Doctus Artifex

A look at the history of artistic techniques and studio practice

‘Painting is what paint does': Milton Resnick at Mana Contemporary

Milton Resnick’s paintings are arresting. The images are hard won. The surfaces are tactile and weighty. They have presence.

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A major survey exhibition of Resnick’s work on view at Mana Contemporary through August 8, 2014. This exhibition, Milton Resnick (1917-2004): Paintings and Works on Paper from the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, spans over a half century of the artist’s work. Resnick emigrated to New York from Russia in the 1920s, participated in the WPA Artists’ Project, and befriended Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, and other downtown artists. He was drafted into the army during WWII, then returned to New York in 1945. His abstract paintings placed him firmly in the first generation of abstract expressionists. In the 70s and 80s, he created allover compositions with increasingly dense paint applications. The resulting works have a “topographical presence” and emphasize the materiality of paint above all else. Works from this period are exhibited in the first floor gallery space at Mana. The exhibit continues on another level, where several of his early works from the 1950s are grouped with later figurative works of the 90s and 00s. Resnick died in 2004 in New York, and his wife, the painter Pat Passlof died in 2011, establishing the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation in her will.

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary installation view

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary installation view

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, Installation view

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, Installation view

Ever since I first encountered Resnick’s works at Cheim & Read in Chelsea, I’ve craved seeing more of his paintings. The few exhibition catalogues I could find of his work are rare and out of print (with the exception of Milton Resnick: A Question of Seeing: Paintings 1959-1963, published in 2008 by Cheim & Read). In the late 90s, a televised portrait of Resnick aired on PBS, A World of Art: Works in Progress: Milton Resnick and (Works in Progress: Milton Resnick, Part 2). It provides a glimpse into his painting process, his life with Pat Passlof on the Lower East Side, and many of his insights into the medium of oil paint. “Painting is what paint does. You have to be the straw in the wind and listen to what the master, paint, tells you to do.”

Milton Resnick, Sphinx

Milton Resnick, Sphinx

Milton Resnick

Milton Resnick

Milton Resnick

Milton Resnick

Given the longevity of Resnick’s career, it is surprising that this show at Mana is the first major East Coast exhibition of Resnick’s work. Perhaps Resnick isn’t more widely known precisely because his paintings demand being experienced in person. He uses paint as a visual medium rather than as a vehicle for presenting ideas; since the paintings don’t explicitly express intellectual concepts, they don’t lend themselves to written discourse. Furthermore, in our age of mechanical (now digital) reproduction, we’ve become accustomed to slick images that are easy to represent with digital surrogates. There’s something to be said for the cult of the original, for authenticity, and for experiential understanding. Resnick is that breed of painter’s painter whose work warrants firsthand knowledge.

Resnick, installation view

Resnick, installation view

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, Installation view

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, Installation view

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Resnick

Visiting the Resnick show at Mana Contemporary is a pilgrimage of sorts. Firstly, you must take the PATH train (which isn’t that difficult, it turns out). Secondly, you cannot view the show without a guided tour. Due to the peculiarities of the gargantuan space, this procedure makes perfect sense, and isn’t at all a deterrent to seeing the art work at your leisure. When I went to view the exhibit, our guide explained some of Mana Contemporary’s features to the group. The enormous space is a work in progress, with a combination of galleries, studios, printing presses, and art storage. Its beginnings as an art storage facility have influenced the exhibitions, including this current ambitious show of Resnick’s paintings. Apparently, Resnick’s work was being stored at Mana, and one of the curatorial missions is to showcase artists whose works are in storage there. The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation will be opening a museum on 87 Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side in a synagogue that was Resnick’s studio from 1977 until his death in 2004. The museum is scheduled to open in 2016 and will provide an exhibition space for works by Milton Resnick and his wife, Pat Passlof, as well as the study of other abstract expressionists.

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, works on paper

Milton Resnick, Mana Contemporary, works on paper

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installation view

 

Kentridge’s Refusal of Time X 3

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once,” Einstein said pithily. It certainly takes more than once to digest all the complexities and theatricality of William Kentridge’s five-channel video installation “The Refusal of Time,” a work that takes on Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time. Over a span of two years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the work installed in three venues, and multiple viewings are necessary to process the multi-sensory delights of the piece. Recently, I saw installations of  “The Refusal of Time” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA, and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, NY. The first time I saw this piece was at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany, the exhibit at which the work premiered. This poignant work is a reflection on time, space, memory, colonialism, and scientific history. The imagery comes from myriad sources: Einstein’s experiments with clocks, the artist himself, books, text, dancers, silent film, physics. In short, it is a grand piece and addresses grand themes. This vigilance toward tackling the “big issues” is a worthy enterprise that few artists attempt, and even fewer manage as deftly as Kentridge. Since the work itself has been widely discussed elsewhere, I’d like to focus my commentary on the material aspects of these three installations.

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, 2012

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, 2012

Kentridge, who still lives and works in his native South Africa, trained as a painter and printmaker, and produces muti-media works that span film, theater, collage, sound, and sculpture. Kentridge is perhaps best known for his style of stop-motion animation in which he makes charcoal drawings that he alters numerous times, photographing each iteration in order to create individual scenes. The resulting images contain all the traces of the artist’s hand, the erasures, and transformations that underscore the agent of time in the work. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a major exhibition of the artist’s works, and their website offers a wealth of background information on Kentridge’s work, his biography, and his process. He discusses his methods in this clip on MoMA’s interactive Kentridge website.

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, 2012

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at dOCUMENTA 13, 2012

For “The Refusal of a Time,” Kentridge brilliantly married the hand-made marks of his charcoal drawings with live action film, a musical score, and installation. In the videos and accompanying sculpture – a breathing machine called the elephant, which alludes to a Dickensian anxiety over industry- he addresses changing conceptions of time throughout history. This central theme of the work resulted from a collaboration between Kentridge and Peter Galison, professor of History of Science at Harvard University. The vision that emerged from their conversations was then realized with the aid of video filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh and composer Phillip Miller. Philip Miller’s soundscape features a metronomic beat, instrumentation, and spoken word, to convey the varied pace of the modern city and different manifestations of time. Kentridge describes the work in this video on the Met’s website.

In the three installations of “The Refusal of Time” at dOCUMENTA 13, the ICA, and the Met, the biggest variable was the degree to which the physical space reinforced the content of the piece. That is to say, the various spaces evoke different ideas about time. The Hauptbahnhof, the train station in Kassel where the work was shown originally, conveys a more fragmented notion of time in industrialized society than a museum like the Met can convey, with its air of permanence, its temple-like architecture, and its hallowed galleries of art spanning the long trajectory of human history. The ICA has yet other temporal qualities, being a relatively new structure. The raw unfinished look of walls and ceilings did not seem forced in the ICA, but typical of such galleries. Exposed sheet rock gave the feeling of a construction site, albeit a manicured one. The floors and ceiling fixtures had a regular grid pattern unlike the haphazard scuffs at the Met or the natural cracks and texture of the Hauptbahnhof. The main drawback at the Met was the size of the space because it required the five videos to be projected smaller, and the main drawback at the ICA was simply the starkness of the space.

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William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at dOCUMENTA 13, 2012

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at the Metropolitan Museum, 2014

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at the Metropolitan Museum, 2014

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at the ICA

William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, at the ICA

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William Kentridge, Refusal of Time, ICA

Why did the work function better in the Hauptbahnhof? As any student of 19th-century history knows, the tyranny of time originated with the railroad. The space of the train station was more than double the size of the other two installations of the work in Boston and New York, and it was imbued with its own sense of industrialized time and the patina of age. The context fits the subject exceedingly well. Mechanized clocks and schedules all are due to the railroad.

