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The Seicento and the Cult of Images.



Translated by Hoyt Rogers.


THE ‘CULT OF IMAGES,’ writes Baudelaire, ‘my great, my only, my primal passion.’ We doubt that this great poet would have agreed to call images the slapdash frescoes—and the retables with obscure themes and tangled shapes—of lesser Mannerism, that of the second half of the Cinquecento. Those works, phantasms of incarnation, are much too lacking in substance to satisfy a yearning that—as clearly as day—seeks out painting only in order to nourish itself on reality, whether that reality seems revealed by a divine word or simply designated by an artist’s dream.

It is certainly in the seventeenth century, and in Italy, that the image—in the Baudelairian sense of a suggestion of reality that competes with ours—was lived with the greatest ardour and thoroughness.

Yet with what heartfelt emotion the author of ‘The Beacons’ would have responded to the epiphanies of happiness or sorrow granted by Annibale Carracci’s The Triumph of Bacchus, or Poussin’s Orpheus and Eurydice, if he had been able to know them. And the ‘resounding’ ports of Claude Lorrain, their suns on the sea, their ‘eternal heat’: do they not still remain for us the most troubling examples of that power possessed by the representation of the world—of simple mimesis—to render itself more satisfying, but also more real, than the place where we have to live? From the intrepid decisions of Bolognese painters of the generation of 1580 to the glimmers of Luca Giordano, in his Neapolitan churches at century’s end; and from the bright mornings of Paul Bril to the stormy skies of Dughet or Salvator Rosa: it is certainly in the seventeenth century, and in Italy, that the image—in the Baudelairian sense of a suggestion of reality that competes with ours—was lived with the greatest ardour and thoroughness. And this leads us to consider that the causes of its development in the mind are actively gathered together in these times and places as well—perhaps in a fairly discernible way.

Can the Seicento, then, this great period of ‘images,’ provide us with the occasion to disclose their constitutive forces, and to understand why it is a ‘passion’—if not a veritable ‘cult’—that can sometimes respond to nothing but a few clouds we see painted above a valley or a ruin? I propose, in any case, to think about this question. It would only be to relive from within the maelstrom of desires, of reveries—of meditations as well, often conscious, and profound—which ended up imposing its particular stamp on an entire era of Italian painting.


WHAT ARE THE forces at play in the inner nature of an image? At least one of them may be detected in Bologna, around 1585, when the Carraccis begin to renew the art of painting.

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And it is quite simply the desire to see, yet in the sense that this word can mean the most immediately physical need—and, in situations when art is in decadence, can denote the most painful frustration. Yes, seeing—looking at what is, and loving its plain reality: with an Alessandro Allori or a Salviati, one had scarcely thought of that. In those years, the gaze was lured by feats of technique or figures of the unconscious; it swathed itself in grisaille. And what an anguish that must have been for younger artists—above all if they remembered what had taken place in Venice, only a few decades before them, in the studios of Titian or Veronese. But now here is Annibale Carracci, who sees a young boy drink the last drops of wine in his glass as he lifts it, holding the carafe, still half-full, in his other hand. He wants to paint this brief moment, which is colour and light, and he does. A spell is broken, and plain reality triumphs: the spectres of a disegno worn down by theory and phantasm are effaced. And when the same Annibale will later depict , all of nature’s aspects will be clustered there once more, each with its weight, its peace of an actual thing, in broad daylight. Something akin to a phenomenology begins here—that of the elementary, the immediate—where the metaphysical had reigned. And we must also note that this ‘return to the thing itself’ quickly dispels much more than merely the late Manner’s miasmas. For we sense that in this limpid air, the intelligible structures that hindered the perception of space in the Renaissance—since the beginnings of perspective, and even in Venice—can no longer stand.

As he rediscovers, in short, a part at least of the intuition of reality which had come to the fore in the Quattrocento—in Piero della Francesca, for example, on the horizon of the princely couple’s Triumphs in Urbino—the need to see in Carracci is thus an authentic strength, which has overcome constraints sometimes as tenacious as they are ancient, and has proved its necessity at certain key turning points. It is through this need as well, and by its right which is affirmed, that a whole current of art will be authorized after the Carraccis—and after Caravaggio, who reinforces it. That current is among the most powerful in Europe, and the most creative: I am thinking of Vermeer or Velázquez, those masters of self-evident reality.

The need to see the ‘natural object’ is supported by the desire to understand: once they have seen, viewers wish to grasp the meaning of what they have seen.

But I must also observe, without further ado, that this need to see the natural object—the object as it presents itself in ordinary experience—could not have blazed its trail in the painting of these years if it had not been supported, and as it were legitimized, by another desire that had also been frustrated by recent Mannerist works—and so which equally encouraged the idea of a new departure. This is the desire to understand: once they have seen, viewers wish to grasp the meaning of what they have seen. Indeed, there can be no doubt: Carracci may very well have painted the sheer occurrence of luminous colour on the carafe and the glass, yet the Seicento is not for all that a modern society in which the habit of the sciences, or the feeling that God is dead, prompt us to approach the place where we live only through its sensory aspects. A seventeenth-century painter, the same as a Renaissance artist, thinks that God created the world, laying it out like a book full of correspondences and symbols; and he wishes to decipher those signs, if only as a means of seeing even more clearly. If he wanted to look, it is in order to hear the voice that speaks through things. And this means that his picture often gives no more than the appearance of evoking a place where well-loved things are joined together simply for themselves, at a supposed point in the world. Since he accords a symbolic meaning to the object, he only keeps it for its general value, and only builds up his figures as a discourse which these symbols allow. In other words, where we would be tempted to succumb to the ‘image’—tempted to read the work as the suggestion of something outside the canvas, however fictive—in his eyes, there is only that structure of ideas. And if we have the impression, all the same, that an utterly complete reality emanates from that structure, thanks to aspects of sensuous being that are intensely ‘seen’ at times, it is merely because he thought he perceived the presence of God in these aspects, converted into signs.

