Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2020
Daniel M. Unger Redefining Eclecticism in Early Modern Bolognese Painting: Ideology, Practice, and Criticism Visual and Material Culture, 1300–1700. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 244 pp.; 8 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth €99.00 (9789462986015)

Daniel M. Unger’s new monograph on “eclecticism” in early modern Bolognese painting has the undeniable merit of drawing attention to a much-neglected and foundational concept within Baroque art theory: the “synthesis of styles” described by Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–1693). It has been almost half a century since Charles Dempsey published his combative Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style (1977). In this short but powerful book, Dempsey opposed Denis Mahon’s influential opinion that the “eclecticism” of the Carracci family was a historical misinterpretation. Perusing Malvasia with acuity, Dempsey redefined Malvasia’s synthesis of styles, demonstrating its full validity in understanding Annibale’s early work. Implicit in Dempsey’s conclusions is the assumption that eclecticism—as interpreted from the nineteenth century onward—does not correspond to Malvasia’s notion of a synthetic style. As a consequence, the term “eclecticism” should be avoided in relation to the Carracci and their disciples (in particular Guido Reni, Domenichino, Guercino, and Francesco Albani) lest the meaning and scope of their artistic reform be misconstrued and radically impoverished.

Eclecticism is a tricky word. Familiar with Malvasia, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in his Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst (1763), was the first to consider Ludovico, Agostino, and Annibale Carracci “eclectics”—a label usually reserved for philosophers. As pointed out by Unger, the notion of eclecticism embraced by Winckelmann is most likely indebted to Enlightenment philosophy. In 1755, Denis Diderot described the eclectic as “a philosopher who, trampling underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, general agreement, authority . . . dares to think for himself, returns to the clearest principles, examines them, discusses them, admits nothing that is not based on the testimony of his experience and his reason; and from all the philosophies he has analyzed without respect and bias he makes for himself a particular and domestic one which belongs to him” (Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert [Paris, 1755], 5:270). Not unsurprisingly, Malvasia in his Felsina pittrice (1678) evokes and interprets the Carracci vanguard of the 1580s and 1590s in terms that resonate with Diderot’s definition of the eclectic. Breaking away from “prejudice, tradition, authority, [and] general agreement,” the Carracci questioned and dismissed the superiority of the Tuscan-Roman canon (embodied by Michelangelo and Raphael), stressing the seminal yet commonly belittled value of color and soft fleshiness (Titian and Correggio). Through their life drawings the Carracci experienced, examined, and discussed unfiltered nature, distrusting the entire notion of disegno (drawing and design) inherited from Giorgio Vasari. Deriding Vasari’s “idiocy,” they prized overlooked artists (Francesco Primaticcio, Niccolò dell’Abbate, Pellegrino Tibaldi, Pordenone, Jacopo Bassano) and pursued with intelligence the pictorial novelties recently introduced by Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto, not hesitating to embark on a trip to Venice, where Tintoretto received them with circumspection if not downright skepticism. For all their collaboration (and in spite of our difficulty in distinguishing between Ludovico’s and Annibale’s early draftsmanship), they formed unique styles, varied, ever evolving. Mixed with pride and anger, sometimes bordering on utter discouragement, “independence” permeates each and all of their actions and words as recorded or construed by Malvasia. And Malvasia ultimately celebrates them as the fierce creators of a style derived from all the masters they had studied and analyzed so thoroughly over the years.

While Winckelmann, imbued with Diderot’s ideology, correctly understood Malvasia’s views on the Carracci, Mahon embraced without hesitation a nineteenth-century notion of eclecticism that proves unsuitable for these masters, rejecting as a result Malvasia’s interpretation as merely invalid. In a sense, Unger falls into the same trap as Mahon by maintaining the term eclecticism without tackling the question of its hermeneutical inadequacy. More worryingly, Unger proposes the self-contradictory concept of “non-assimilated eclecticism” as specific to the Carracci’s practice and theory. In his Saints Michael and George (Santi Gregorio e Siro, Bologna), for instance, Ludovico allegedly used “distinct styles . . . each retain[ing] their unique stylistic features” (52). Logically, this amalgam of styles should be immediately apparent, much in the same way that different historical and geographical elements in nineteenth-century eclectic architecture coalesce while simultaneously preserving part of their distinctiveness. In a preliminary definition of this concept, Unger instead points out that nonassimilated eclecticism is “a carefully planned combination of several individual styles within a single painting, which do not relate to a specific source of influence” (48). In other words, the various “styles” evoked by the Carracci and their followers would and would not be identifiable at the same time. Malvasia, for example, considers Ludovico’s graceful princess in Saints Michael and George to be infused with the spirit of Raphael. In that case, how is it possible that the allusion to Raphael would not be traced back to Raphael as its “specific source of influence”? Unger’s use of “style” is evidently ambiguous and multivalent: it denotes different things and with imprecision. Moreover, Malvasia’s synthesis of styles is predicated upon complete assimilation, making Unger’s new category of nonassimilated eclecticism seem preposterous by definition. For Malvasia, the end product in the development of a synthetic style is a compendio, an estratto, or a quintessenza. This is thus an alchemical process whereby different styles are absorbed, distilled, and sublimated into a pure “extract” or “quintessence.” If, at the end of the process, the final product turns out to contain any visible residue, then the purity of the distillate is fatally compromised. Nonassimilation is tantamount to failure.

