ALB - 16

ALB - 16 - 16. Art, Love, and Beauty 3/9/08 Harries 1 16....

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16. Art, Love, and Beauty 3/9/08 Harries 1 16. The Narcissistic Origin of Painting 1 Near the beginning of Part Two of Alberti's On Painting , the first treatise to give voice to the aesthetic sensibility that was to shape the evolution of Renaissance and Post-Renaissance art, we find the following remark: Moreover, painting was given the highest honour by our ancestors. For, although almost all other artists were called craftsmen, the painter alone was not considered in that category . For this reason, I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain (64) A strange remark! Why should Alberti want to claim Narcissus as his precursor. To call him the inventor of painting would seem to cast the art of painting in a very questionable light. Ovid, one of "the poets" of whom Alberti must have been thinking, although he speaks of "the poets," in the plural, describes Narcissus as a young man of extraordinary beauty, possessed by a pride that refused love, until one of those he scorned prayed to heaven that he, too, might feel
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16. Art, Love, and Beauty 3/9/08 Harries 2 the pain of unrequited love; punished by Nemesis, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflected image; slowly consumed by this love he was transformed into the flower we call "narcissus." Alberti's use of the Narcissus story invites us to seek the origin of painting not just in love, but in an inversion of love brought about by pride. But can this be how Alberti would have his readers understand his remark? To locate the origin of art in pride hardly seems to serve Alberti's stated purpose: to prove that "painting is not unworthy of consuming all our time and study." (63) How does Alberti understand that worth? If we take him by his word, the worth of painting would seem linked to its self-sufficiency: to say that it is not unworthy of taking up all of our time, is to suggest that the pursuit of art need not serve other activities, for if so, could it ever be worthy of taking up all of our time? For the sake of art, Alberti seems to suggest, we may suspend all other concerns. To be sure, I may be placing too much weight on what would seem to be no more than a casual remark made in passing; just like the anecdotal reference to Narcissus, it seems no more than a rhetorical aside, hyperbolic, as such asides tend to be, certainly not weighty enough to warrant the kind of literal approach I am imposing on it. But just such rhetorical asides, where the author relaxes a bit, often reveal his deepest concerns better than his central argument. As stated, Alberti's statement of purpose gestures in a
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This note was uploaded on 04/12/2008 for the course HUMS 255 taught by Professor Karstenharries during the Spring '08 term at Yale.

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ALB - 16 - 16. Art, Love, and Beauty 3/9/08 Harries 1 16....

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