In short, seeing is saved in these pictures by means of intellection, by means of meditation on the divine word…

In short, seeing is saved in these pictures by means of intellection, by means of meditation on the divine word: but as nothing more than a component in the manifestation of a truth that only expects prayer from us—if not ecstasy—in return. And so with the works of the first great Bolognesi or their disciples—Domenichino, Guido Reni, Andrea Sacchi—we are not yet truly on the threshold of what I call the image. The ‘passion’ that this type of icon or mandala wishes to inspire in the viewer, that is to say, the believer, is the passion for God—that of St Philip Neri swooning with love before Barocci’s Visitation. Here we will find little that attempts to attract the spirit towards some place on the earth which might be valued for its own beauty, and thus the need to understand aided the need to see only by distracting it, straightaway, from the alchemy of the Image.


AND YET, AT the very core of this need to understand, another force might still awaken, another reaction might still arise, which perhaps will leave a little gold of the Image remaining in the ship.

The object, in his extraordinary Triumph of Bacchus, is certainly not reduced to the symbolic and theocentric discourse favoured…by the poetics of the time, derived from Tridentine inspiration.

Staying with Annibale Carracci, let us meet him this time in the Farnese Gallery, which is so different from the works I just evoked: and in fact—apart from the superb Titians painted earlier for Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara—so unheralded in Italian painting. The object, in his extraordinary Triumph of Bacchus, is certainly not reduced to the symbolic and theocentric discourse favoured—as we have just observed—by the poetics of the time, derived from Tridentine inspiration. No: here the mouths breathe, the blood circulates; the painter has eyes only for life, for its warmth and its liberation from all forms. What seduced him in this instance was the vast sexual force that courses through Creation, where it has often been perceived as one of the consequences of Original Sin. It almost seems that he wanted to take on the task—if it is one, since the entire work overflows with ease and joy—of expressing the preponderance of the sensory quality of that force, as opposed to the unquiet and coded meaning that Christianity has sought to give it at different junctures in history.

But despite these transgressions, it is patent that this art of frank figures, of forms bathed by light, remains quite far from the ‘veiled eroticism’ which the court painters of Fontainebeau or Florence—or at that time still, of Prague—had loved to practice. In the Farnese Gallery, the bodies are certainly as present as they had been in the poems and paintings of the other Rome—the ancient one; and we do not even find that vocation of the Intelligible which makes the Galatea of Raphael—the much-admired master of the Farnesina decorations—seem to vanish back into the invisible before our eyes, with tritons and cupids, through an all-encompassing play of circles in the light. Here, music is a rhythm more than a form: it is the tambourine more than the constellated lute; it is born from a frenzied intensity, and not from the pure numbers of the cosmos. But it is a music, all the same; it is still the participation of everything that exists in a unity which transfigures and transcends. And this acutely vivid experience, obviously the essence of what Carracci lived through in the great room, easily assures a character of spiritual elevation once again—novel, nonetheless—to these scenes borrowed from ancient legend. They partake of the heterodox tradition—though marked by mysticism—which extends from the May Day fetes of the Middle Ages (to which Shakespeare refers, exactly in the same period) and Le Roman de la Rose to The Bacchanal of the Andrians. The frescoes of the Farnese Gallery definitely do not adhere to what is affirmed by the exalted or devout art of the concurrent Counter-Reformation; and yet they are not cynical, irresponsible and detached from any concern for the Good and the True, like certain other works of this era, still being painted at the courts; and it is precisely this fact that signals the momentous additional need they reveal, it seems to me.

This need is one that—thanks to the means particular to the painter—takes note of beauty and the exigency of carnal presence, yet remembers the teachings of the Church. And it remains a need, a will to understand; but it must turn away for a moment from the natural object, whose intellection is thus uncertain, in order to question first of all the tradition of thought which no longer permits the simple and unified experience of that object. Practically, in Carracci, we encounter the desire to show his more cautious friends that sexuality does not lead perforce to a blind and egocentric Eros, since in his art it can become a music that sweeps beings away, that unites them; and that it can even come to the aid of moral life by adding to its possible acts, which are all occasions for that choice between good and evil which is the specific responsibility of human beings before God. Beyond ancient Eros—and beyond the dolorist love opposed to the flesh by certain Doctors of the Church—this contribution opens up a third kind of love which might still be sublimation, yet channelled in another way than through contrition and pride. And that is new, but old as well, and even ancient: since here we recognize the time-honoured myth of the Golden Age, understood at various phases of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as the epoch of sexual openness.

And if we needed to be assured that such a project—reworking the thought that explains what we see—might have attracted the attention of a painter of around 1600, we need only recall the following. Close to one hundred years earlier, another great artist, in fact a greater one still—Titian, in his Ferrara works—had already had the same vision as Carracci: that of a freer humanity. At the same time, his friend Ariosto, in Orlando Furioso, was recounting the loves of Angelica and Medoro that so many painters would depict. Indeed, starting with a superb Lanfranco from circa 1605, what a plethora of lovely images—that is now the proper word—by Guercino or Blanchard, Romanelli, Bilivert and others! Unlike the early Mannerist illustrators, they celebrate honesty as well as beauty: the innocence of these young lovers, who carve both their names in the tender bark of trees . . . Soon after the Farnese Palace, painting also learns how to interpret through its works, in a novel fashion, these gestures, signs and joys of amorous behaviour, which the artists’ sensibility could not help but perceive with fascination. And it seems like a brave new world, after fifty years of speculation, at once abstract and perverse.

AFTER THIS, MOREOVER, Poussin himself will add his important testimonial to that quest, in his works of the 1620s. We cannot suspect that the creator of The Empire of Flora, but also of The Martyrdom of St Erasmus, ever does anything at random—nor that he is unaware of religion, or even lacking in faith. Poussin is more or less as Christian as any other spirit of his time. His Stoic preoccupations will never tarnish that well thought-out conviction. What is more, a number of his pictures are true spiritual meditations: their discourse is deeply composed of silence, that of the soul which has gradually approached the divine presence. In fact, Poussin also reprised the insights of the Farnese Gallery again in the clearest way, though with nuances of that restraint which is so natural to him. Many of his pictures express the sexual impulse, while confining it within the space of a moral responsibility, under the sign of belief. This is the case of Diana and Endymion in the Detroit Museum, which is more convincing in that regard than his Bacchanals and Nymphs and Satyrs of somewhat earlier. Those works were still too dazzled by the light of The Andrians for reflection to begin.