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‘Her whistle shrieks like a thousand fiends let loose upon the night,’ article from The London Bulletin about 19th-century railroads & an advertisement for Great Western Railway

Time gained increased significance with the trains. As train stations go, the Hauptbahnhof in Kassel has all the hallmarks of age. Its worn and textured brick walls painted white in the center gave the video installation added visual interest. In both the Met and the ICA, the look of a well-worn space was contrived. Sheets of dry wall were propped against the gallery walls to form the projection surface. Painters tape was semi-attached on places along the walls, and scuffs and tape marks were added to the floors. Undoubtedly, some of the elements in the room at the dOCUMENTA installation were purposeful, carefully-crafted marks designed to look authentic to the space. However, this contrivance was more expertly concealed. The chairs were bolted down at dOCUMENTA, imposing the artists optimum viewing environment- one of perfect casualness. It appeared as though viewers throughout the day had moved and arranged chairs at whim. In contrast both the ICA and the Met chose to use tape marks on the floor to map the chair arrangements. There was no attempt to hide the predetermined layout of the rooms.

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Installation view at the Met

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Installation view at the Met

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Floor detail at the Met

To be fair, the installations at the ICA and the Met did try to conjure the sense of the artist’s studio by adding some of the trappings of a work space. The viewer’s encounter was one of stumbling into a studio where work was being made in haste and the makers had just left. That was a rather successful way to work with the particulars of a given space. The two museum galleries were half the size of the space in the Hauptbahnhof. Naturally, the larger space allowed the videos to be bigger and the sound to be louder. The metal cones that carried the sound and the central machine sculpture were the same in all three exhibitions. However, the larger video projections in the Hauptbahnhof created a more seamless transition in cases like the parade sequence, in which characters march around the room screen to screen. The wider gaps from screen to screen in the two museum installs yielded a quite different viewing experience.

Another main difference among these installations was the ICA’s adjacent exhibition of Kentridge’s drawings. It was a pleasure to see the video work in relation to his works on paper, and helped position the installation within the larger context of the artist’s work. Of the three, the installation at the Met is the only one that is a newly-acquired part of the museum’s permanent collection. While part of me would have liked to see “The refusal of Time” installed somewhere in the Greek & Roman Galleries or near the Temple of Dendur to capitalize on that special relationship to time that only an institution like the Met has, it’s understandable that a permanent installation must be in the contemporary galleries for pragmatic reasons. It’s laudable that the Met has acquired this ambitious video work, and last week the museum received an AICA-USA Arts Awards for Excellence in Curatorial Achievement in the time-based media category.​ While the Met’s installation closed in May, they do provide a rich online source about this video work, MetCollects.

The strength of the work isn’t reliant on any one particular kind of space. It’s engaging and provocative despite the minor differences from one exhibition to another. Since it was created for the Hauptbahnhof, it understandably functioned best there. Among the many delights at dOCUMENTA, this work was probably the one that delighted me most (along with Charlotte Salomon’s drawings, which I’ll work my way around to discussing in some future post), and it was well worth seeing again… and again.

There may be hope: two painting shows in Chelsea

“The whole thing of should I paint or not, is painting dead—of course it’s not.” That is a delightfully dismissive statement by Glenn Brown in an interview in 2009 in Art in America. Of course it’s not. It’s that simple, really, and the two painting shows I saw last weekend in Chelsea are a rousing testimony to the vivacity of oil paint: Glenn Brown at Gagosian, and  Hannah van Bart at Marianne Boesky. (Had time permitted, the Maria Lassnig show at PS1 would have completed my art pilgrimage and made a satisfying triumvirate of figurative painters. The Maria Lassnig show is up through September 7th though, so there’s still time).

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Glenn Brown, In My Time of Dying, 2014

British painter Glenn Brown says in the press release for the current show at Gagosian, “I like my paintings to have one foot in the grave, to be not quite of this world.” My artistic sensibilities so align with his – the indebtedness to art history, the love of the language of oil paint – that I’m thrilled to have finally gotten to see his work in person. The paintings on view are all oil on panel, and the surfaces are luscious and luminous. Brown revels in all the medium can do; blurred areas of atmospheric calm set off the vigorous dizzying (but controlled) brushwork that tends to be reserved for the central subject of each piece. The paint is applied thinly and methodically. I expected the surfaces to be like Auerbach’s with thick impasto instead of such polished surfaces. As the artist himself said, while he admires de Kooning or Soutine, he paints more slowly, which lends itself to more refined results. Brown traffics in the widely-recognized themes and stories of myth, of the Bible, and of art history, and people relate to it. It’s truly refreshing to think we can all put notions about there being no meta-narratives behind us. His mastery of the medium is exuberant and deeply satisfying on many levels.

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Glenn Brown, Cactus Land, 2012

The works in the Gagosian show included several bronze and oil painted sculptures, all of which related to the art historical epochs alluded to in the paintings. With titles like “Maddalena Penitente” and “Nazareth” or “Romantic Movement,” the foothold in the artistic achievements of the past is apparent.

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Glenn Brown, installation view, Gagosian Galley, 2014

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Glenn Brown, installation view, Gagosian Gallery, 2014

Hannah van Bart deals directly with nostalgia and human memory in her work, but in a decidedly different way from Glenn Brown. With a more muted palette, Van Bart uses vintage photos as her source, and alters them with a characteristic nervous line and sensitive brushwork. The images are re-worked numerous times until the original reference is supplanted by the painter’s decisions about the subject’s portrayal. For a glimpse inside her studio in Amsterdam, watch this interview with Hannah Van Bart on 4 Art on Kunstuur from March 2014: 4 Art – Hannah Van Bart.

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Hannah Van Bart, Doubt, 2013

Van Bart’s portrait exhibition at Marianne Boesky featured approximately 15 paintings (all pictured on the gallery website), all oil on linen. The works included are refreshingly modest in scale and scope. Her paintings have a tactile surface that I find pleasing. It’s nice to see evidence of the human hand’s involvement in the creation of anything, especially since so much imagery we see every day is super-slick and created by the press of a button. Although the brushwork is evident, the surfaces are all rather flat. Despite the use of outline around the figures, there’s a a satisfying interplay between the figure and the ground. With palette choice, patterns, grids, textures, and undoubtedly many other formal concerns that I overlooked, Van Bart uses all the elements of picture-making to connect the space inside the figure to its surrounding areas.

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Hannah Van Bart, installation view, Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2014

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Hannah Van Bart, installation view, Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2014

There’s a line in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway that I read years ago while working on my MFA in painting in New York, “Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.”  It resonated with me at the time, as I was trying to make big splashy clever paintings. When I see work like Glenn Brown’s, which seems to originate from a sense of enjoyment and intellectual curiosity, or Hannah Van Bart’s, which seems utterly human and self-searching, this quotation springs to mind. Their work is felt. While these two shows both close June 14th, there are a few other choices for happy hopeful art pilgrims. Next up for me will be Maria Lassnig at PS1 (as I already mentioned) and Milton Resnick at Mana Contemporary.

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Hannah Van Bart, Man, 2014

 

 

Light and Translucency in Art: Examples from the Early Medieval Period to the Present

Harvard Art Museums announced last week that the Rothko murals will be displayed in November 2014 after being restored to their former intensity thanks to a novel no-touch light conservation project. The restoration involves using light projection to return the long-faded paintings to their original hue and intensity. The color loss resulted from the presence of lithol red, a light-sensitive pigment,  according to conservation scientist Paul Whitmore. By isolating one pixel at a time, this innovative technology will ‘replace’ the fugitive pigments, enabling new audiences to see these paintings close to how Rothko intended. For more information about this project and its contributors at MIT’s Media Lab and at University of Basel, read ‘A light touch for Rothko murals’ or ‘Rarely Seen Rothkos Highlight Harvard Art Museums’ Reopening’.

