The Modern Artist as Historian, Courtier, and Saint: Typology and Art History from Vasari to Pound

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Since the 1980s, a central problem has generated much debate among scholars of twentieth-century literature: how to reconcile the poetic and aesthetic innovations of W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot (among other "modernists"), with the controversial political and economic views such writers espoused in the first half of the twentieth century. Pound's blatant anti-Semitism and fascism as well as his affiliations with Mussolini make him the paradigmatic enigma in such debates over the relation of politics to aesthetics, and many have argued these factors ought to influence our judgment and acceptance of his poetry. Pound saw himself and other modern artists as capable of rewriting history and redeeming society through art. He also believed artists could influence those in power to reshape the political order based on aesthetic principles. In short, for Pound the artist (including himself) was the type most capable of fulfilling the social roles of historian, courtier, and saint. Still inexplicable to many, Pound eventually supported fascist Italy, believing it recognized the true value of the artist for the life of the nation.

Those who have recently analyzed Pound's politics offer explanations by contextualizing his views within the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in the twentieth-century United States and Europe. (1) While helpful, these studies tend to ignore the larger historiographical traditions within which Pound worked and which influenced him tremendously. (2) Conversely, those who have addressed the topic of Pound and history tend to ignore politics as they focus on issues of methodology, sources, and accuracy. (3) In contrast to these approaches, I see Pound's politics, aesthetics, and vision of history as all intimately linked categories in his thought. Specifically, the idea of the modern artist as society's historian, courtier, and saint derives from Pound's fascination with the Italian Renaissance and from the texts in which this period concept emerged: sixteenth-century texts of art history and nineteenth-century texts of cultural history. Analyzing Pound's affinities with Italian Renaissance art and cultural history reveals that his controversial politics and aesthetics are rooted in and derive from (at least in part) a particular tradition of historiography--one that creates periods of renaissance and modernity and that gives a unique social role to the artist within that historical scheme.

The artist as a type who is radically individual and divinely creative and who plays a central role in society and history most clearly emerges in what is deemed the first text of art history: Giorgio Vasari's 1550 Lives of the Artists. (4) As Vasari's text adapts and secularizes medieval Christian historiographic forms, a new vision of historical time is constructed and consequently a new identity for the modern artist. Vasari is the first to see his age as a rinascita (rebirth) and to mark it as the beginning of modernity. In this text historical time is measured not in terms of a Christian plan for history--Eden to redemption--but rather in terms of the progress of historical periods, nations, and cultures. The artist becomes the new type of hero within this view of history.

Vasari's text remained the foundation of art historical knowledge well into the nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, the Italian Renaissance as the beginning of modernity had become a standard idea in the West primarily through the Kulturgeschichte of Jacob Burckhardt's 1860 The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. In England and the United States cultural histories of the Italian Renaissance were abundant, most notably John A. Symonds's seven-volume treatise, The Renaissance in Italy (1875-86). Such texts often relied on Vasari as an authoritative source and imitated and promulgated his views of Renaissance artists as cultural heroes.

Pound's intellectual formation began in this era often deemed the "cult of the Renaissance. …