Diana and Endymion is from the same period as The Apparition of the Virgin to St James the Great, now at the Louvre; and the two works speak together, it seems to me, of the question I am posing. Yet one of them, The Apparition, which Marc Fumaroli has recently analysed very adroitly, only portrays the ‘reception of the divine message,’ the ‘ability to show one’s worthiness of it’: the proud modesty of the apostle, who knows he can take on the task entrusted to him. But already I cannot avoid seeing in the Virgin seated on a pillar the same who posed for St Luke—imagining that this other painter, Poussin, has thus projected himself on the figure of the apostle like a new St Luke, also shouldering his task as the witness of godly things. This would mean granting to the painter, in the phase of The Inspiration of the Poet, a primacy over poetry. And the figure of Endymion, so easily comparable in pose and gaze to that of the saint in the other picture, can immediately be understood as the reconquest of a completely Christian meaning, beneath the glimmers of the fable. Here Diana appears, just as the Virgin did there. And Endymion himself has much of the fervour of St James: the same seriousness of expression—whereas lasciviousness was signified by laughter, according to the codes of the time; and this gesture of his hands seems like the designatio of treaties on religious eloquence, which opens itself to the immensity of Creation.

‘There is no way of refusing to recognize in Diana and Endymion the hallmarks of a specifically religious meditation.’

Consequently, there is no way of refusing to recognize in Diana and Endymion the hallmarks of a specifically religious meditation. And its admirable restlessness, which makes the scene quiver from one end to the other—as in the Bacchanal with a Guitar-Player—only makes it all the more remarkable, unifying human beings, animals and things through the same fever that wells from the whispers of a summer night. In addition, Poussin did not choose—as is almost the rule, one might say—to show his Diana merely leaning, chastely perhaps, over Endymion as he sleeps. The chariot of the sun, preceded by Aurora, has just leapt into the sky; the goddess no longer needs to keep watch over her flock of stars, and can now meet up with a lover: thus the heavy curtain on the right, which a nude woman raises and will lower again, signifies a room of carnal love. Thanks to the contribution of the other canvas—whose meaning is clear, to be sure—the apparition of the Virgin, awakening devotion, becomes linked with the idea of purely human love: or in other words, the latter less opposes sacred love than prepares for it—as in Titian’s celebrated picture, which Edgar Wind was able to decode.


MOREOVER, HOW COULD we suppose that Poussin, logical as we know him to be, might employ an allegory that could signify the divine without recognizing, in some way or another, the specific virtue of the carnal aspect of life, as God created it? Harking back again to the critique begun by Titian in the work just cited—Sacred Love and Profane Love—Poussin will premise the destiny of painting on that grand hypothesis of the continuity of both worlds: truly a latter-day St Luke, for in this way he expresses and takes on the epiphanic task of the painter. He is certainly one of those who want everything in nature to have a meaning and pursue a value, so that any genuine idiom can speak its language. Poussin does not doubt that there is, and first of all in painting, adaequatio rei et intellectus: accordingly, he invests his figures with the intensity, fullness and radiance which characterize what is not only seen, in all its sensory quality, but also accepted and internalized by the mind, without reserve.

And here is where we come upon the problem of the Image once more, and how it can crystallize in a picture and then suddenly substitute itself, like the suggestion of an entire world, for what might have been no more than an observation of discernible qualities in a particular circumstance, or the discourse of a theologian. To see in a different way from what established thought permits, to perceive—for example, yet on the plane of value—these harmonious bodies that devotion does not wish to acknowledge, one has to have mentally portrayed a whole place to oneself in advance, a whole horizon that befits them; then one must make that into a picture where those beings and things coalesce. And after this, let us suppose, the artist himself may reach the point of seeing in the imagination whose forms he has arranged no more than a hypothesis—which must be called into question again, modified, contrasted with other visions of life. But as to the viewer, he will remain with that impression: not of a simple, delimited scene, but of a universe, an entire universe more coherent and intense than his own—which is not an idea, like that other one, not an intelligible space, but ordinary confusion and mediocrity. And that illusion of another and higher reality, and its cause within the picture, is what I call the Image.

We look at these rivers, these cities in the light; at these beings, haloed by an astounding dignity. We say to ourselves: that world is, perhaps.

Such an image for us, an image undeniably, is the procession of Bacchus and Ariadne. The pictures of Angelica and Medoro, of Herminia among the Shepherds, of Rinaldo and Armida, in what we could label the Golden Age School of the century’s first half: these are also images, despite all the disparities introduced by the ever-differing sensibilities of the painters. Images as well, and not the least fascinating, are Diana and Endymion and so many other Poussins we keep in our memory. In the end, what is the Louvre’s Finding of Moses, or The Ashes of Phocion, if not—on the one hand—our place, severely queried by an eye as perceptive as it is free? And on the other, just as much, the suggestion of a reality which escapes the laws of the world, since there the painter has conjoined the sensory and the intelligible, such as we cannot do in life? We look at these rivers, these cities in the light; at these beings, haloed by an astounding dignity. We say to ourselves: that world is, perhaps. And within us, soon the ‘passion’ flames up, which is nothing but a love that has its object in our dreams—and we feel tempted to devote a ‘cult’ to certain images, at least.

All the same, as I just said, this is the reaction of the viewer, not of the painter. If the latter perceives the image, in any case he can still go forward, in his gaze at a tree or a face or even the horizon and its lures; and then, with his very reverie, he can weave other relationships than those which ours would like to conserve before his all-too-beautiful picture. And so it now behoves us to pose the question of challenging the image, in the very place where it flowered: a need for truth that could only drive the painters—and with them, painting—into situations of conflict, of crisis, of new beginnings without recourse, in this Seicento which marked the end of the civilization of the Idea.


