous sculptors mentally prepared themselves by fasting and living in poverty so they could get themselves into the right state of mind.” (1.11.3) I see that the stereotype of the starving, suffering artist has a long and distinguished history :)


The second text in this book, Museum, is a short guide through the Ambrosian Museum, which Borromeo had founded a few years earlier, and to which he had donated many works of art from his own collection. He goes from painting to painting, from statue to statue, saying a few sentences or maybe a paragraph about each of them. I can't say that I found this terribly interesting in itself, but it was interesting to see it as a kind of early precursor to the sort of guide-books that you can nowadays typically buy somewhere near the entrance of a museum.

An interesting topic that he often mentions in the Museum is that of preservation. Several of the artworks in his collection were copies of earlier works and he often points out that the originals are already falling into ruin, and making copies is a way of preserving such things for posterity. This applies to paintings (especially frescoes) as well as statues. See in particular ¶20–21, which illustrates the need for preservation by deploring the loss of so much ancient Greek and Roman art; and ¶49–50, which says that in his time even Leonardo's famous Last Supper was already badly damaged. He also says of it in ¶55: “Leonardo's original work, which has always been considered a kind of treasure, is already utterly lost, so the copy will be more valuable with every passing day.”

There's an interesting note (p. 271, n. 75) on the methods used to copy paintings. One was to use a “grid of squares, which could be measured to enlarge the composition and ensure its accurate reproduction”. Another method was to trace the painting on a semi-transparent sheet of paper, but this “tended to damage the original works”.


I was intrigued by this sentence from the acknowledgments section (p. xxiv): “James Hankins has encouraged this project since its conception, long before the inauguration of the I Tatti Renaissance Library.” This inauguration took place in 2001, and the present volume was published in 2010. I guess this gives us an interesting insight into the glacial pace at which the preparation of such books proceeds. Occasionally I wonder if some of the multi-volume works in the ITRL series have simply been abandoned — e.g. vol. 2 of Pius's memoirs came out in 2007 and no further volumes have been even announced since then — but maybe I should stop worrying and simply accept the fact that taking 10 or more years to prepare a book is a normal thing in these circles.

There's an interesting anecdote about Michelangelo in SP 1.12.5: a beggar asked him for alms, but having no cash on him, Michelangelo quickly drew a small sketch and gave it to the beggar, advising him to sell it. I wonder if it's true; similar anecdotes are often told about other artists too, in modern times it's usually about a sketch drawn on the back side of a cheque (see e.g. this thread). The translator adds in a note on the Michelangelo anecdote: “The source of this anecdote is unknown to me or to William E. Wallace.” (N. 45 on p. 235.) I'm not entirely surprised, considering that William Wallace pre-dates Michelangelo by nearly two hundred years ;P

There's an interesting discussion on the origins of the halo in SP 2.8.8–9. According to Borromeo, it's descended from a similar convention in pagan art: “the round shape derived from a shield that was eevidently used for crowning soldiers. It is agreed that the crown and the shield, or halo, were placed on human figures in pagan images”. As a further link to crowns, Borromeo's original Latin text consistently refers to the halo as ‘diadema’.

In SP 2.2.9, he complains against what was apparently then a recent trend to use the Latin word Divus (divine) instead of Sanctus (saint) when referring to christian saints. This trend seems to have been motivated by an excessive concern about classical usage. Borromeo's counterargument is that “Divus was customarily given to false gods and Emperors”, and that Sanctus has the weight of church tradition on its side.

A funny anecdote from SP 2.6.2: when looking at some paintings of angels' heads, “this man overheard us and asked us, as we listened, whether the heads and faces of the angels had been copied from life!” :))

He writes quite soberly on the origins of some christian traditions, e.g. on the idea that saint Lucy is particularly helpful against eye diseases: “since people in antiquity thought that the goddess Lucina was a divinity who sould heal eyes, the name of Lucy the Martyr was simply substituted for that of the false divinity” (SP 2.11.8).

“St. John Chrysostom says that in the earliest period of the Church, Christian men customarily dined at tables set up right inside the churches.” (SP 2.12.3)

From the translators' note, p. 221: “Borromeo, like most Latinists of his period, had an annoying addiction to commas; we have eliminated a very large number of them.”

Note 184 on p. 255 mentions that saint Bernard (after whom the famous breed of dogs is named) lived 923–1008 and “worked at converting pagans in the Alpine regions”. I was interested to read that, as I hadn't thought that there were still pagans there at such a late date. (His wikipedia page gives even later dates, 1020–1081; but an earlier version had 923–1008.)

I liked the fact that the book contains a section of plates showing many of the paintings and frescos discussed in Borromeo's two treatises; but they hardly deserve to be called plates — not only are they all in grayscale, they are also printed on exactly the same sort of paper as the rest of the book, rather than on the better, thicker, whiter paper that is usually used for plates.

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