M.ith the relationship to reality and life, art has been grappling with since it has existed and up to the present day. In the Italian Renaissance, this discussion was particularly urgent and comprehensive, as Frank Fehrenbach, Professor of Art History at the University of Hamburg, explains in his book. Even in the Middle Ages it could claim to be alive, for example in the form of miraculous images, which, thanks to divine inspiration, were ascribed a concrete effect on the present. But the dawn of what Hans Belting called the “age of art”, that is, the establishment of an allegedly function-free, purely aesthetic art, threatened to degrade it to a dead image and deception.
Therefore, the creation of liveliness became the main concern of early modern aesthetic theory. Giorgio Vasari does not apply any criterion more frequently in his artist’s works, and nothing he praises more than the animation of the inanimate. According to Fehrenbach, the natural philosophy of Aristotle with its mixed forms, in which the inanimate continuously merges into the animate, since living germinal forces also lie dormant in the inanimate, was fundamental.
Moved from the inside, limited from the outside
The ways in which artists sought to activate these latent germinal forces are dealt with by Fehrenbach in sixteen studies in all their diversity, with particular emphasis on art theory. One chapter, for example, addresses the painter’s endeavors to create colored unity on the picture surface, since, according to Vasari, thanks to this coordination of the coloring, the “picture trembles and the figures move”. In the chapter on erotic images, on the other hand, “the flesh trembles”, which Domenico Canigiani even seems to have painted “with brushstrokes of living flesh” (Vasari). Last but not least, money activates the senses, as Fehrenbach shows with the help of the coins in Tizian’s wonderfully self-reflective portrait of the art dealer Jacopo Strada. Like art, money is a “quasi-living” object of desire, except that with Tizian it is merely a medium for acquiring the actually priceless sculpture in the hand of Strada, who as a dealer is himself an intermediary and sells exactly what he is here brought to life by Titian’s brush: namely art.
Michelangelo dedicates two studies to Fehrenbach, on the one hand because the liveliness of the art of “il Divino” was considered unsurpassable, on the other hand because such liveliness is also a theme in anecdotes and in his sonnets. According to Fehrenbach, nothing illustrates Michelangelo’s claim to give life to the stone better than his still controversial non-finito. Because it is precisely in their imperfection that the so-called slaves show themselves in the process of developing life. Michelangelo was influenced by contemporary concepts of reproduction, as Fehrenbach makes clear with the help of the sonnets. Just as, according to the understanding of the Renaissance, the male seed gives form to the inert female matter in the sexual act and living beings emerge from it, so the sculptor working the passive marble also has formative power, although he naturally works his material from the outside, in contrast to nature. He emphasizes the torso, especially in the unfinished works, because the human organism should develop precisely in the area of the heart and liver. “His unfinished sculptures”, summarizes Fehrenbach, “appear to be moved from the inside as well as limited from the outside. They explore the latency of growing life between stone and body. “
Remembering the dead
In all of these studies, Fehrenbach makes it clear that liveliness is a central concern of the Renaissance and not a pure topos of praise or metaphor. In doing so, he makes an important contribution to the study of image studies with the power of images. But in contrast to Horst Bredekamp’s “Theory of the Image Act”, Fehrenbach largely dispenses with anthropological approaches. He is less concerned with the real effects of an art that is actually perceived as acting than with the aesthetic reflection in the “age of art” and the latency contained in the Aristotelian hybrid. He is dedicated to the “quasi” in the “quasi vivo”.
In the two chapters on tombs, in which art is actually about life and death, anthropological questions are central, however, as an important task of these monuments was to keep the memory of the deceased alive, so that the time ahead of them through intercession and prayer the Last Judgment in the intermediate realm of purgatory is facilitated. The funeral masses also served this purpose, in which the deceased actually became present in the understanding of the time by naming his name. That is why Michelangelo arranged the altar in the Medici Chapel in such a way that the priest looked into the room during mass, as is customary today, but contrary to the customs of the time, and thus always looked at the two Medici dukes. The “oscillation between frozen body image and statue coming to life” noted by Fehrenbach for the Medici tombs is to be seen in connection with the funeral masses in which the deceased dukes were repeatedly brought to life. When it comes to death, life is no longer just a matter of art.
Frank Fehrenbach: “Quasi vivo”. Liveliness in early modern Italian art. Walter de Gruyter Verlag, Berlin 2021. 588 pp., Ill., Hardcover, € 59.95.
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