BOTH A NEED, and a quest, that will keep me close to Poussin for a while yet—and more precisely, at the time when he will paint his great ‘composed’ landscapes, a few years after his return from France. In Paris, no doubt this demanding, astonished, disapproving visitor reflected on what a place for existence should be, and on the mores it requires, and on its ultimate goals. In any case, he now expands the attention he had focused on interior harmonies to what reaches him from the social milieu, and equally from nature; and also, indeed, to what he knows of history—that of religions, and peoples as well. These new pictures are meant as a synthesis, in the light of that elucidation of life through painting which the meditative empiricism of the Bolognesi rendered conceivable, and which is in fact only the most constant and intimate vocation of disegno, which had strayed for a time amid the mirages of Mannerism. And it will come as no surprise that the synthesis is carried out, under the sign of this continuity of nature, of reason, and of transcendence which in the 1620s was already being adumbrated in Poussin’s work. Just as a person has the right to live his physical desire and his spiritual aspiration as a single act of the mind, so society—as his output at the end of the 1640s indicates—can and even must build clear, straightforward edifices that stand wide open to the divine light, as close as possible to the sparkling waters of the world, among its trees laden with fruit; but they must also cohere with the uneven ground and pools of night to be found in earthly existence. With age, Poussin did not so much cease to respond to the appeal of the senses as to displace the points of their attraction towards the simple facets that life can offer: from the elementary happiness of walking along lovely country paths in the morning, to the silent observation of restless—if not stormy—skies at evening. And in this respect, that meditation is also a sublimation: what the painter had said was needed, but did not always know how to achieve, before the several months—all too long—of that last voyage. Thought and desire seem to unite in his Diogenes, or in The Ashes of Phocion; they seem to constitute a wisdom now, of the most serene kind.

But why, under these conditions, does Poussin depart from that philosophy of life and of nature? Why will he come to oppose it with pictures of a profoundly different spirit, after several years—around 1652–55—when he even seems to have abandoned landscape painting? In The Birth of Bacchus, in Blind Orion, and then in The Seasons, that figuration of welcoming but sovereign reason—of a horizon musicalized by architecture—disappears; and once again, we have the dense vegetation and the thick, mobile light of Apollo and Daphne  or Echo and Narcissus, which shroud the mythological characters in a greater degree of sheer interiority—if not disquiet—within the mood of mystery. Clearly something has happened, at the threshold of this final period.

In fact, should we not note as well that Diogenes or St John on Patmos or The Ashes, and that whole group of landscapes some have called ‘heroic’ (though they might more aptly be called ‘symphonic’) all coincide with the rise within the work of a principle much less Poussinian than we might believe, after looking at certain pictures? It rapidly triumphs, but then rather quickly vanishes; and moreover, in the Seicento, it is a principle of fairly little concern. I mean the concept of numbers, that fascination with harmonious proportions which so easily turns into a dream of some higher reality, by following the path of a Platonic ontology of pure Forms. Domenichino, who was respected by Poussin, surely reminded him early on—as he reminded Pietro Testa—of the metaphysical capacity of numbers. But in Poussin’s first Italian period—that of his Bacchanals, that of Apollo and Daphne—his musicality, already intense, revealed itself in quite a different mode from that of the pictures and theories of Domenichino, the classicizing master of the Life of St Cecilia. In Poussin, it consisted of a perception of the divine, of unity, in the elementary acts of the loving and dancing body—not without a kinship to the spirit of the Farnese Gallery, too; it consisted of the panpipes, the tambourine; it consisted of the expression, seemingly spontaneous, of the same force of life, of death, of constant metamorphosis that will be envisaged once again—and meditated this time—in his Blind Orion. And what a struggle in his work, during the 1630s still, between an obsession with the body and an obsession with numbers, always experienced very abstractly! It is only after his return from France that an architectural structure, understood as a reflection of the cosmos in the mirror of society, imposed its order on all that superabundance; and what sustained this form, and permitted it to deepen, was precisely that geometry, that arithmetic, which—from Solon to Plato, and to others far beyond, in the history of the West—has aspired to elucidate social law, as much as to clarify the mind.

Poussin understands that if the One is the good, the numbers that say they disclose it may be nothing but mirages…

In short, the composed landscape and the number—the hope of a wisdom and the mirages of Platonism—simultaneously appeared and disappeared. Hence there is reason to believe that they existed in Poussin’s work thanks to each other, and that it was his realization of this which caused him to foreswear an entire chapter of his quest—one of the most beautiful, yet one that was ensnared by the lure of what I call the Image. I imagine that he thought it over, in his usual way. He ended up saying to himself: How can I put my trust in this beauty of numbers which tends towards formal perfection, given that Form—in its supposedly divine quality—retains nothing of these facts of time and death which religion tells us are, on the contrary, the only realities? Are not these places rebuilt by the Idea merely a grand dream, where self-awareness is lost? Poussin understands that if the One is the good, the numbers that say they disclose it may be nothing but mirages; that the earth is, like this dust of the Roman soil he gathers up—but that sometimes, the landscape which depicts it may be only in the mind, as the saying aptly goes; and that in such cases, painting is no longer the experience that aids a Christian awareness (which rightly contemns dolorism, all the same) to correct the propositions of dogma, as it must. A grave observation, and a great concern, since this realization immediately bears upon much more than landscape painting: in equal measure, it touches upon that beauty of bodies which had seemed to justify, in former times, their role as figures in the search for God. That beauty, too obviously visual, is it a part of Creation, which we would be wrong to ignore? Is it not the purely mental elaboration—the image, in a word—which bars us from reaching its innermost truth?

A MOMENTOUS QUES­TION, and a radical and valiant answer: which is the whole meaning of Poussin’s later work. Throughout this intervening period, he had been forging ahead into the alchemy of the Image; but now he concluded against it, once and for all, in order to free painting from the Image. If I had time in these pages, I believe I could show that an entire sequence of his pictures—first his Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, soon his Orpheus and Eurydice, and already The Shepherds of Arcadia as well, which we may assume to date from the same juncture of reflection and transition—are because of both their subject and their making a meditation on death, on time: yet also, and above all, on the effect of the lure within painting. After which Orion redefines painting’s tasks, by searching for a passage between appearance—which is specious—and appearing; between immanence and transcendence, through other avenues than perception and its entrapments. A blind giant: that is indeed what Poussin may have understood himself to be, in those years—a blind man, now groping as he seeks a renewal of the sun that will grant the light to him again. And undoubtedly, it is no accident if the ageing painter observes that Diana, the sister of the Sun, loves Orion as she loved Endymion, that other figure of the painter, and that she watches him from the sky above as he invents a regenerated gaze.

