Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2018
Caroline O. Fowler Drawing and the Senses: An Early Modern History Studies in Baroque Art (Book 6). Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2017. 178 pp.; 119 color ills. Hardcover €70.00 (9781909400399)

In Drawing and the Senses: An Early Modern History, Caroline Fowler investigates how the printed drawing manual of the early modern period marked an important shift in European artistic pedagogy, not only by making drawing lessons available to a larger audience through the medium of print but by proposing a new course of study that centered upon the representation of the human sensory organs. Thus a page from a 1608 drawing manual by Odoardo Fialetti demonstrated how an artist could generate a representation of an eye through the successive addition of lines: first the eyelid, then the cornea, and last the eyebrow. Another page in the same treatise indicated how to draw nostrils and lips in profile and frontal views. A print in a 1626 drawing manual by Luca Ciamberlano presented hands composed in different gestures, some with fingers tightly interlaced, others with palms splayed outward. One of the most impressive examples, adorning the cover of Fowler’s book, is a print made after a drawing by the Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert, dated ca. 1650. Here eyes, ears, noses, and mouths spiral across the page, dislocated from their conventional positions and thereby signaling unexpected spatial and sensory relationships. Drawing and the Senses makes an important contribution to the growing literature on the senses in early modern artistic culture, which includes recent works such as François Quiviger’s The Sensory World of Renaissance Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2010) and Niall Atkinson’s The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016). As Fowler suggests, the distinctive practice of isolating and reassembling sensory organs in early modern drawing manuals attests to an enduring early modern concern—to analyze and better understand sensory experience.

The book’s introduction, “A History of Early Modern Drawing and the Senses,” considers how the act of drawing intersects with the senses. As Fowler argues, the focus upon the sensory organs in drawing practice can be linked to the ancient literary theory of enargeia, or the rhetorical technique of making an event vivid and palpably present to an audience. Drawing manuals were preoccupied with this very issue, as their primary pedagogical goal was not merely to help users hone a technical skill but to enable an artist to persuasively convey the sensory experience of the world to the viewer. Moreover, the focus on sensory organs in these manuals encouraged artists to explore these as a mode of understanding the self. The early modern period was a time of heated debates regarding the senses: whereas René Descartes sought to subordinate the senses to the intellect, philosophers such as John Locke maintained closer alignment with Aristotelian tradition by arguing that “[the mind] can have no other ideas of sensible qualities than what come from without by the senses” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, XII.2, 1690). New orders such as the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) seized upon sensory experience as essential to cultivating the self and renewing connections to God. Fowler thus positions the depictions of sensory organs in early modern drawing manuals within this lively discourse, arguing that they stimulated artists to reflect upon the nature of sensory experience and the multiple avenues through which sensory knowledge could be received and constructed.

In Chapter 1 Fowler argues that two primary drawing pedagogies prevailed in the early modern period, the geometric on the one hand and the sensory on the other. Among the most popular early modern drawing manuals were the treatises of Albrecht Dürer, which Fowler identifies with the Euclidean geometric tradition. As she points out, Dürer claimed that only with the mastery of the abstract concepts of the point and the line could the artist eventually arrive at sensual and even supersensual knowledge, thus transcending that which is perceptible to the senses. Dürer’s privileging of abstract geometry over the sensory experience may have had special appeal in Lutheran Germany, given the Protestant suspicion of sensual and worldly things. Yet Fowler also maintains that in practice Dürer’s sophisticated arguments were too complex to suit the daily needs of the ordinary artisan and that this in turn opened the way for an alternative approach rooted in sensory experience.

As a memorable example of this new approach, chapter 2, “The Printed Eye and Impressions of Sense,” begins with the work of the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, whose drawings served as the basis for a printed drawing book. Ribera produced a variety of striking images of sensory organs—ears depicted from various angles, eyes pivoting and rolling in their sockets, sets of noses and mouths operating in combination. Drawing books filled with such images, as further popularized by artists such as Guercino, Ciamberlano, Stefano della Bella, and Bloemaert, offered little explanatory text, in contrast to the dense theoretical writings characteristic of Dürer’s treatises. And yet the depiction of sensory organs could also be understood in theoretical terms: as Leon Battista Alberti argued in De pictura, the drawing of bodily fragments offered an analogy to using the letters of the alphabet to compose sentences and texts. Learning to draw the individual parts of the body provided a basis for the proper assembly of the whole. According to Federico Zuccaro, in L’idea de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti (1607), the artist needed to consider the instruments through which one receives knowledge of the world—eyes, ears, noses, hands, skin—to sharpen the skills of perception, discrimination, and drawing.

Chapter 3, “Abraham Bloemaert, Peter Paul Rubens and the Reform of Caritas,” begins with a reflection upon the act of drawing itself, as an act that serves to perpetuate an object’s presence. Drawing serves as the materialization of memory, as well as the materialization of its loss. Artists, intent on moving the inner body and the mind through the evocation of the soul, were concerned with recording not only the outer surface of the flesh but also internal or spiritual responses that were invisible to the human eye. Thus the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci, and the many early modern prints made after this image, sought to convey the infinite movements of the soul through the infinitely varied forms and movements of the sensing body. Many early modern artists, including both Rembrandt and Rubens, explored the experience of the divine, and the study of sensory organs offered a vital means to communicate the impact of such a transformative encounter. With the advent of Cartesian philosophy, however, Fowler suggests, attention increasingly shifted to the documentation of more specific psychological conditions, as opposed to the less easily quantifiable movements of the soul.

The book concludes with a short epilogue examining the connoisseurial mode employed by Giovanni Morelli, a nineteenth-century art critic, who focused on the rendering of specific sensory organs such as hands and ears as a way to identify the personal styles of early modern artists. In disassembling a drawing into its constituent sensory organs, Morelli recalled the characteristic compositional approach that had distinguished the early modern drawing manuals. And yet, as Fowler notes, Morelli’s ostensibly “scientific” approach also suggests how later scholarship imposed a narrower interpretive frame in its analysis of these early modern images. While Morelli focused upon the characteristic forms given to sensory organs as a means to identify individual style, in the early modern context these elements did not merely serve to fix an artist’s identity but also symbolized points of access to the ineffable and the divine.

If the study of the senses was essential to understanding human experience in the early modern world, Fowler’s investigation prompts us to think more about complexity of sensory perception itself. Undermining our received assumptions about the rise of ocular-centrism in the early modern period, she demonstrates that early modern European artists proved their mettle through the careful analysis and documentation of the infinitely complex interactions of the multiple senses. Moreover, her work emphasizes the essential value of a multisensory approach, a point that was constantly reiterated by the creators of the early modern drawing manuals themselves, who consistently presented the intricate interweaving of sensory experience as a defining aspect of the human condition.

David Karmon
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, College of the Holy Cross