Rothko famously gave great attention to the way light operated in installations of his work. The ‘suggestions’ he gave to the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 included the following instructions about the exhibition lighting: ‘The light, whether natural or artificial, should not be too strong: the pictures have their own inner light, and if there is too much light, the color in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs. The ideal situation would be to hang them in a normally lit room – that is the way they were painted. They should not be over-lit or romanticised by spots; this results in a distortion of their meaning. They should either be lighted from a great distance or indirectly by casting lights at the ceiling or the floor. Above all, the entire picture should be evenly lighted but not strongly’. This passage is in the Whitechapel Gallery archives and is characteristic of other writings by Rothko regarding the optimum viewing environment for his work.

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Whitechapel Gallery Archives, document from Mark Rothko

Using light to control and enhance the reception of art work is nothing new, but in each phase of history, artists’ use of light itself (as opposed to pictorial light) has signified innovation in craftsmanship. Generally artists like Dan Flavin, James Turrell, or Olafur Eliasson come to mind when we think of artists working with light as their medium. However, the phenomenon of artists using light as a key component in both the creation of art and the viewing experience is evident in much earlier periods.

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Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, “Take your time,” 2008

My current studio project involves using a painting technique called ‘tinted drawing’ that was popularized in the thirteenth century. Tinted drawing is a method of manuscript illumination that is characterized by thin washes of paint, which allow the translucent vellum surface to operate as the light in the composition. In preparation for this painting series, I’ve been ruminating on ways light was used by artists in premodern times. Tracing the use of light in artmaking back to the early medieval period, I’ve noticed a reassuring continuity through the centuries in artistic practices and viewers’ fascination with spectacle.

The eighteenth century: Gainsborough’s showbox

When I first saw Gainsborough’s showbox at the V&A, it reminded me that artists have always found ways to incorporate the latest technology in their works. Long before the early modernists were experimenting with film or magic lantern slides, Gainsborough was borrowing from theatrical techniques and using candlelight and lenses to alter our perception of paintings. Gainsborough painted a series of oils on glass in the 1780s and constructed his ‘showbox’ in which to view these landscape paintings. Candles placed behind the painted transparency illuminated the scene, and silk was used to diffuse the light.

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Thomas Gainsborough, oil on glass

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Thomas Gainsborough, Showbox, Victoria & Albert Museum

Anita Callaway, in her book Visual Ephemera: Theatrical Art in Nineteenth-century Australia, elucidates the subject of transparencies in popular culture. She points out that it was a rare medium among fine artists, but Gainsborough was a notable exception. In addition to his showbox, he is said to have collaborated on large-scale transparent paintings for a concert hall that were ‘lighted behind… sufficient to illuminate the room’.  Transparencies of such scale and scope required professional painters, but by the nineteenth century, amateurs took up the practice to meet the demand for this form of decoration in domestic interiors. Transparent paintings were the middle class answer to lavish stained glass windows in the home. The use of transparencies on vellum for window coverings dates back to the medieval period, and there’s undeniably a correlation in the rise in popularity of stained glass and the thirteenth-century revival of the earlier ‘tinted drawing’ technique.

The eighth to fifteenth centuries: tinted drawing and stained glass

Once thought to be a less expensive alternative to fully-painted images, tinted drawing is a form of manuscript illumination that gained popularity in the 13th century and was in fact used in many luxury manuscripts. If there was not a budgetary imperative that required this more restrained form of manuscript decoration, then it was aesthetic choice that caused this technique to be favored by so many artists and patrons. Why was the translucent use of pigment on vellum aesthetically pleasing to a thirteenth-century readership? Some scholars have pointed out the correlation between the rise in popularity of this form of manuscript painting and the increased use of stained glass. (Stained glass was to the thirteenth century what television was to the twentieth, so it’s no surprise that a painting technique that had similar luminous qualities was fashionable and wildly popular).

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Canterbury Cathedral window, The Cloisters, New York, NY

Much of the existing research in tinted drawing emphasizes its material differences from opaquely-painted miniatures which are further embellished with gold leaf. By comparison, tinted drawings are minimalist and less lavish. However, a major material difference is overlooked – that is the translucency of the vellum surface itself. Opaque paintings in books do not allow the light to shine through the pages in the same way that the thinly applied pigments of tinted drawings do. Translucent use of the vellum is a key feature of tinted drawing, and perhaps it was this quality that delivered the desired luminous effect that attracted medieval audiences to this technique. Shifting emphasis away from the handling of the pigments to this use of light may give us new insights into manuscript production and medieval aesthetics.

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British Library, Harley Roll Y.6

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Bodleian Library, Ms Tanner 184, Tanner Apocalypse

This characteristic translucency of vellum was known and utilized by artists as early as the eighth century. The artist-scribe who created the Lindisfarne Gospels used an innovative approach to planning this masterpiece. He devised a method for backlighting the folios to work in reverse on the underside of each drawing. As Michelle Brown points out in her book The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe, he would then copy the image the right way around on the opposite side with pigment, thereby preventing the lead lines of the drawing from interfering with the final image. His creation of a lightbox to aid the production of his masterpiece was an ingenious contribution to the craft. This gospel book and its accompanying technical innovation were nothing short of ‘a Leonardo moment,’ in Michelle Brown’s words. When the 15th-century manuscript the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry was unbound for conservation purposes in 2010, it was on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in an exhibition entitled ‘The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry‘. I observed that the recto and verso sides of the elaborate borders exactly matched, even in cases where the line waivered or a mistake was made. This precise copying from recto to verso suggests that a similar technique to the one the employed in the making of the Lindisfarne Gospels seven centuries earlier was used. Clearly the artist charged with producing the borders understood that the light passing through the surface would mar the appearance of the manuscript if not duplicated precisely.

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Medieval grisailles glass, The Cloisters, New York, NY

Not only is light used to aid production, but also it is used for aesthetic effect. In a palimpsested flyleaf from MS Cotton Nero D.1, Matthew Paris instructed the viewer not to write on the back of the image (drawn by Brother William) and to hold the drawing up to the light in order to view it at its best advantage. As already mentioned, there are parallels between the drawings in manuscripts and the relatively new medium of stained glass, particularly the grisaille techniques, which were being developed in the thirteenth century. Like the monochrome black or brown ink drawings on glass, those on blank vellum or parchment lent themselves to a special way of using light to describe the subjects’ inner luminosity.  Many medieval writers picked up on the New Testament image of Christ as light: ‘Ego sum lux mundi’. Given the metaphoric meanings of lumen in the medieval world, it is no surprise that artists used light in a way that conjured something quite different from conventional reality. In the miniatures in a medieval codex, light does not strike the objects externally. Rather each object contains its own light source, in contrast to Renaissance art. Tinted figures on parchment allowed this pictorial light to match the literal light shining through an image. Of course artists’ intent in this time period is a difficult thing to prove. More work will need to be done to determine which contemporary texts – Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus, or Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, perhaps – medieval craftsmen had access to and whether there’s a correlation to the ideas espoused in these works and workshop practice.

Ivan Illich describes the complex relationship of the light emanating from the manuscript’s page to the reader’s eye in the following analysis of the 12th-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor’s writings: ‘The light of medieval manuscripts “seeks” the eye, as God “reaches out” to the soul…. For Hugh the page radiates, but not only the page; the eye also sparkles’. Reading is a means of bringing light back into the world that was darkened through sin, according to Hugh of St. Victor. This idea of the reader’s enlightenment relates in an metaphoric way to the light source in manuscript paintings.

Light may not carry the associations with the Divine that it did for Hugh, but today we’re still preoccupied with this interrelationship between the surface, the light source, and the viewer’s eyes. To bring the discussion full circle, Jens Stenger, former Harvard conservation scientist, made this comment about the thought process behind the new conservation technique employed on the Rothko murals: ‘In human color perception you have a light source, a surface, and a viewer, and the three interact. If you can’t change the surface, you can change the light source to change the color’. The interplay of these basic elements is infinite and ensures our continued fascination with the subject.

