Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2020
Andrew James Hamilton Scale and the Incas Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. 304 pp.; 105 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691172736)

This beautifully produced and illustrated book joins a growing shelf of studies devoted in whole or in substantial part to phenomena of scale in world arts and visual and material cultures, including David Summers’s Real Spaces (Phaidon, 2003), a special issue of the journal Art History (38, no. 2; April 2015) edited by Joan Kee and Emanuele Lugli, Lugli’s own recent book The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness (University of Chicago Press, 2019), Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Colossal: Engineering the Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Panama Canal (Periscope, 2012), and Elizabeth A. Honig’s Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale (Penn State University Press, 2016). Andrew James Hamilton undertakes to survey the full scope of cultural production in the Inca empire in terms of its management of the scale of many different kinds of artifacts and sites, in relation both to one another and to their human makers and users. It also attempts to generalize beyond these contexts by providing analytical suggestions about the art historical and archaeological treatment of phenomena and problems of the scale of artifacts—suggestions that will be useful to scholars working in many subfields of art history and beyond. The book will surely be appealing, for example, to cultural geographers and to cartographers. In the relentlessly emic field of Inca studies, Hamilton’s refreshingly comparative thinking and the visual power and frequent wit of his illustrations point to new possibilities for phenomenologically informed research in world art history and for the vivid presentation and representation of the results.

In a short review it is impossible to do justice to Hamilton’s treatments of many individual artifacts and artifact types (each with its own microhistory and complex historiography), which in many cases he has examined in detail at first hand in collections around the world. (Neither of the present reviewers, it should be said, is an Inca specialist.) He aims to understand the cultural values and meanings the Incas would seem to have placed on the scalar relationships of things to one another and, especially, to the bodies of human observers. As this might suggest, Hamilton proposes to define scale for art historical purposes as “the size of an object compared to the size of another object.” Therefore, he goes on, “an object in isolation cannot have a scale. . . . Scale must be an extrinsic quality of objects and therefore not a physical property” (27). His “abstract” definition, as he puts it, generates a corollary “in practice,” namely, that the “comparison is always perceived by someone within a specific spatial context”; “as such, both the human body and the physical environment play critical roles in the way scale is functionally perceived” (27). This sensible and flexible approach enables Hamilton not only to describe and interpret individual artifacts and artifact types but also, and perhaps more importantly, to work between and across artifact types, material media, and performative contexts, cumulatively generating a rich and intricate portrait of Inca visual and material cultures.

Hamilton’s definition differs in an important respect from the meaning of scale developed and applied by Summers in his magisterial book. Whereas Hamilton takes scale to be a comparative relation between two or more objects apprehended in relation to one another, Summers takes it to be the relation between any given object, its arbitrary “frames” (whether literal or notional), and an underlying “grid” or coordinate system that often remains implicit in the object-frame relationship, although perhaps scale can be translated from it as a feature of the configuration itself, as in the well-known case of one-point perspective projection (see Real Spaces, 414–16). Summers’s approach depends partly on our preexisting knowledge of historical systems of ratio and proportion, such as the ancient Egyptians’ canonical proportion system or Leon Battista Alberti’s method of perspective, and partly on the supposedly universal applicability of Euclidean geometry and the optical dynamics of the visual angle. To that extent, it also seems to enable systematic cross-cultural comparison at both levels, namely, between historical systems of ratio, on the one hand, and proportion as described in a uniform analytic language of “world art history” by the art historian, on the other—a substantially more etic approach than has been usual in cultural history. By contrast, Hamilton insists on the cultural specificity of the generation and perception of scale, whether Inca or European, rightly noting that European descriptive vocabularies for scale probably disable an anthropologically sensitive understanding of the Inca materials. As one of the warrants of this cultural approach, he cites the famous studies of Melville J. Herskovits and his collaborators on “the influence of culture on visual perception” (28–29). Their findings—for example, that the well-known Müller-Lyer illusion is more often perceived by people raised in right-angled, “carpentered” environments—remain controversial, but Hamilton’s book can be taken to make an implicit contribution to what remains a deep neuropsychological conundrum. The specifically art historical problem, of course, is that our knowledge of indigenous Inca terms and categories of sizing and scaling and of their metrologies remains incomplete. (Hamilton carefully explains what we do and do not know from Inca and European sources.) Therefore, as in many fields of archaeological art history, one can only mobilize the evidence of the artifacts themselves, often in the absence of any applicable Inca term or terminology (or European observation). On balance, and despite the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy, he succeeds because his method requires him, as already noted, to work comparatively between many kinds of artifacts and sites that mutually illuminate one another with respect to their (relative) scalar identities. In this respect, Hamilton’s book moves beyond the compartmentalizing typological and monographic approaches that still bedevil archaeological art histories.

A special feature of Hamilton’s book is its lavish program of illustrations—color drawings produced by hand by the author himself, who largely eschews decontextualizing photographic reproductions and even perspectival renderings. Each carefully and clearly marked with a reference scale, the drawings are intended to convey haptic and visual properties in relation to the bodies of observers that, Hamilton argues, would be overlooked or occluded in other modes of reproduction. In addition, by way of an interesting decision explained by Hamilton, pages with illustrations have been “foxed” (discolored with brown spots) in order to mitigate the blankness of the white page, emphasizing its tangible scale in the reader’s hands and so restoring to the reader the possibility of apprehending the various scales in question. Princeton University Press has served him well in the thoughtful design of the book.    

We will never be able fully to see the world in the scales attributed to it by the Incas and embodied in their practices and artifacts. But Hamilton’s book demonstrates that it is possible to get much closer to that seemingly impossible goal than previously thought. 

Whitney Davis
George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History of Art, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley

Justin Underhill
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities, University of Southern California