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While all the rest of this stuff has been going on, I finally finished my afternoon book.  It’s called The Secret Language of the Renaissance:  Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art, by Richard Stemp, and it leaves me with a couple of things to say.

The first is that I really hadn’t realized, before this particular book, how much the size and shape of a book matter in the way I read it.  This is an outsized, coffee-table type art book, full of really gorgeous illustrations, and it’s damned near impossible to pick up and read.

To read it, I had to lay it out on the arm of the loveseat and lean over it sideways.  I couldn’t bring it with me to school or to lunch.  It didn’t fit in any of the things I usually bring with me, not even the outsized knitting bag my friend Carol gave me that fits my grade book and folders.  It was also too difficult and too awkward to handle when I was standing in line anywhere.  It wasn’t much better in the car.  I’d prop it up against the steering wheel, and all I had to do was breathe funny to make the horn go off underneath it.

I often wonder if this would be a problem with electronic book formats like Kindle.  They’re smaller than this book, of course, and meant to be portable, but for some reason I feel that they would also be far more fragile.  I can bang a book around without worrying about it, except around water.  I have visions of my caving in the Kindle in my tote bag because I drop a heavy book in there with it, or I end up slamming the bag against a corner as I’m going around it.

Whatever.  I’ll admit to not being really entranced with the idea of electronic books.

The second thing is that I find myself really happy to have found something new to learn about–ack.  That’s not quite right.

Let me try it this way.  Art has an entire technical vocabulary I have encountered only infrequently in my life, and an entire intellectual history I know very little about.  This was a good book for me because it was not so simple as to make the whole project seem vapid and overly simply, but not so technical that I couldn’t understand it with a little work.

And it made me remember that I like doing the work.  I started a small notebook for terms and information after a while, just trying to keep things straight in a single source where I could refer to them when they came up again.  I found out that there were names for things I didn’t know there were names for–pendentives, for instance, which are the triangular sort of insert looking things that  fix a round dome to a square structure.

This is the kind of thing I should have brought away from Introduction to Art History, years ago.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.  When I was younger, I tended to think of anything that didn’t have to do with words as being essentially trivial.

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually found something I wanted to understand thoroughly and began the process of doing that.  I’m glad to be back at it.

Maybe it helps that Italian Renaissance art was designed to be “read”–that is, was designed with enough references and allusions to give Yeats a headache.  I posted a link to this picture on Facebook a week or so ago, but I’ll post it again here:


I may have posted it here, too.

I like it because I like it–I like the near photographic quality of it in spite if the fact that it is obvious not photographic.

But I also like it because it fascinates me as a message.  Every image in it, even the little line of articles (the candle, the vase) on the shelf above Mary’s head, has specific meaning that anybody in the Renaissance, even people who were illiterate in the ordinary way, would have been able to decode.

It’s not just the images, either.  Things like the relative placement of the figures, the specific colors and kinds of paint that were used, were all part of conveying a narrative–and narrative was definitely the point of most art in Italy in this period. 

So I’m back to stories, just stories told in pictures.  Think of Crevelli’s Annunciation as   the high art tradition’s version of a comic book…

Or maybe not.

The third thing is a quote from Stemple’s text.  It’s his attempt to explain how Renaissance artists, sculptors and thinkers defined the word “civilization.”

Civilization, he says, is “nature subjected to the organized mind of man.”

If with “nature” you include “human nature,” I think that’s a very nice way of putting it, a way we probably couldn’t put it now, without being subjected to a lot of lectures from environmentalists.

The Renaissance had no sentimental delusions about nature.  It was not an era whem people imagined that “the natural” was “the good.”  It was often an era when “the natural” was equivalent to “the evil.” 

Nature was not only fallen, not only shot through with evil due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, but imperfect.

For years I wondered how people like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine would revere both Aristotle and Plato at the same time.  It seemed like a contradiction.  Aristotle and Plato were poles apart–direct opposites, in fact–when it came to things like politics and the perfectability of human beings.

I should have remembered that different eras have different obsessions.  Renaissance philosophers–and artists and theologians–didn’t pay much attention to the political thought of either philosopher.  They saw in Plato’s concept of this world being but a pallid shadow of the Ideal Forms which exist in eternity a way of explaining the relationship between this world and God’s perfection. 

Like the huddled men staring at the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, we, St. Paul said, “see through a glass darkly.”

And, I’ll admit, that was something that had never occurred to me before.  Not bad for a book that was probably not really intended to be read.  If you know what I mean.

Anyway, that thing about civilization being “nature subjected to the organized mind of man” intrigues me, and has landed me once again in front of Lorenzo de Medici.

But I think I’ll worry about it tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2010 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Civilized'

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  1. Symbolic language of art–not just Italy. You run into the same thing with Bosch, and much that looks strange to the modern reader would have been clear to a contemporary. OK, with Bosch, maybe still strange, but at least explicable. I get a little of this with Brueghel, and then by Durer and Holbein it’s just gone. It’s still helpful to know your Bible, but no longer necessary to know that a glass ball represents Vanity.

    Books: size and shape really do matter. To go to THAT specialized vocabulary, the perfect book is an octavo of about 200-300 pages: big enough to provide legible type and small enough to go in a hand with a notebook–or in a purse for those allowed such things. And that is pretty much your common hardcover and almost all book club editions. You need quartos and folios for art, maps and sometimes for tables, but I never travel with them if I can help it. In an extreme case, I’ll take a book club Howard “Conan” to work for reading at lunch, then switch back to a beautiful “deluxe illustrated” when I get home.

    A Kindle or a Nook are pretty well octavo size and a bit thinner. And you’re right: they’re a good deal more fragile, and I can’t imagine them being as long-lived. I own too many 100 year old books to see a Kindle as permanent. Also, there are places you can’t bring something which downloads from a computer. I can’t imagine them replacing my core collection. That said, I’ll probably buy a Kindle this fall. It will hold the contents of a 4X8 bookcase, I can download public domain books for free, and I can go on vacation with one Kindle and a couple of digest-size magazines for backup. I own FAR too many books I intend to read again someday, but probably not soon, and an electronic book is the perfect book for moving day. I understand you can adjust the font, too, which may be more helpful than I’d like to think.

    As a replacement for books, I can’t see them. But as an auxilliary, these things could be very helpful.


    13 Jun 10 at 7:08 am

  2. I’ve had my Kindle for over a year now. It lives in a rigid-sided leather case, because I’ve dropped it more than a dozen times, onto hard floors and concrete. Absolutely no damage. I also cram it into my tote-bag purse, along with everything else, and sling it onto the floor of the car daily. Generally I only remove it from the cover when I’m reading in bed, to lessen the weight.

    I felt it was fragile when I first got it. In the cover, it’s well-enough protected, I think, enough that my clumsy self hasn’t done so much as scratched it. Now I consider it fairly sturdy, more so than my cell-phone, anyway.

    Have I given up paper books? Not entirely, though I occasionally find myself looking for the “Next Page” button in one. I far prefer the Kindle for reading while eating, as it can rest on the table, and one press turns the page, instead of having to put down the fork or sandwich and manually handle a book to turn a page. I also like taking it on trips. One item, instead of a dozen books.

    And about 90% of my reading has been free classic SF from the 50s & 60s found on ManyBooks.net. Browse their collection, Robert, and you might buy sooner, rather than later. When I buy a new book, it’s a treat to get something that’s otherwise only available on hardback for $10, long before the paperback is out. I don’t buy fewer books, but I *do*visit the library much less.


    13 Jun 10 at 11:26 am

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