And then, I would pay more attention than I can today to certain artists who were Poussin’s friends: Gaspard Dughet, Salvator Rosa—Pietro Testa, too, perhaps—because they cause a wave of disquiet and even discouragement to pass through painters’ creative efforts. They do so beginning in 1650, presumably the year of Poussin’s Orpheus and Eurydice—the year, in any case, of his Self-Portrait at the Louvre, so rigorously focused on seeing and understanding. For example, in that same year Dughet paints his Tempest, which shows lightning as it falls on a superb work of architecture. Is it because form, in these paintings, seems shaken by a wind, roiled by an ocean swell? In any case, names dissolve in what he paints: here human beings are only a furtive presence, scarcely discernible amid rocky or vegetal masses. Looking at these unprecedented landscapes, it is as if the mind were reduced to its own field of consciousness, no longer subsisting except through its enigma—through the question: ‘Who am I, what am I doing here?’ And this leads it to identify with that isolated birch over there, among the winds that assail it. All that is mediation between the being endowed with speech and—all that could produce meaning—begins in Dughet to retreat from the perceptible world. And in spite of the renunciation that this experience implies, this is the same question posed by the late Poussin, the poet of immanence. And at the same time, as has sometimes been remarked, this is the first shudder of Romantic sensibility, that conception of Being which knows only of its transcendence, unless it finds that transcendence in a gust of wind, a blade of grass—which are what have no meaning. Did Dughet perceive the full impact of this liberation from signs, of this annihilation of God in what had passed for his book? In that case, this would be one of the epochal moments of history: the end of the Renaissance, which was the project of analysing appearances in a novel way, aided by painting, and of welcoming perceptible being within it—yet as still belonging to a system of mediations between and the human condition and the divine.

The Renaissance draws to a close with nothing more than these few painters, judged to be minor; and to conclude, let us remark that these last works are a critique of the image, whose different periods had generated various families, since the end of the background of gold. Both guided by Poussin, to be sure—who brings to term his own quest—Dughet (above all, perhaps) and Rosa turn their very sense of the transcendent against what they had considered the terrestrial face of the divine, and which had led them to trace its figures. An additional force has revealed itself, in the economy of the act of painting—which is no longer the need to see, or understand, or deepen an idea of the world, or subject the infinite richness of appearances to that idea—but, rather, the desire to elevate thought to what is most interior and invisible in the experience of unity. And thus it denounces these images which art cannot help but produce—for the sole benefit of dreaming—if it grows too attached to figures that are too beautiful. And here a quandary arises, now from the standpoint of art history. The Seicento, which came so close to things as they are, by the same token produced the first pictures that can make us dream, in a captivating manner, of a reality more intense, more complete—ontologically speaking—than our own. Is it also the period that discovers the lure of those images, and demands to put an end to it?


WE CAN ASK this question all the more, since it was asked—the moment has come to say so—by artists other than Poussin and Dughet, in this era of change: and even well before them.

Anyone who has followed me thus far will perhaps have felt surprised that I have skirted that high mountain range, bristling and dark—the oeuvre of Caravaggio—almost without appearing to notice it. But here is the reason: to me it seems that this great spirit can only be discerned at the present point in our considerations, now that we have formed the idea that the era of images is drawing to an end. Who was Caravaggio, in truth? The artist who—along with the Carraccis, and much more powerfully, in fact—returned to the gaze its right of control over painting? Yes, certainly: and like them, he even accepted that reality, restored thereby to the things we perceive, should have a structure before that gaze, a character like the world’s—and accordingly, should be arranged like a scene.

A picture by Caravaggio is an act of inner renewal, a spiritual exercise such as other painters of his period wanted to invoke: but this time it is moral in nature…

But that is where his path starts to diverge. For the things he paints—and the beings, even more—refuse to mean anything beyond their immediate figures: they do not attest to an additional truth, a reason for being, a hope. While in the Bolognesi, everything that exists seems made in order to manifest the divine, to retain it on earth, in Caravaggio everything cries out that there is only nothingness in this world of lost souls—whose sole recourse is Grace, the ways of which are enigmatic. Whatever this painter depicts, he does so only to bear witness to pain. And so in tracing a figure, he does not stress those aspects of sensuous beauty that could nourish some proposal of exalting life. For example, he grants no credit to the sexual object, no value for the purposes of dreaming. He exhibits it, but without delectation and without provocation—here is what is, he says: this is part of my enigma; and to his mind, the only act that is worthwhile, the only content he wishes to give to his painting—yet without pathos, without any rhetoric of suffering—is an appeal to compassion. A picture by Caravaggio is an act of inner renewal, a spiritual exercise such as other painters of his period wanted to invoke: but this time it is moral in nature, in the harshest sense; and henceforth to be found in the street, where incarnation no longer displays any detectable proofs, amid the evils of society. Similarly, he may have thought, a religious order can cease to pursue contemplation and prayer in order to devote itself to works of charity, amid the chaos of wars and pestilence.

Straightaway, then, this means curbing the temptation of the image. Beneath the brutal and paradoxical externals, a more demanding force of love has penetrated the painter’s art, has swept away—more than denounced—the illusory, which is born of egocentrism. But let us also remark, nonetheless, that this force has achieved clarification without objecting at all to the very principle of painting. Although the latter is obviously mistreated in its figurative practice, it is provoked just as much to intensify that practice, to heat it until it glows red hot. Caravaggio is saying solely that painting is not the image: this art that engenders all illusions can also become the art that dissolves them in the most striking way. A grand refusal of the iconoclasm of the Reformers—even though this painter, almost of the North, is close to them, through his rigour and his pessimism; and in fact, we cannot imagine any better support than this oeuvre for the theses of the recent Council of Trent, regarding art and its capacity for spiritual elevation.

Therefore we can only regret that Caravaggio was not better understood in his time: for the Counter-Reformation—which did not condemn painting, which even accorded it a prime position in the battle on behalf of the faith—had undertaken, like him, to deliver it from the perils of the illusory. But it went about this task in such a fashion that it diminished the means of the painter, and contributed to the decadence which put an end, in the following century, to four hundred years of great Italian painting.

By an extraordinary turnabout, the instrument that for two hundred years had been the servant of mimesis, is now charged with denouncing it as a lie.

