Exercise for Mind and Body: Giulio Mancini, Collecting, and the Beholding of Landscape Painting in the Seventeenth Century

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Among the myriad remedies for melancholy enumerated by the English polymath and clergyman Robert Burton (1577-1640) in his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621 are visits to the picture galleries of Roman cardinals, "richly stored with all modern paintings, old statues and antiquities." (1) Within their confines those suffering from this affliction might cake delight, Burton wrote, and greatly "ease their grief." (2) Burton substantiates his view on the authority of the first-century philosopher Dio Chrysostom (ca. 40-after 112 CE), who had praised the works of the Greek sculptor Phidias for their powers to comfort the soul: "if any man be sickly, troubled in mind, or ... cannot sleep for griefe, and shall but stand over against one of ... [his] images, he will forget all care, or whatsoever else may molest him in an instant." (3) Burton's monumental work is at once an encyclopedic compilation of classical, Christian, and Renaissance learning and a treatise on popular medicine, and in commenting on the curative value of picture galleries he echoes the opinion of practicing physicians as far away as Rome. (4)

The idea that not only the viewing of art, but also its creation, might be therapeutic was widely held throughout the Renaissance period, having been articulated by Leon Battista Alberti in his Profugiorum ab aerumna of ca. 1441-42. (5) The history of this idea and its diffusion in the fields of Renaissance art theory, medicine, and philosophy has nevertheless been little studied by modern scholars. (6) Yet the pre-Cartesian philosophy of the unity of the body and soul that provided a foundation for the belief that the exercise of the mind produced somatic effects, and that the viewing of art might be therapeutic, represented a major force in the development of princely art collecting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upon this foundation, princely picture collections in general, and Italian picture galleries in particular, developed as spaces for combined physical and mental exercise. At the same time, the landscape paintings produced for princely collectors at this moment in Italy provided a mechanism by which viewers might recreate mind and body. In so doing, this genre furthered the claims of collectors to possess bodies fit to perform virtuous actions and to be declared noble.

In the same year that saw the publication of Burton's monumental treatise, the Sienese physician Giulio Mancini (1559-1630), a doctor at the Roman Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia and the personal physician to several cardinals, was completing his Considerazioni sulla pittura (ca. 1619-21). (7) This was an expansion of his earlier "Discorso di pittura," begun before 1617, which sets forth a history of painting in Rome from antiquity to Mancini's own day, and culminates in a theory of painting and guidelines for arc collectors. (8) In the course of enlarging the work, Mancini added a second section of biographies that corrected and updated those by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), and he provided a short critique of Gian Paolo Lomazzo's Trattato dell 'arte delta pittura (1584). Composed over the course of several years, the Considerazioni was written while Mancini was occupied with numerous other demands. As is evident from the number of surviving manuscript versions and the addition of a second part to the treatise, Mancini's ideas evolved over time. After revising a manuscript Mancini would pass it to a scribe to be recopied, and at this stage his insertions were sometimes left out, or added incompletely. The Considerazioni, which was never completed for publication, remains fragmentary in parts, and unpolished overall. A study of it requires careful reading of the various manuscripts, and especially a comparison between the early iteration of Mancini's ideas in the "Discorso di pittura" and in the later versions.

If at times difficult to interpret, Mancini's Considerazioni nevertheless represents the most extensive Italian treatise on painting from the first decades of the seventeenth century and is invaluable for its insight into the reception of the works of Caravaggio, the Carracci, and their pupils. …