Artistic Influences on Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De humani corporis fabrica libri septem’ and Its Influence on the Arts in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Posterior view of skeleton, Vesalius, de Fabrica

With the current exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, I thought it may be timely to look more closely at the study of anatomy by Renaissance artists, more specifically the collaborations between artists and anatomists publishing texts on the subject, and most specifically, the collaboration between Andreas Vesalius and artists in Titian’s studio.

Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica libri septem of 1543 has been recognised as an achievement not only of modern medical science, but also of extraordinary aesthetic value, representing Renaissance artists’ study and understanding of human anatomy as well as the perfection of the technical aspects of printing and typography. William Ivins has gone so far as to suggest that were it not for its masterful illustrations and superb printing, Veslaius’s work may be no more memorable than other sixteenth century anatomy texts, such as those produced by Massa, or Eustachius, whose text was arguably more accurate but had less aesthetic appeal.[1] Vesalius himself played a decisive role in his book’s magnificent material form. Given the detailed scientific and intellectual information the anatomical plates convey, it is believed Vesalius worked very closely with his draughtsman in planning the Fabrica, and in some cases likely drew the images himself.[2] Shifts in the text from the personal pronoun ‘we’ to ‘I’ suggest such drawings as the ‘arterial man’ and ‘venous man’ originated from the physician’s own observational sketches.[3] Vesalius also ensured the highest quality materials and utmost care were used in the production of the Fabrica. He secured the best draughtsmen from Titian’s studio, the finest block cutters, and best printer, Johannes Oporinus of Basel.[4] The illustrations were of such importance to Vesalius that he delayed the printing of his work until all the wood blocks were completed and could be shipped together to Basel, where he remained for at least seven months to oversee the printing process and proofread the copies. [5] Why in Vesalius’s view was the book’s appearance so significant? His aesthetic imperative was inextricably linked to the scientific and philosophical content of the text, and to the audience for which it was intended. Vesalius sought to resurrect the Greeks’ direct observational approach to the study of anatomy, which had been superseded by reliance on textual authorities alone.[6] It is therefore fitting that the Fabrica’s illustrations are copied from nature, not from copies of nature found in books. Also, given Vesalius’s references to ‘the dignity and beauty of man’ – a sentiment Galen expressed in earlier Anatomies and tied quite specifically to the complexity and dexterity of the human hand and its abilities for making art – it is appropriate that the material aspects of Vesalius’s book and that the iconography in the author’s portrait reinforce the unique capabilities of the human hand, which set us apart from other animals.[7] Crude plates and printing could not make this point as clearly. Both in its philosophic underpinnings and its expert execution, the completed work is a testament to the successful collaboration among anatomists, artists, and printers, and the new use of artistic developments of the late quattrocento and cinquecento for scientific illustration.

An examination of the aesthetic characteristics of Vesalius’s Fabrica, as distinct from its impact on medical science, will show to what extent Vesalius’s masterpiece was a product of renaissance developments in art theory and practice and to what extent the Fabrica, in turn, influenced artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Martin Kemp has pointed out that, ‘the influence of the Fabrica upon the art world has yet to be charted,’ despite the evidence that demonstrates its value ‘as a source book for artists until the early nineteenth century’.[8] Since there is much speculation and debate surrounding the production of both the text and the illustrations of the Fabrica, it is a difficult question to answer.[9] Nonetheless, this exploration may offer insight into the intellectual exchange between artists and men of science in Renaissance Italy, the increased role of anatomical study in the artist’s education, and the formation of the idea of the doctus artifex.  There are several direct links between the Fabrica and practicing artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which relate to both the images and the text of the book. Also, there are many indirect and more generalised ways in which Vesalian influence affected artistic practices in the Renaissance and beyond.

While there were illustrated anatomy texts – in the form of manuscripts as early as the thirteenth century – it was not until Vesalius’s seminal work De humanis corporis fabrica published in 1543 that the most current artistic developments were fully utilized in medical literature.[10] Anatomical renderings in pre-Vesalian medical texts proved unsuccessful as didactic aids and were unremarkable for their artistic merit.  Two Venetian publications, Ketham’s Fasciculo di Medicina (1493) and Gabriele de Zerbi’s Liber Anathomiae Corporis Humani (1502) illustrate the failure of physicians to utilize imagery reflective of the naturalistic approach to the figure common among artists at that time.[11] Vesalius’s Fabrica marks the first published anatomy in which the new approach to science based on first-hand observation was coupled with this same observational approach in art. Also unlike previous anatomy books, text and illustration are interwoven in a meaningful and novel way in the Fabrica. The plates are labeled and explained in depth in marginal notes, as well as being referred to in the body of the text. In some of the subsequent pirated and authorized editions of the Fabrica, text and illustrations were produced separately. Omission of the images in some printings reflected the lingering traditional primacy of textual authority for the study of human anatomy.[12]

With the increased emphasis on direct observation in the sciences and the arts, the role of skilled draughtsmen to present this revolutionary view of the natural world became crucial. In the early sixteenth century, the Spaniard Gonzalo Fernàndez de Orviedo, while working on a natural history of the Indies, expressed regret that he did not have with him ‘Berruguete or some other excellent painter like him, or … Leonardo da Vinci or Andrea Mantegna, famous painters whom I knew in Italy’.[13] In defending his 1543 work on plant specimens De Historia Stripium, Leonard Fuchs wrote of the ability for images to ‘communicate information much more clearly than the words of even the most eloquent men’.[14] Regarding medical books, however, there was strong debate concerning the usefulness of graphic methods to teach anatomy. Vesalius’s contemporaries – most notably, Sylvius, Fernel, Guenther, Massa, Colombo, and Fallopia – did not use illustrations in their treatises, favouring the more traditional purely textual approach to the subject. Furthermore, several among them actively opposed anatomical drawings. Among the anatomists writing books in the sixteenth century, only Berengario da Carpi, Charles Estienne, and Eustachio included illustrations of the figure in their works.[15] Berengario acknowledged that in addition to the figurative woodcuts being useful for surgeons, they may also be used ‘to help artists in drawing the parts of the body,’ a note which accompanies the fifth figure in the series. Berengario also made a reference to ‘skilled painters’ who learned how to render the muscles correctly, but does not elaborate on their methods of instruction.[16] Vesalius made similar references to the use of his illustrations by artists, and as Michelangelo Muraro suggests, it is probably due to this segment of his intended audience that Vesalius gave so much importance to the illustrations for his work.[17] That a segment of his intended audience was artists may explain his desire to have aesthetically beautiful illustrations, but he was also capitalizing on the accuracy that the print medium made possible in hopes of educating practicing physicians. Print publishing allowed for a hitherto unknown level of consistency and accuracy that had obvious advantages for spreading scientific information and disseminating it to an audience that not only included specialists, but also ‘eruditi viri’, a class that increasingly overlapped with artists in the Renaissance.[18]

Before examining the impact Vesalius’s work had on artistic theory and practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is necessary to consider the contributions artists made to the Fabrica itself. Although there is much debate regarding who the artist responsible for the plates in the Fabrica was, most scholars identify Jan Stephan van Calcar, a student in Titian’s workshop, as the draughtsman of at least several plates. Based on both documentary evidence and stylistic tendencies, Martin Kemp presents a compelling case for attribution of the ‘muscle-men’ to Calcar.[19] Calcar’s involvement as the draughtsman for anatomical illustrations for Vesalius was first mentioned in the second edition of Vasari’s great work Vite de piu eccelenti pittori (1568). In crediting Calcar with ‘the designs that the excellent Andreas Vesalius caused to be engraved and issued’, Vasari did not mention for which of Vesalius’s three published works these drawings were produced, which leaves sufficient doubt regarding attribution of the plates in the Fabrica. In his Venesection letter, Vesalius himself wrote of Calcar’s involvement in his plans for his great anatomical work: ‘if bodies become available and Joannes Stephanus [of Calcar], the distinguished contemporary artist, does not refuse his services, I shall certainly undertake the task [of publication]’.[20] It is unknown whether there was collaboration on the designs for the plates – perhaps with Titian himself – but given the practices of Titian’s studio, it is possible, as Michelangelo Muraro suggests, that the hands of several artists, including the master himself, worked on the drawings.[21] If the illustrations had been exclusively the work of Titian, it seems likely there would have been some reference identifying the artist in the Fabrica – as there is to Oporinus – since, as Martin Kemp points out, his involvement would have been a major selling point for the book. Another possibility is that evidence of another hand at work in these illustrations could be that of the artisan who transferred the drawings and carved the wood blocks for printing, since there is no evidence whether Jan Stephen performed this task himself and no other known wood blocks from him survive. The landscapes, which are the setting for the Vesalian muscle-men, are attributed to yet another artist. Muraro identifies him as Domenico Campagnola, and also attributes the male and female nude figures to Jacopo Sansovino, and posits Titian’s direct involvement in creating some of the illustrations.[22]

