Ancient Prototypes Reinstantiated: Zuccari's Encounter of Christ and Veronica of 1594

By Stoenescu, Livia | The Art Bulletin, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Ancient Prototypes Reinstantiated: Zuccari's Encounter of Christ and Veronica of 1594


Stoenescu, Livia, The Art Bulletin


The early modern age placed great weight on historical evidence in effecting a revival of the ancient art of the past. To an unprecedented degree, this nascent historical consciousness subscribed to the truth value of visual evidence at the same time than iL entertained skepticism about die reliability of written history.1 Notorious instances of altered or misinterpreted documents encouraged [he belief that images provided more reliable insight into historical fact than written sources.

The considerable attention devoted by the post-Tridenrine ecclesiastical program of reform to the image's subject matter fostered a self-imposed medieval character. The reform program sought to regulate not only the format and function of devotional images but also aspects of their istoria in the treatment of many commissioned artists. The post-Tridentine assertion of venerable traditions expressed itself in the creation of artifacts that directly referenced their reflexive contexts, a mechanism that enlisted the specifics of old images to the system of Catholic truth visually argued. Thus, Cardinal Federico Borromeo found theological and didactic value in the engravings made by the sixteenth-century Antwerp artist Marten de Vos that portrayed important chapters of church history, and these became one of the principal instruments of his canon of sacred art at the Ambrosiana Academy in Milan." Early modern artists resolved to reform such post-Tridentine hermenéutica] discourses through rhe expressive models of a substitut] o nal logic meant to self-consciously repurpose antique features in ways that transcended the specific moment of their creation. The subs titutio nal effectiveness of Federico Zuccari's S. Prassede altarpiece The Encounter of Christ and Veronica on, the Way to Calvary of 1594 (Fig. 1) emerged from his ability to recover ancient prototypes and present them as recognizably old with the aid of Renaissance altarpiece paradigms celebrating die artistic merits of Early Christian images.

Despite their differing aims, both ecclesiastical figures arid artists set religious images at the core of debates surrounding the veracity of historical sources. After the Reformation imperiled the historical legitimacy of the Catholic Church, and a generation of powerful popes, such as Paul ? and his successor, Sixtus IV, made classical antiquity a key area of research, historical religious art acquired the task of shedding new light on the past.1 Writing from the vantage point of the Counter-Reformation work of devotion, Peter Paul Rubens pointed to the efforts of Antonio Bossio to convey how the catacombs demonstrated the ungainly and substandard qualities that characterized Early Christian art in the views of many ecclesiastical patrons and theorists.'1 An artist with exceptional scholarly and antiquarian insight, Rubens suggested that he could not defend the visual worthiness of Early Christian images against the grace and excellence of classical antiquity in Bossio's illustrated folio Roma sotterranea (1636). Taking Rubens's conclusion one step further, it was left to the early modern artist to reconcile the devotional power of Early Christian art with its visual crudity in the creation of sacred images. This reconciliation was especially urgent given the new status of visitai evidence as the preeminent historical source for the study of early Christianity.

Scholars generally regard the work of Zuccari as an essentially controlled expression of the classicizing aesthetics of early modernity, rather than as the achievement of an independent artist whose intellectual appetite did not need the stimulation of continuous contact with classical antiquity.5 Not surprisingly, art historians have located Zuccari within the classicist framework expounded by Giovan Pietro Bellori, the distinguished scholar, connoisseur, and theorist who set himself the task of uncovering the errors of ancient scholarship with a view to elaborating his conception of beauty as associated with ideas, or modes of knowledge. …

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