Obviously, I am thinking of the highly dangerous dialectic that Baroque art would represent for painting, despite the fact that on the other hand, it possessed so many capabilities and such signal richness in architecture—and even in sculpture. What does Bernini do when he erects the Baldachin, at the crossing of the transept in the Vatican Basilica? He institutes an axis that goes from anyone who enters the church to the presence of God: there, before that person. He orchestrates an experience of divine transcendence that discredits the shams by which the other moments of existence are deluded. And the paintings that will be multiplied around this axis, repeated as it is in each and every Baroque church, are also devised to draw attention to that risk of the illusory—demonstrated by highlighting the traps which a painted image can set. On the vaults we behold these colonnades, these porticos, simulated thanks to the perspectivist’s art: but in such a way that we need only take two steps to the left or right—in the nave or in the side aisles—for these scaffoldings to go askew, for these dream-visions to collapse . . . leaving only the light. By an extraordinary turnabout, the instrument that for two hundred years had been the servant of mimesis, is now charged with denouncing it as a lie. The fixed point before the fresco, where the Quattrocento spectator had to stand in order to look at a scene that occurred in the mind, is supplanted by the place—these steps to the left or the right—of incarnate existence, of which architecture must be henceforth both the representative and the receptacle.

…it is not surprising that the various experiments and innovations achieved by the Seicento will end up vaporizing in the facile solutions of a new-found manner.

But belying illusion in such a way, by driving the figures of the absolute into the ripples of perspective, can only be done at the expense of the most creative facets of the painter’s praxis. In the heights of the vault, he will no longer seriously need to encounter the human face, the beauty of bodies, the earthly landscape: and these are just as many responsibilities that painting loses as a result—that is to say, just as many freedoms, just as many occasions for reflection or daring. There will be many churches under construction in the regions of the Reconquest, along with a large amount of money to decorate them; and since many artists will be trained for this sort of task, it is not surprising that the various experiments and innovations achieved by the Seicento will end up vaporizing in the facile solutions of a new-found manner.

True, we can say that this was not foreordained. And that a great painter could have flourished in Baroque churches, which can sometimes be so straightforward: the theology of that art would not have been at odds with them. Unlike Caravaggio’s, the sensibility of a Bernini, of a Carlo Fontana, is not the enemy of the world, which they recognize as divine—as soon as the illusion disguising its face has been vanquished. What they criticize is not that which is, but our manner of approaching it, of reading it: our language, our signifiers, stricken with full force by Original Sin, and thereby stripped of their ability to say the heart of Being. The encounter with God can be a celebration in this very here of our own, when those external words fall away: as the garlands we see bear witness, sculpted on the walls of so many bright, beautiful churches. Under these conditions, nothing would have prevented a painter who was working in them, or in that spirit, from portraying bowls of fruit or flowers, plainly but fully, and even radiant young beings in the light; from seeking delectation to the degree, never said by art, of immediate savour, that absolute. Such a painter could have recovered those elementary realities as a paradisiacal key, of a figure so easily fulfilled they would have almost rendered true—and in any case beneficent—the highly ancient pastoral myth. This momentous possibility is perhaps what the decorators of the Wies Church, in Bavaria, will seek to realize in the following century. Perhaps it is what Poussin wanted to signify with the immense grape cluster of Autumn, his testament. Perhaps Pietro da Cortona sensed it as well, in some of the lovely foliage of his renewed pittura chiara. We lack the great painter of the Baroque, nevertheless.

But it is also that the simplest thing is always the hardest. When, by the lengthy path of the quests of major artists, to which theories, yearnings, and phantasms have raised impediments, an art arrives at the threshold of a naked presence, a positivity—that of the epiphany of simple things, as in archaic times—it can be foreseen that this approach will stop short. And the Seicento does no more than verify that law, in these superb churches, where the speculation carried to such heights by a Poussin or a Caravaggio will turn into decoration, scarcely more.


The Seicento conceals in its depths yet another region…another way for young painters to refer to the great works; another way as well to encounter, and be nourished by, reality.

HOWEVER, IT WOULD be a mistake to believe that at this point we have summed up everything and recognized all the important aspects of the century. Just as a coffer can have a false bottom, or the staircase of a chateau can hide an invisible turn, the Seicento conceals in its depths yet another region—or, rather, even another flow of currents: another way for young painters to refer to the great works; another way as well to encounter, and be nourished by, reality. And in fact, another need has made itself felt beyond those of seeing, of understanding, of questioning one’s own thought—and thus of reinforcing or weakening the affirmation of a world image. It is a need different from those we have seen at work up till now: more diffuse, perhaps, less perceptible by means of masterpieces—but everywhere and always present, under protean guises. What is this need? Nothing more than that of dreaming, of sensing in a picture the emergence of another world: yes, to be sure. But unreservedly, from now on, without any true remorse, as if we were racked by a hunger; and so without any grand metaphysical groundwork, either—through numbers, for example. Carracci, Poussin or Guido Reni also dreamt in this way at times; but they did not know it: otherwise, they would have struggled against their dream. To see, to understand—that is what counted for them. Others dreamt without the slightest shame.

And for their evasion of ordinary reality, they even found support in creative revolutions that were rediscovering that reality. In Rome—and I could have mentioned this earlier—one of the aspects of recent art had been landscape painting. Already by 1580, artists often went sketching in the Roman countryside; but then it was merely with the aim of bringing back to the studio a scrap of horizon, perhaps to complete a scene. The first landscapes that seem to exist for themselves are still bristling with unreal distortions that reflect the Mannerist horror of nature. It was only around 1600 that Bril, the Fleming, or Elsheimer, the German, and then Saraceni, the Venetian (it is easier for foreigners, entering unfamiliar lands), expunged schemata and map-making from their portrayals of the earth, tautening it up again with its actual bulges, and gaining by the same stroke an ability to express the full light of dawn or early evening. And so a major art form had been born, which was developing in the 1610s and 1620s thanks to yet more Northerners, such as Poelenburgh, Breenbergh, or Swanevelt. But not without remarkable ambiguities.

For on the one hand, here we have an important contribution to ‘seeing’: to attentive observation—in this era when overarching cosmic forms fade away from consciousness—which allows perception to stick to immediate reality, to sensuous qualities for themselves. Galileo has just shown that the Moon is nothing but a block of matter, like the Earth, which returns the piece that was still missing in its sky to the terrestrial landscape. Freed from metaphysics, the natural world can move closer to the painter, encircle him, anchor his imaginative roaming within its presence—readily felt as beautiful and good. As we have seen, in his powerful meditations, Poussin appealed to the testimony of the earthly place as a tribute made by reality.

