Making Pictures Speak: Renaissance Art, Elizabethan Literature, Modern Scholarship

By Barkan, Leonard | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Making Pictures Speak: Renaissance Art, Elizabethan Literature, Modern Scholarship


Barkan, Leonard, Renaissance Quarterly


Some often quoted lines from Sidney's Apology for Poetry can stand both as a piece of literary history in themselves and as a methodological guide for the study of that history: "Poesy therefore is an art of imitation: for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture."(1) It is one of the most famous of all definitions of poetry, and like many other such definitions - Plato's in the Republic, Horace's in the Arts Poetica(1) - it arrives at saliency by drawing an analogy to the visual. More succinctly even than his predecessors, Sidney demonstrates just how difficult it is to unpack the concept of mimesis as he ranges through a sequence of functional descriptions (representing, counterfeiting, figuring forth), none of which quite does the trick, until he arrives at a metaphor that names itself as such. One might say that a metaphor is itself a speaking picture and therefore Sidney's memorable phrase is a self-confirming artifact. But let us shy away from such metaformulations and content ourselves with a sense of just how felicitous the expression "speaking picture" turns out to be. I mean this felicity quite specifically: that is, the phrase permits Sidney to evade the complexities of explaining the relation of poetry to reality and instead enables him to wrap things up in what we can only call an image. In turn, he will try to anchor the inevitable waywardness of such a metaphor by fixing at least the destination of poetry as he sees it: "with this end, to teach and delight," which still leaves poetry's mimetic origins unspecified.

The "speaking picture," then, whatever it lacks in clarity, it more than makes up for in imaginative force. To move from poetry to mimesis to speaking picture is to promise something like a totalizing experience, one that embraces both eyes and ears, one that combines the discursive force of language with the sensuous power of real experience (figured as visual), one that unites doctrine with aesthetics - in short, "with this end, to teach and delight." At this time I am not so much concerned whether this claim about poetry is justified; nor do I plan to pursue a historical or rhetorical analysis of how the claim came to be. Where I do wish to begin, however, is with a recognition that the "speaking picture" stands as the emblem of a kind of utopian poetics, a dream that poetry can do just about anything.

Now the speaking picture is also, if we shift ground from Sidney to ourselves, an emblem of those kinds of historical and theoretical study that focus on the interrelations between the visual arts and literature. For not such different reasons, this may also function as a utopian project. If one proposes a sort of evolutionary ladder of scholarly approaches that relate poems and paintings or words and images, one might begin at the naive end with notions that sonnets are really rather like cupolas.(3) It's easy to laugh, but I think it is more valuable to recognize in such expressions the scholar's desire to look beyond the formal taxonomy of each art object into an underlying field of artistic intention, like Alois Riegl's Kunstwollen or, in Gombrich's not entirely friendly translation, the "will-to-form."(4) Closely related are all those approaches that work out from terms like Baroque and Mannerist - themselves often of complicated literary and visual origins.(5) In the process of defining or theorizing these categories and applying them to productions in a variety of artistic media, these scholars express their wish to attribute to particular past cultures a unity of aesthetic impulses and thus to nail down period style.

Roughly speaking, the utopian aspect of these approaches is located in the scholars themselves: they are seeking to demonstrate a unifying insight that transcends medium, form, and the contingencies of historical moment while also confirming the enduring validity of those categories. …

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