Fifth muscle-man, Vesalius, de Fabrica

Sixth muscle-man, Vesalius, de Fabrica

The draughtsmen who worked on the Fabrica were not the only ones who contributed to the book’s exquisite material form: the block-cutters and printer deserve credit for its successful outcome.  A certain technological advance in the creation of woodcuts allowed for the delicate and precise linework in the plates. The pear wood blocks were boiled in linseed oil to allow block cutters to achieve similar results to those which wood engraving yields.[23] Generally with woodcuts, because they are not carved into the end grain of the wood block, they are incapable of representing highly detailed images like those in the Fabrica. The technique of using linseed oil on the blocks made them harder and able to accept much more refined linework.

While there were many excellent printers in Venice, Vesalius chose to have his work produced in Basel by Johannes Oporinus. This decision required the woodblocks, which had been carved in Venice to be transported across the Alps. Basel rivaled Venice at this time for its mastery of the printing medium, and Oporinus had many personal qualities that made him an ideal printer by Veslaius’s estimation. He was the son of a printer and grew up in an artistic climate, and his skill and artistry in the craft of printing was matched by his scholarly and humanist pursuits.[24] He had been known to take on controversial or even heretical projects and the unorthodox views expressed in the Fabrica likely appealed to him.[25] As a young scholar, he accompanied the anatomist Paracelsus for several years in order to gain medical knowledge.[26] This experience, which he documented in his letters, made him uniquely suited to print the Fabrica with every consideration, whether aesthetic, technical, or scientific.

In addition to those artists and artisans like Jan Stephan van Calcar and Johannes Oporinus, who had a direct hand in creating the Fabrica, there are many indirect artistic influences evident in the work. The dissection scene on the title page borrows from a Donatello drawing. The schema of the cadaver flanked by pressing crowds that Donatello created also influenced two other medical texts, both of which were published in Venice, the 1493 Venetian publication by Ketham Fasciculo di medicina and the mid-cinquecento text by Colombo De re anatomica.[27] The layout and structure are taken from Serlio’s architectural treatise of 1537. And as the architect responsible for the construction of such wooden theatres as the one depicted on the Fabrica’s title page, Serlio has another connection to the anatomy book.[28] Serlio and Vesalius were in close proximity to one another, both living in Venice in the 1530’s while working on their respective didactic books. Serlio trained in a painter’s workshop and associated with Titian’s circle of painters and humanists. It is likely Vesalius knew Serlio’s book and took ideas about the illustrations for his work from it.[29]  Another artwork that seems to have influenced one of the Vesalian plates is the Belvedere Torso. William Ivins remarks on similarities between the Belvedere Torso and Vesalius’s illustration of the abdomen, but adds that he is uncertain whether Vesalius had an interest in Antique art and whether the Belvedere Torso had been copied and circulated at the time the Fabrica was being produced.[30] Several drawings of the statue had indeed been made in 1500, and it was popular among artists who were eager to translate and reproduce works from Classical Rome.[31]  Also, as to Vesalius’s interest in Antique art, it is noteworthy that both Galen and Vesalius refer to Polyclitus, the ancient sculptor famous for his art treatise on beauty and symmetry, in their texts. This reference is at once an acknowledgement of classical artists’ contribution to the understanding of the human body and a demonstration of both authors’ philosophical approach to anatomical study that concerns the beauty and dignity of man.[32]

Vesalius’s illustrations borrowed from his contemporaries and the Ancients, but for the most part, their iconography differed from imagery in earlier medical texts. At the time the Fabrica was published the only anatomical drawings that exhibited comparable artistic merit to those in Vesalius’s book were Leonardo’s, but since they were unpublished and the two men were separated by time and geography, Charles Singer suggests it is unlikely these drawings had any bearing on Vesalius’s work.[33] However, it is possible that someone in Titian’s workshop or in Vesalius’s circle may have been familiar with these detailed anatomical studies by Leonardo. Despite being left unpublished at the time of his death, Leonardo left thousands of detailed drawings and notes to his pupil and heir Melzio, who made them available for study to a select group of men while he was attempting to compile them for publication, as his master had planned but never realised. The widespread knowledge of Leonardo’s anatomical work helped make dissections among artists an acceptable, and even laudable, practice. Vasari described Leonardo as ‘heretical’ for his dissections and use of cadavers, but by the time Vesalius and Calcar were working on the Fabrica, this method was firmly established.[34]  Furthermore, the artistic climate of the quattrocento and cinquecento gave rise to anatomical inquiry by and for artists for use in depicting the human figure in their works. Without these artistic forerunners, Veslaius would not have found suitable draughtsmen to execute his vision for his great work.

Artists were practicing dissection as early as the late fifteenth century. According to Vasari, Pallaiolo was dissecting bodies before Leonardo became engaged in the practice. In the literature of science and art, Vesalius was not the first author to regard dissection as the superior method for studying human anatomy. Paracelsus wrote of the ‘Book of the Body’, which can only be studied properly through comparison of its parts to nature.[35] Also, Berengario da Carpi, Alessandro Benedetti, Niccolò Massa, Johann Winther, and even Galen recommended direct observation as essential to anatomical study.[36] Artists too shared this belief in the supremacy of direct observation of nature for understanding form. As Condivi wrote of Michelangelo: ‘he, not from the labors of others, but from nature herself has wished to learn, setting her before himself as the true example’.[37] What began as a study for artistic purposes of depicting the figure accurately – particularly the figure in motion – developed into a mutually beneficial relationship between artists and physicians, in several cases. Leonardo famously worked with Marcantonio della Torre in Milan from 1506-1512, Michelangelo combined his efforts with Realdo Colombo, and Andrea del Sarto’s student Rosso Fiorentino, together with Perino del Vaga, was involved in the illustrated textbook compiled by Estienne and Rivière, just as Jan Stephen van Calkar was working with Vesalius.[38] Such publishing projects proliferated after 1600, but it was not exclusively to serve medical illustration that artists took up this depth of anatomical study.[39]

Prior to the publication of the Fabrica, theoretical writings intended for artists encouraged the study of anatomy. Art treatises like those of Cennini and Alberti reinforced the significance of anatomical study in an artist’s training and typically allied the discipline with accomplished draughtsmanship. In his 1548 work Da Pintura Antigua, Francisco de Hollanda asserted that ‘the worthy draughtsman’ must know anatomy ‘as a surgeon’, knowing not only the ‘outside surface’ of his subjects, but also what is ‘hidden and inside’.[40] Lamazzo also listed anatomy among the liberal arts and mentioned Vesalius ‘in a garbled way’ in his Trattato dell’arte pittura, scoltura, et architecttura, published in Milan in 1584.[41] Pacheo and Carducho are two seventeenth century Spanish authors who cite Vesalius specifically as helpful to arists’ particular needs. In his Arte de la Pintura, Francisco Pacheo wrote that Andreas Vesalius’s anatomy book provided images of a ‘número de músculos conveniente a la pintura’, but he also mentioned Valverde and Humusco, the student of the esteemed Realdo Colombo.[42] In these source books, the study of anatomical texts in general, and Vesalius’s Fabrica, in particular, were recommended readings for painters and sculptors. Vesalius intended his work to be used for this purpose. As Berengario had done before him, Vesalius stated in the Fabrica that the illustrations of the superficial muscles were designed in part to aid artists.[43] Accompanying the first ‘muscle-man’ is the following text:

“It has been my intention to leave this illustration, as well as the following, free of lettering so that it might not appear spotted to the observer, since the third [illustration] is really the first I prepared for teaching purposes, for the present one – but not the following – displays what we do not observe skillful painters and sculptors to emphasize often in muscular, and as it were, ideal representations of men. Those membranous markings seen on the face and neck of the third illustration and also the arrangement of the fibres in the muscles perplex the artist, sculptor, and modeler, whose studies it seems desirable to aid.”[44]

He continues this statement of intent to aid artists by recommending that they acquire in addition to knowledge of the superficial muscles, an understanding of the bones, and full comprehension of ‘the function of each muscle so that they may know when to depict a muscle as shorter, longer, more prominent, or compressed’.[45]

Although theory does not always follow workshop practice, there is evidence that books such as Vesalius’s were used for artistic training. Leonardo referred to an edition of Mondino in his notes, which was possibly the illustrated Venetian edition by Ketham.[46] In circumstances when cadavers were not available, books served as surrogates for anatomical study. Vasari wrote to the physician Baccio Rontini in 1537, asking him to bring ‘that book of bones and anatomy that I gave you’ to Arrezzo because corpses for dissection were more difficult to access there than they had been in Florence.[47] Vasari’s work could have been a manuscript or his own notebook or any number of printed anatomy texts, but it is significant that books functioned as artistic aids. The claim that artists used anatomy books as part of their research is curiously substantiated and contradicted with the same piece of evidence: Galenic errors in their illustrations. In the case of Leonardo, such incorrect inclusion of animal anatomy is used to argue that he possessed textual as well as experiential understanding of human anatomy. With John Stephan Calcar, similar erroneous elements in some of the Fabrica’s woodcuts have been presented as evidence that Vesalius himself must necessarily have been the one chiefly responsible for the illustrations on the basis that the flaws betrayed a knowledge of the textual authorities in the discipline.[48]

With the establishment of art academies in Italy in the sixteenth century, the study of anatomy became officially acknowledged as a necessary part of an artist’s training.  Medical books, along with statues from antiquity and bronze ecorchés, were used in the art academies, to aid anatomical study.[49] Based on the number of student copies of Veslaian illustrations, it seems likely that art academies owned copies of the Fabrica or Epitome, but inventories of these libraries do not exist to confirm this assumption. Two good examples of these student renderings are a copy of the second muscle figure from the Fabrica attributed to Allori, which is in the Louvre, and a late sixteenth-century or early seventeenth –century drawing of various Vesalian plates dispersed across a large sheet of paper, which is in a collection of anatomical drawings in the Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati in Siena.[50] Also, images depicting anatomies carried out in the academies show the cadaver suspended with a rope and pulley in the method that Veslaius described in the Fabrica, which is further indication that Vesalius’s texts were familiar to academicians.[51] Although the Fabrica was published for the wide intellectual community, whether or not artists used this specific book for their erudition is unknown, with few exceptions. It is listed in the inventory of Velasquez’s books, but earlier than this mid-seventeenth century owner, there are only references to books on anatomy in artists’ libraries with no specific mention of either the Fabrica, or Vesalius.[52]

The good condition of extant copies of the Fabrica suggests it was considered a classic in its own time and was shelved rather than read.[53] As Andrea Carlino points out, Vesalius’s volume was too expensive to replace existing anatomy texts and subsequent sixteenth century anatomies were so closely modeled on Vesalius’s book that they became suitable substitutes, albeit largely plagiarized ones.[54] Far fewer copies of Vesalius’s Epitome, the abridged version of the Fabrica also published in 1543 by Oporinus, survive, suggesting greater wear and tear.[55] Possibly this work was more commonly used as a workshop copy.

It is unknown how many copies of the Fabrica were in circulation in the later sixteenth century. Based on wear to the woodblocks for its illustrations, it is estimated that between three thousand and four thousand prints were pulled from the blocks including one thousand five hundred for Leveling’s edition and the first and second editions of the Fabrica and Epitome combined.[56] More specific information regarding the number of copies printed in each edition is lacking. This number would not wholly represent the number of people with access to the book. Sharing books was common practice among artists and academicians. Also, as Vesalius himself writes, he is concerned about the number of pirated and plagiarized copies being produced. So, it is not possible to estimate the full extent of the book’s impact on the artistic and intellectual community for which it was written.

As artists began to participate in the intellectual sphere in humanist circles in the Renaissance, the Fabrica gained importance for painters and sculptors not only because they could use it in their studio practice, but also because they had scientific interests and aspirations.[57] Artists adapted the idea of the doctus poetica to their own profession, inventing the concept of the doctus artifex, or the ‘learned artist’. Books owned and used by artists for their work took on added significance given this humanist idea of what was involved in the artist’s education, which encompasses much more than the technical knowledge of medieval craft treatises.[58] There is evidence of artists belonging to literary academies in Italy although the academicians tended to favour men of letters, and artists had to prove their worth as wordsmiths rather than painters or sculptors.[59] Nevertheless, images remained the most powerful way for artists to contribute to the scientific and cultural dialogue. Concerning the Galenic backlash against Vesalian ideas, Titian, who knew Vesalius in Venice, produced a drawing caricaturising the famous classical statue, Laocoön, in which the anatomical perfection of the piece is transformed into apish figures in a visual critique of the Galenic view.[60]

The Fabrica’s influence on the arts transcended its use as a study aid and prized edition in artists’ libraries. The Fabrica supplied new iconography representing the humanist attitude toward the body. The title page of the Fabrica presents imagery that later sixteenth century anatomy texts adopted. The depiction of the physician-anatomist in the act of performing a dissection is significant, for Vesalius criticized the separation of theory and practice in the medical arts, claiming that discrediting manus opera led to the ruination of science. That the authoritative text is shown in the hands of the public rather than the physician’s is also a novel change in the depiction of dissection scenes.[61] In the title page of 1543 edition, two figures in the crowd of onlookers are represented with books in hand. Vesalius himself is shown performing a dissection, with medical instruments on the table beside the cadaver, and with his left hand pointing heavenward either indicating the skeleton above or in the quintessentially Platonic pose, while his right hand probes the cadaver in a demonstration of an Aristotelean approach to knowledge based in experiential understanding of phenomena. Perhaps through these hand gestures, which recall Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1510-11), Veslaius is depicted as the embodiment of a new synthesis of these schools of philosophy.