The alchemical metaphor employed by Malvasia (but also by Francesco Scannelli in his 1657 Microcosmo della pittura) applies not only to the Carracci’s synthesis of styles but also to the canonical early modern tenet of the beautification of nature. In executing his stunningly beautiful Helen, the fifth-century BCE Greek painter Zeuxis synthesized the forms of several girls into an ideal body, dissimilar to any of her living prototypes. In processes such as this, the synthesized sources survive in a modified state while the actual persistence of their distinct qualities elude the beholder’s mind and senses. The source therefore lingers in the compound as an aftertaste: a ghost perception. Malvasia’s refinement in identifying these quasi-inscrutable “afterimages” distinguishes him from other seventeenth-century art theorists and certainly originates in his notion of stylistic synthesis. More specifically, this sophistication reflects the Carracci’s and their followers’ unrivaled dexterity in fine-tuning their brushwork in conformity with the subject depicted, modeling anatomy “like” Michelangelo or rendering flesh “like” Titian, at will. The “like” in this context is crucial: observing the final synthesized product up close, it would be impossible to match any element therein to an exact equivalent in the work of these canonical masters. To pull off this stunt, the Carracci integrated all of these geographical styles to a degree of near-imperceptibility—so successfully, that is, as to allude to a source with only the most minute alterations of mode. Preferable to “style,” the term “mode” more usefully conveys the specificity of this “synthetic” procedure. In fact, the most durable innovation of the Carracci reform can be arguably identified with the development of pictorial modes as strategic devices in expanding and transcending the intrinsic potential and limits of individual styles.

While it has its merits, Unger’s exploration of the Carracci’s stylistic synthesis is nonetheless hampered by a few factors. First and foremost, Unger quotes Malvasia (and other Italian authors) only when the English translation of these primary texts is available. Because most of Malvasia remains untranslated, Unger neglects the many other passages in which the synthesis of styles is discussed and theorized. Regrettably, Unger relies on Robert Enggass’s notoriously flawed translation of Reni’s life (1990), incorporating its errors at crucial points of his argumentation. An equally important limitation to Unger’s interpretation derives from a certain coarseness in describing and assessing style, more broadly. Contending that Guercino in his Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife of 1649 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) resorted to nonassimilated eclecticism, Unger cursorily notes that “Joseph’s arm and hand are painted with bold strokes of paint, while Potiphar’s wife is classically portrayed, with a refined white arm” (153). Leaving aside the succinctness of the description, what does “classically portrayed” mean? It is no surprise, then, that Unger’s stylistic analyses do not suffice to arouse persuasion. Whether or not it appeals to us, Malvasia’s prose in its complexity is always functional as it strives to translate the incalculable refinement and originality of the Carracci’s and their disciples’ synthesis of styles. This should invite us to go the distance, reaching beyond simple stylistic formulas in an attempt to reveal these masters’ artistic intelligence. An essential point altogether missing from Unger’s monograph is the link between the Carracci’s synthetic style and the so-called questione della lingua: the debate about the merits of Italian local vernaculars in the definition of a pan-Italian language. A final observation: Unger posits that the formulation of a nonassimilated eclecticism was the Carracci’s response to Gabriele Paleotti’s distinction between truth and nature, the terrestrial and celestial, which consequently ought to be clearly separated in painting. It would require much more time to demonstrate not only the fragility of this hypothesis but also how Unger seems to misinterpret key concepts within Paleotti’s artistic theory. Here, I would like to briefly point out that the little evidence at our disposal indicates that Paleotti disregarded the Carracci outright, and that the artists he advocated fiercely opposed these masters, criticizing the radical implementation of their artistic reform. If the Carracci vanguard aimed primarily at signaling the hiatus between celestial truth and earthly nature, as endorsed by Paleotti, then the Carracci should have been exalted rather than chastised by painters aligned with Paleotti’s orthodoxy such as Prospero Fontana and Denys Calvaert. But this never happened.

Lorenzo Pericolo
University of Warwick