Frank Fehrenbach: Vision and Vivacità

Prof. Frank Fehrenbach
Prof. Frank Fehrenbach

Midway through this semester, ECLA’s PY Core Course on Objectivity invited Professor Fehrenbach to deliver a lecture on his most recent subject of research, the significance of the point in Leonardo’s drawings and its connection to the aesthetical category of vivacità.  This was a subject most appropriate for the students of the PY program, who in previous sessions have engaged in discussions about the relation between visual experience and its mathematical representation or to that of the depicted world.

Frank Fehrenbach initiated his talk with a presentation of the history of art and optics in the Italian Renaissance. In his words, Early Modern Italy saw a re-evaluation of the status of the visual arts that was meant to define its role in the ensemble of culture, especially in relation to science. As such, intellectual figures like Paragone immersed themselves in debates on the pre-eminence of arts, with the aim of establishing relations between cultural enterprises that could not easily fit into the curricula of the universities of that time and the existing disciplines of study.

In the 14th century, liberal arts were consisted of a group of disciplines based on the study of language such as grammar, rhetoric and dialectics – known then as trivium – and the quadrivium of the scientific disciplines of exact measurement which consisted of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.

The attempts then were of challenging this closed system and of finding a place for visual arts in this intellectual establishment, and the region of Northern Italy was most active in this endeavour. The university centre of Padua had already developed a significant interest in natural philosophy and considered optics to be the means in which observation and mathematics could be linked. As such, visual arts faced the new challenge of becoming part of the mathematical sciences, supported by an acknowledgement of their inventive component.

The first clue to the possibility of visual arts to enter the university curricula appeared in the 15th century. In Florence, Andrea Pisanno depicted the profession of painter among the seven mechanical and theoretical practices that decorated the Campanile of Santa Maria de la Fiore. In the same period, the artist Francesco Squarcione began teaching proportion and perspective at the University of Padua, with the year 1445 registering the official introduction of visual arts among the curricula of sciences studied here.

The re-evaluation of the status of visual arts is also connected with the struggle of the artist to obtain a social rank. And the lobby for introducing visual arts among other sciences in the corpus of liberal arts must bring an answer to the question of their relevance or any the possible contribution to the field of science or of culture as a whole. In his 1528 Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione addresses the ideal of culture and makes an apology in favour of an education pursued both in the spirit of science and of visual arts and poetry, as necessary to ennobling man.

The appeal to the significance of visual arts is further reinforced by the revival of Aristotle in university centres, with his expressed primacy of sight in acquiring knowledge. This invites one to reconsider not only the role of sight in sensory experience, but also to evaluate the relation between images and words.

Leonardo is the most preeminent figure that supports the dignity of visual arts in comparison with all other cultural enterprises. His conception is supported by a belief in the universality and impact of visual images, unlike that of any other cultural product. Visual images also represent the primordial human invention, as fundamental to the production of literal and mathematical works. In this light, the painter is conceived as an inventor rather than mere manufacturer.

Given the pre-eminence of sight, further questions are raised on the role of eye in the process of seeing. As such, the eye appears as a means to perceive both nature and a painting in a similar way, where things are given simultaneously and not in frozen moments of time. According to Professor Fehrenbach, perceiving things simultaneously creates the impression of innate harmony and the eyes are the ones that capture best the evidence in favour of an ordered universe.

What followed was an attempt to establish a relation between visual arts and mathematics, by proposing the translation of visual experience in terms of mathematics.  This enterprise received the most support from the part of clerics and theologians such as Robert Grosseteste in his treatise De Luce, John Peckham and Roger Bacon. Culminating with the invention of perspective, painting earns her status as science.

Furthermore, Professor Fehrenbach explored the way in which Leonardo imposes a certain mobility of the gaze, most evident in his Study for the Kneeling Leda. As the curved hatching technique would suggest, the process of becoming of the natural world requires a mobile gaze in order to perceive movement and, for Leonardo, the representation of the world must take into account not only perspective, but also the mobility of the eye.

At the end of his talk, Professor Fehrenbach focused on the mathematical aspect of Leonardo’s paintings and presented ideas from his forthcoming article ‘Leonardo’s Point’ and of the research conducted at Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. His study is centred on the idea of the point as an ultimate principle of composition meant to separate the visible from the invisible and nothingness from what exists.  As such, the point stands at the origin of the aesthetical category of vivacità, capturing that stance specific to the living organism of situating itself at the borderline between what can be perceived and what cannot, a state of continual, ungraspable oscillation.

Frank Fehrenbach is Professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He studied Art History, Medieval and Modern History, and Philosophy at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen and at the Universität Basel. Previous publications include The Pathos of Function – Leonardo’s Technical Drawings; Un Nouva Paradigma – Il Diluvio; Coming Alive – Some Remarks on the Rise of Monochrome  Sculpture in the Renaissance.

 by Diana Martin (PY ’11, Romania)

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