Beyond the iconography of the title page, the illustrations of the skeletons and muscle men represent a new way of rendering the flayed figure in a manner of  ‘living anatomy’, in which the animated corpses are posing and gesturing and set in an Italian landscape. Ways of depicting the figure in motion were prefigured in the works of Leonardo, whose Treatise on Painting contained numerous chapters on the subject of movement and anatomy.[62] Juan Valverde de Hamusco, a physician who studied at Rome under both Realdo Colombo and Bartolomeo Eustachio, published his anatomical treatise Historia de la composicion del cuorpo humano in Rome in 1556, followed Vesalius’s work so closely, it may be considered plagiarism. In a letter to his readers, Valverde gave the following excuse for this flagrant copying:  ‘Although some of my friends were of the opinion that I should make new figures, without using those of Vesalius, I chose not to do so, to avoid the confusion that might have followed from it since then one would not have known so easily in what I agreed or disagreed with him’. [63]

Imitation was but one way in which Vesalius’s Fabrica influenced other anatomy texts and the artists producing illustrations. The more reactionary spirit of competition also drove artists to produce work that aimed to surpass Vesalius’s book. Michelangelo’s planned collaboration with the anatomist Realdo Colombo was one example of this reaction to the Fabrica’s illustrations, which at the time were attributed to Titian himself. Since Titian was not known for his skill at disegno, Michelangelo wished to produce the definitive book of anatomical drawings himself.[64] Colombo had assisted Vesalius at Padua, and when he met Michelangelo in 1547, the Vesalian-Galenic debates were very much in the intellectual atmosphere. Aware of the drama, the planned collaboration between Colombo and Michelangelo was at once an effort by the anatomist to correct the errors in both Galen and Vesalius, and by the artist ‘to challenge Titian’s shop with his unparalleled pictorial mastery of the human figure.[65]

As early as the fifteenth century, artists, independent from physicians, were developing an interest in anatomy to perfect their ability to draw the human form.[66] Vesalius’s vision to utilize this achievment in disegno in the service of science resulted in his masterfully crafted book, which in turn contributed to the world of artists and art academies. Given the existing interest in anatomy by artists at the time of the Fabrica’s publication, it was reasonable for Vesalius to assume that painters and sculptors would value it for their work. An engraved portrait of Vesalius by Philip Galle, published in 1572, is accompanied by a verse that suggests artists’ indebtedness to the physician: ‘This man added art to physicians, [and] added art also to painters…’.[67] In the documentary evidence that survives, the Fabrica is listed among several anatomies that may be useful to artists. Existing drawings that were copied from Calcar’s illustrations are further evidence of the Fabrica’s use as a teaching aid in art academies. In addition to be imitated in medical books, the Fabrica’s images were also reproduced in books of artistic anatomy. Though inventories of artists’ libraries in the sixteenth century do not exist to determine who specifically owned copies of the Fabrica, based on the widespread interest in human anatomy, the use of books by and for artistic study, the proliferation of authorized and pirated copies of Vesalius’s work, visual quotation from Calcar’s skeletons and muscle figures in the pictorial arts, and the fluid exchange of ideas characteristic of humanist society, it is inconceivable that Vesalius’s masterpiece did not influence artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Luo Ping (1733-1799), ink drawing based on Vesalius’s skeletal plates


1 William M. Ivins, Jr., ‘What About theFabrica of Vesalius?, in Three Vesalian Essays to Accompany the Icones Anatomicae of 1934 (New York: MacMillan, 1952), pp. 43-99 (p. 59).

2 Martin Kemp, ‘A Drawing for the Fabrica; And Some Thoughts Upon the Vesalian Muscle-men’, Medical History (1970), 277-288 (p. 282).

3 C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), p. 127.

4 C. D. O’Malley, ‘Andreas Vesalius 1514-1564 In Memoriam’, Medical History, ed. by F. N. L. Poynter, 8 (1964), 299-308 (p. 303).

5 Walter Pagel and Pyarali Rattansi, ‘Vesalius and Paracelsus’, Medical History, ed. by F. N. L. Poynter, 8 (1964), 309-28 (p. 315).

6 Ludwig Edelstein, ‘Andreas Vesalius, the Humanist’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 14.5 (1943), 547-61 (p. 551).

7 Nancy G. Siraisi, Medicine and the Italian Universities 1250-1600 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 257-58.

8 Martin Kemp, p. 288.

9 C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 124.

10 Charles Singer, and C. Rabin, A Prelude to Modern Science: Being a Discussion of the History, Sources, and Circumstances of the ‘Tabulae Anatomicae Sex’ of Andreas Vesalius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1946), p. xxxi.

11 Andrew Cunningham, The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients (Adershot: Scolar Press, 1997), pp. 45, 60.

12 Nancy G. Siraisi, pp. 292-93

13 Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, eds., Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 7.

14 Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, p. 8.

15 Charles Singer and C. Rabin, pp. iv-v.

16Roger French, Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), pp. 100-01.

17 Michelangelo Muraro, ‘Tiziano E Le Anatomie Del Vesalio’, in Università Degli Studi Di Venezia Convegno Di Studi Tiziano E Venezia (Venice: Neri Pozza Editore, 1976), pp. 307-16 (p. 307).

18 William M. Ivins, p. 49.

19 Martin Kemp, pp. 285-87.

20 O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, pp. 124-25.

21 Michelangelo Muraro, pp. 308-9.

22 Michelangelo Muraro, p. 308.

23 Willy Wiegrand, ‘Marginal Notes by the Printer of the Icones’, in Three Vesalian Essays to Accompany the Icones Anatomicae of 1934 (New York: MacMillan, 1952), pp. 27-42 (p. 32).

24 C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 131.

25 C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 133.

26 Walter Pagel and Pyarali Rattansi, pp. 309-10.

27 Bernard Schultz, Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), p. 50.

28 Andrea Carlino Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning, trans. by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 46.

29 Pamela O. Long, ‘Visual Representation and the Investigation of Nature’, in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 74-78 (p. 74-76).

30 Wiliam M. Ivins, footnote on p. 90.

31 Francis Ames-Lewis The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 83-84.

32 Nancy Sirasi, p. 302.

33 Charles Singer, and C. Rabin, p. iii.

34 Kenneth D. Keele, ‘Leonardo’s Influence on Renaissance Anatomy’, Medical History, ed. by F. N. L. Poynter, 8 (1964), 360-70, p. 363.

35 Walter Pagel and Pyarali Rattansi, p. 316.

36 Andrea Carlino, p. 40.

37 David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 397.

38 Kenneth D. Keele, pp. 361, 369-70.

39 Monique Nicole Kornell, ‘Artists and the Study of Anatomy in Sixteenth Century Italy’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, Warburg Institute, 1993), p. 214.

40 Monique Nicole Kornell, p. 30.

41 Charles Hope, email communication, 13 April 2011.

42 Francisco Pacheo, Arte de la Pintura, ed. by Boneventura Bassegoda I Hugas (Madrid: Catedra Arte Grandes Temas, 1990), p. 384.

43 C. D. O’Malley, ‘Andreas Vesalius 1514-1564 In Memoriam’, Medical History, ed. by F. N. L. Poynter, 8 (1964), 299-308 (p. 303) and C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 160.

44 O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 160.

45 O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels 1514-1564, p. 161.

46 Monique Nicole Kornell, p. 91.

47 Monique Nicole Kornell, p.89.

48 William Ivins, p. 94.

49 Roger French, p. 101.

50 Monique Nicole Kornell, p. 92.

51 Monique Nicole Kornell, p. 82-85.

52 Jan Bialostocki, ‘Doctus Artifex and the Library of the Artist in XVIth and XVIIth Century’, in De Arte et Libris Festschrift Erasmus 1934-1984 (Amsterdam: Erasmus Antiquariaat en Boekhandel, 1984), pp. 11-22 (p. 4).

53 C. D. O’Malley, ‘Andreas Vesalius 1514-1564 In Memoriam’, p. 304.

54 Andrea Carlino, p. 53.

55 O’Malley, ‘Andreas Vesalius 1514-1564 In Memoriam’, p. 304.

56 Willy Wiegrand, p. 32.

57 Francis Ames-Lewis, p. 61.

58 Jan Bialostocki, p. 11.

59 François Quiviger, ‘The Presence of Artists in Literary Academies’, in Italian Academies of the Sixteenth Century, 1995, p. 107.