But why, in Poelenburgh, in Swanevelt—and in how many others, who at times did no more than pass through Rome—do we find this atmosphere of imminent epiphany? Why do we have the impression that we are looking at a land other than our own, more real, even though nothing more than facets and signs of the latter are gathered there? As if we were on the other side of the horizon, in the very works that have restored its true form? And why this aura of mystery, as well, among those peasants over there? Why is that young woman in Poelenburgh’s Peasants Dancing in a Landscape—one example among many others—an ‘ingenuous daughter of this sacred ground,’ patently one of those that Gérard de Nerval, in that very same Italy, will call a ‘daughter of fire’?

In these pictures we no longer encounter the presence of what is, but the dream of what could have been, or might have been or will be: we witness the creation of an image.

Without a doubt, in these pictures we no longer encounter the presence of what is, but the dream of what could have been, or might have been or will be: we witness the creation of an image. Since they are not constrained to enter the landscape they paint with all the weight of their own finitude—since they can sample its fruit, without losing their own reality to the passage of time—these artists were able to emblazon the concrete world with the absolute, vibrantly reshaping it on canvas. They perceived that world as an image from which they fashioned images, yet more images, through a metamorphosis which leaves appearances intact, like a log fully ablaze before it collapses into ash.

Consequently, here we find ourselves at the antipodes of Dughet—although very close to Claude Lorrain, when he also went sketching in the Roman countryside. However, he only yearned to recompose the world according to the vows of his dream, which pierces his hinterlands with vast marine shorelines, as Shakespeare had already chosen to do in transfiguring Bohemia. Far off, his hills are blue; but not because of distance, as Leonardo feigned to believe: it is the blue of metaphysical removes. The ancient idea of the cosmos has only retreated from the world, with Galileo, in order to yield its place to this other reconstruction by the mind—the lyrically composed landscape, peopled by the wandering tribes of pastoral nostalgia.

And moreover, it is one of Claude’s pictures which best evokes this alchemy of the image, and what sort of nothing—glitter though it may—can appear within its vessel. The subject of his Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid is well known. Psyche, wondrously transported to the kingdom of Amor, watches an edifice rise before her, built by ‘the art of a god’—as Apuleius tells us, who is Claude’s source. The painter is therefore aware that on this occasion, he must depict something more magnificent than anything existent in this world. Even so, he lends Cupid’s palace the features of one of those grand houses he has seen, or could have seen, in ordinary reality. All the peerlessness, all the divinity of this place—and we apprehend it, who can doubt?—rests on the mere fact that it is over there, closed, unknown: that it lies in that elsewhere which art signifies so well, each time it becomes an image. The divine is easy, in short, on the horizon of the image. But what will that be worth to us, in life itself? By desiring in that way, do we not run the risk of losing the very thing we desire? As Psyche will do, when she attempts to behold—raising her lamp through curiosity about an unknown excess of appearance—the body with which she was so intimate . . . Psyche is painted in the foreground of Claude’s picture, in the classic attitude of melancholy. And I know of no more beautiful emblem of the latter as well—of that fusion of lucidity and dream—than this canvas which is, let us note, from already late in the century.

It is the period when Claude Lorrain and his foreign friends have now sold many lovely landscapes—sometimes for very little money—to their compatriots who have travelled through, or to collectors from their countries of origin. Some of the artists have even set off again, towards a variety of places throughout Europe. From Bril onwards, Italy has become that hotbed for propagating the religion of the image—the gnosis of modern times—that it will remain until Romanticism. This is proved by the Neapolitan vedute ideate with their volcanoes, which will engender Corinne, in Madame de Staël, or Octavie, in Nerval—both inspired by Mignon, of course, Goethe’s unforgettable vision. It is an art that has attained the height of its figurative power, this art that tainted the dawning era of reason with its dreams. A splendid ruse of the demon—who has become simply Lucifer, simply the radiant evening star—in order to maintain himself in the world, once the signs of God’s presence have fled.


There is something in Caravaggio’s manner that always suggests what is outside the picture: in an elsewhere, at once eerie and exalting.

BUT THE DEMON has many more ruses than this. I was speaking earlier of Caravaggio’s vision as pessimistic: from the outset, it detaches itself from what it deems illusory. His chiaroscuro signifies the ontological insufficiency of an earthly place scarcely touched by Grace; and so we are not moved to believe that his brutal figures are what will nourish a dream. But dimming the light in a picture is an ambivalent act that can be understood, and experienced, in two opposing ways. Instead of daylight seeping through a cellar window—the harsh lesson of The Vocation of St Matthew—a lamp can be posed on a table; and suddenly we imagine that somewhere in the house there is a place closed upon itself, a secret place, to which we can freely grant a mysterious air. Let us add to this that a picture by Caravaggio is composed differently from those of the masters of his time, for whom the work only exists as the unfolding of a story or a thought: which implies that all its components are set before our eyes, in the space marked off by the frame. Guido Reni depicts his Hippomenes and his Atalanta down to the tips of their arms and legs, whereas Caravaggio cuts some of his characters off at the waist—for which Albano reprimands him. His St Paul barely fits into the Vocation at Santa Maria del Popolo, wholly filled by the big horse bathed in moonlight. And these constrictions, these close-ups, make us see his figures not as the personae of a story, but as real beings instead, ready to leave the picture for other rooms, other regions of the night; these are offered to our imagination under the mysterious sign of lighting effects—and felt even more intensely, for all that. There is something in Caravaggio’s manner that always suggests what is outside the picture: in an elsewhere, at once eerie and exalting. And among the ‘Caravaggisti,’ how many painters will soon harbour no other concern than for these unknown places, which will be rallying points for dreams this time as well—though no longer just over the horizon, among the features of nature, as with the landscapists, but henceforth in the depths of society, those modern catacombs! Such painters imagine initiatory journeys, stopovers at midnight in badly lit inns, hesitations at crossroads—and the reality beyond this as several people in a room, who resist that world.

