Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Portrait of the artist as a mapmaker

Renzo Dubbini (Geography of the Gaze) argues that landscape painting evolved over the early modern era in the same manner as cartography. The goal of the painter was to give an accurate picture of what was present, not to idealize. Landscapes were populated with objects (natural, man-made, fauna, flora, etc.) that visitor would actually see. The goal was accuracy and information about the place being represented. In essence, landscape paintings were maps and could be used to orient oneself within that place.

"Sailors' Battle by Raguenet--depicts the
dwellings on Paris bridges.

To that end, painters made detailed studies of the places that they painted, employing the techniques of scientific observation. They made numerous pencil sketches. They took into account changing atmospheric conditions. They took pains to represent things as they were, rather than ought to be.

Luckily for me, Dubbini has a lot to say about how cities and rivers are represented together–how the presence of a massive geological feature influenced urban reform and beautification. Perhaps the most interesting example that Dubbini cites in the book concerns the demolition of dwellings on the bridges of Paris in order to create a healthier environment around the Seine (see picture above). [On edit] These paintings could be used to determine how the city could become more beautiful, becoming a tool of urban planning.

The rediscovery of ancient patrimony was especially important for landscape painters: buildings and statues that had been neglected over time. The image that most people had of these places were idealized portraits that were handed down for generations. Europeans seldom knew what these places looked like, or how they had degraded over time.

The landscape painters tried to show the conditions that were present at these ancient sites. They showed how buildings were collapsing. They also tried to give more of a sense of the places wherein these buildings and statues were located: they painted the lives of the local people, the geology, etc. These landscape paintings allowed Europeans to rediscover their past and assess it more accurately.

The most interesting section of the book deals with Prosper Mérimée, who traveled around France documenting Roman architecture. He was particular concerned with how the presence of Roman statues and buildings influenced later construction. He seemed to suggest that cities naturally tried to continue along the same lines:
For Mérimée, ancient architecture launched a process of constant and lasting imitation that proved to have an enormous influence on buildings constructed in later ages: ‘A city that had conserved great Roman monuments always sought to reproduce them’; they provided almost inevitable ‘natural models’ [for subsequent building]. Elements borrowed from ancient architecture could be found in the most famous medieval monuments ...

But regional factors could influence the success of imitation:
The nature of the materials used had produced marked differences in buildings in various provinces. In some regions, where “limestone, which is easily cut, could be used for construction, sculpture made rapid progress.” In other regions, the use of granite for construction held back the development of sculpture ...

Mérimée seems to have been a well traveled man, a his writings on architecture are extensive. If you can navigate through the French in this website dedicated to him, I would recommend that you look at it. It is especially rich with observations about conditions in Paris in the early nineteenth century.


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