Moreover, in the houses of the seventeenth century, that penumbra is found in bedrooms, the social place for women; and here is yet another reason why Caravaggio generates an art which—quite far in its future development from the compassion of his Nativities of Palermo or Messina, but just as alien to reveries of the golden age—will be the first in the world to conjure through painting the half-visions of nocturnal dreaming and its veritable atmosphere, too obviously erotic to have avoided censorship, ever since the dawn of Christianity. It is the selva oscura, as well, of all archaic fears. Here we come upon Judith with the severed head, a reminder of events as scabrous as they are terrible. There Abraham raises his knife above the child, whose anguish never ceases in the soul of any painter or poet. But nothing is sweeter, on the other hand—nothing more apt to appease Oedipal yearnings, if only for a while—than these faces here or there, tenderly released from shadow by the soft light of an oil lamp or a torch. And so it can be a work such as St Sebastian Tended by St Irene (he will be healed by her), which summons up in yet another way the merging of eros and agape—that task of the West. And it is Empress Faustina Visiting St Catherine in Prison, the unforgettable picture by Mattia Preti, painted more than thirty years, it seems, after Caravaggio’s demise.

In short, Caravaggio the ‘realist’ introduced a shudder of unreality into Seicento painting; and that paradox, if such is the word, will truly mark the entire century.

In short, Caravaggio the ‘realist’ introduced a shudder of unreality into Seicento painting; and that paradox, if such is the word, will truly mark the entire century. This presupposes that we agree to see Florentines like Furini (purportedly trained by the art of the Carraccis), or even Giuseppe Maria Crespi (more than half Bolognese, though he painted the Uffizi’s Cupid and Psyche, one of the masterpieces of nocturnal art) as approaching, with terror and delight, the unattainable shore of the Unconscious. Did I say that dreaming is easy, at the horizon of a beautiful landscape? Let us add that it readily resumes, just where we thought the flame had been blown out. In truth, it is that same breath which having bent it, makes it stand upright once again. And it was never more passionate than at a certain time—I will focus on this to conclude—when the wind which meant to snuff it out presumed to be at its strongest: in those marble draperies, almost swelled with the real presence by the Baroque.

DID THE BAROQUE dispel the illusory—and therefore, did it substitute architecture, the daughter of place, for painting, the specious daughter of dream? Yes, but what is Borromini then, if not the alien and the irregular, which inflects Bernini’s inaugural act in such a way that it transports the real place, the place of incarnation, into a space outside this world—though who knows where? We step inside a church by Bernini. But we prefer to look from the outside at a Borromini church—with its odd outlines, its ellipses that resemble the circles of a place that hovers elsewhere, viewed from the place where we are by some quirk of metaphysical perspective. And when we have gone inside, we seem to have traversed, rather than accepted, the third dimension inherent to earthly life. Though real, this room only has depth on the plane of the representation we make of it, like an image that simulates stone yet does not try to hide its purely mental reality, so we feel that an inconceivable form must lie in that matter forever. Borromini transforms into an image what in Bernini is an act: in this, his works are like pictures at architecture’s core. Thanks to him, painting—which the Baroque architect indicted for error and falsehood, and banished from the space he organized—is reborn at the very crux of that space, now peopled by mirages once again.

And under his banner, throughout Europe, mingled with the triumphs of Rome—but only to subvert them in a forceful way—there will soon be great churches, palaces and sometimes entire cities: all equally improbable, made to live or survive outside history. An art, a religion, can often believe that it has known how to conquer dreams. But each and every time, images have survived. They have only needed to invent other worlds for their armies in retreat.

Translator’s note: Yves Bonnefoy’s Rome, 1630: The Horizon of the Early Baroque, his most comprehensive book on the history of art, was originally published in 1970. With a few minor changes, he reissued the work in 1994 at Flammarion, appending an essay called ‘One of the Centuries of the Cult of Images.’ He had written the latter for the catalogue of an exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1989,Seicento: The Century of Caravaggio in French Collections. For greater clarity of context, at the request of The Fortnightly Review, I have simplified the title here to ‘The Seicento and the Cult of Images.’

At the author’s behest—shortly before his death in 2016—I have added four further essays on seventeenth-century art to the English-language edition of  Rome, 1630, which will be published in 2020. Taken as a whole, this new compilation can be considered Bonnefoy’s final testament on the Late Renaissance, Caravaggio, Elsheimer, the Italian Baroque, and Poussin. All are themes which recur throughout his oeuvre, as I have explained at length in my afterword to the volume, which includes over 175 illustrations.

I would like to thank the Publisher of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, for his kind permission to present my translation of ‘The Seicento and the Cult of Images’ for the first time in The Fortnightly Review. — HR

Yves Bonnefoy. Before his death in July of 2016, Yves Bonnefoy had published eleven major collections of verse, several books of tales, and numerous studies of literature and art. He is recognized as the greatest French poet of the last fifty years, and his work has been translated into scores of languages. In addition, he himself was a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, and Leopardi. He received the European Prize for Poetry (2006) and the Kafka Prize (2007), among many other honors.  An anthology of his work with translations by Hoyt Rogers, Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011, was published by the Yale University Press in 2012. With his daughter, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Rogers also translated Bonnefoy’s final book of poetry, Together Still, which appeared in 2017 from Seagull Books. The most recent English-language reader of his work, edited by Anthony Rudolf, Stephen Romer, and John Naughton, was published in the UK in two volumes by Carcanet Press: Yves Bonnefoy: The Poems in 2017 and Yves Bonnefoy: Prose in 2020. His Rome, 1630: The Horizon of the Early Baroque, translated by Hoyt Rogers—from which the above essay was drawn—will be internationally published in December 2020 by Seagull Books.

Hoyt Rogers is a writer, translator, scholar, and internationalist; born in North America, he has spent most of his life in Latin America and Europe. He was educated at Columbia, the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Oxford, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. He is the author of a book of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish; he has published dozens of translations, including the Selected Poems of Borges and various books by Bonnefoy and du Bouchet. In the spring of 2020, he contributed four sections to Carcanet’s reader of Bonnefoy’s Prose; also in 2020, Bitter Oleander published Outside, his second anthology of André du Bouchet’s writings. His latest translation, Bonnefoy’s Rome, 1630: The Horizon of the Early Baroque—from which the above essay was drawn—will be published in 2020 by Seagull Books. His webpage is

More: For an analysis of Bonnefoy’s views on Italian art, see Hoyt Rogers’s article ‘Tintoretto: After and Before’ in The Fortnightly Review. An annotated archive of his poetry, essays and translations published in the Fortnightly is here.


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