60 Andrea Carlino, p. 51.

61 Andrea Carlino, pp. 40, 46.

62 Kenneth D. Keele, p. 367.

63 Andrea Carlino, p. 53-54.

64 David Summers p. 398.

65 Bernard Schultz, p. 102.

66 Bernard Schultz, p. 51.

67 Monique Nicole Kornell, p. 91.

Blots, Spots, and Improvisation in the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries

After seeing the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern, I was speaking to the British sculptor and Royal Academician Michael Sandle about the spot paintings, which – with a few exceptions – are produced by Hirst’s assistants. Michael Sandle made a compelling point about what is problematic about these paintings. It is not that they were produced by assistants – after all, that has been common workshop practice through the centuries – rather they fail to reflect the master reacting to the materials in the moment of creation. An assistant, following the boss’s orders, cannot take the liberty to react to the painting as it’s developing; the resulting work of art is a foregone conclusion. Part of the greatness of Michelangelo’s sculptures, for instance, is that they resulted from creative decisions he made in response to the materials as he chiseled away at the stone. Possibly, this is a useful way to distinguish artistic decisions from intellectual ones. To be clear, as much art results from the latter analytical approach as from the former intuitive one, but it is the intuitive approach I want to discuss in this post.

For centuries, the artistic process has included strategies for improvisation. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to associate intuitive markmaking, indeterminacy, and chance exclusively with modern and contemporary art, and earlier traditional pieces that exhibited such qualities were viewed as anomalies. In particular, this has been the case with an 18th-century treatise by the English artist Alexander Cozens entitled, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786), where he describes how to use ink blots to compose a landscape drawing. This piece of writing has been viewed as eccentric and out of step with its times, and has long been compared to surrealist developments and mid-twentieth-century abstraction. Charles Cramer, however, points out in his article ‘Alexander Cozen’s “New Method”: the blot and general nature – painter’, the fallacy of this anachronistic interpretation of Cozens’s treatise: ‘The displacement of Cozens from his classicizing culture is symptomatic of the tendency of modernism and modernist historiography to arrogate all formal innovation to itself and its privileged history, leaving academic classicism an improbably stale and spent art form for much of its life. My reconsideration of Cozens in this article will center on the importance of what I will call the “techniques of generalization” proper to classicism in the context of eighteenth-century empirical epistemology (the theory of knowledge)’. Cramer further explains how this method is wholly a product of eighteenth-century thinking and art practices borrowing from ideas found in the philosophy of John Locke and the literature of Laurence Sterne.

Since Cramer has generously posted substantial excerpts from his research about Cozens and his ‘blot method’, I am keeping my comments brief and encourage you to refer to his well-written article.

About a half- century later, Francisco Goya devised an idiosyncratic technique for painting miniatures on ivory, which bears some similarities to the ‘blot’ method. Antonio de Brugada, a painter friend who witnessed Goya at work on these compositions described his process: ‘He blackened the ivory plaque and let fall on it a drop of water which removed part of the black ground as it spread out, tracing random light areas. Goya took advantage of these traces and always turned them into something original and unexpected’. Several years ago the Frick Collection exhibited ten of these ivories and more information about them is found on their website.

To varying degrees, artists in all time periods use intuition and improvisation. As Cramer rightly reminds us, it is necessary to look at the historical and cultural contexts of works in order to understand the motivation for such an approach. Otherwise, we fall into the fallacy of lumping art works together based on a superficial reading of styles. As early modern artists like Marcel Duchamp began working with principles of chance and accident, the intellectual and cultural climate was vastly different from that of his eighteenth and nineteenth-century forebears. Each artist’s process must be gauged according to the specific time and contemporary culture in which it was devised and practiced.

Thank you Carolingian Copyists for Preserving Vitruvius

Manuscript Copies of the Text

Despite the commonly held belief that Vitruvius was a Renaissance rediscovery, his text was significant throughout the Middle Ages. Vitruvius’s architectural treatise exists in fragments of agrimensorial texts from the sixth century, but the oldest surviving complete copy of Vitruvius’s de Architectura is British Library MS Harley 2767 written around the year 800. Ten other Vitruvian manuscripts were based on this Carolingian copy.

We know Vitruvius was known to medieval scholars like Alcuin of York and Einhard, and his student Vussin, Hermann the Paralytic, Hugo of St. Victor, Gervaise of Melkley, Vincent of Beauvais, William of Malmesbury, Petrus Diaconus, Albertus Magnus, Jean de Montreuil, and others. Also, medieval scholars such as Theodorich of St. Trond and Hildegard von Bingen were influenced by his system of proportions based on the human figure. Writers like St. Hildegard  ‘used Vitruvius to reinforce the idea that Christ crucified relates to the cruciform church plan’. When Goderamus was named abbot at Hildesheim, he possessed a copy of Vitruvius’s De architectura, which paleographic evidence suggests had been copied in Cologne in the ninth century. This Carolingian copy of Vitruvius is signed by Goderamus, the first abbot of St. Michael’s. Either the entirety of his ten books on architecture or excerpts were available in the libraries at Reichenau, Murbach, Gorze, in the South, Tyrol, Bamberg, Regensberg, Fulda, St. Gall, and Melk. Copies of his text were available at Toul and in the Low Countries in the eleventh century.  And in the twelfth century, the text was known at Rouen, Cluny, and Montecassino. By the mid-fifteenth century it was widely known in Italy, all English centres of learning, Spain, and Poland. Curiously, during the medieval period, Vitruvius appears to have been more widely known and copied outside Italy. There is no evidence of Vitruvius’s influence as an author in Italy until the Renaissance when Petrarch and Boccaccio reference him. In Italy they are building on top of Roman architectural foundations, so perhaps there was less need for textual authority and certainly there was less need to revive still extant classical architecture.

Indirect knowledge of Vitruvius’s work is more difficult to quantify. Some scholars suggest a mixed tradition based on a combination of textual sources that include Vitruvius. Presumably, the eighth-century author of the Mappae Clavicula knew Vitruvius’s De architectura. Fairly early in the transmission of Vitruvius’s text, it was fused with technical manuals such as the Mappae Clavicula. This collection of recipes for preparing pigments has some information in common with the Ten Books on Architecture. It is noteworthy that in the library catalogue at Reichenau of 821-2, the Vitruvius is listed immediately before volume one of the Mappae Clavicula. It is unknown whether either of these manuscripts was illustrated since they no longer exist. In the case of the Sélestat manuscript, the Mappae Clavicula, and M. Cetius Faventinus’s De artis architectonicae liber precede the entire text of Vitruvius. Combining his text with other technical manuals may suggest his work was of interest to men of praxis as well as men of letters. However, the surviving copies do not show the signs of workshop use one would expect. Another source of secondhand knowledge of Vitruvius was Pliny’s Natural History. Isidore of Seville and Palladius used both Pliny’s work and the abbreviated version of Vitruvius made by M. Cetius Faventinus.

Vitruvian Influence in the Medieval Period

When determining the impact Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture had in the medieval period, one must look beyond the practical uses of the text as a building manual. Although Vitruvius’s recipes and advice about materials were likely useful to builders and his ideas about proportion were employed in numerous medieval structures, his text influenced scholars from outside the architectural profession. Medieval readers were interested in the text as a theoretical and aesthetic document and inherited much from Vitruvius regarding the language of architectural discourse, as well as ideas about geometry and numerical significance. In addition to supplying medieval readers with the terminology to describe architectural elements, De architectura was hugely influential on depictions of architecture and on writings about aesthetics. When Vitruvius’s ideas were applied to actual building practice, medieval architects often misinterpreted his version of Greek architecture, or they willfully altered it to their contemporary needs. Another possible reason why medieval architecture that borrows from Vitruvius’s ideas may not look like Ancient Greek or Roman structures is that theirs is a purely textual knowledge rather than a practical application. There may be reason, however, to assume ecclesiastical architecture did incorporate Vitruvian ideas that were based in real domestic architecture because the quattrocento scholar Biondo asserted that ‘early monasteries were built on the ruins of ancient Roman houses’.

Judging from the manuscript tradition of Vitruvius’s text, which is similar to that of Pliny’s Natural History, medieval readers were less interested in artistic activity in Antiquity than they were in the descriptions of artistic materials. Pigments and descriptions of natural phenomena were excerpted and left their impact on other kinds of literature, such as bestiaries, lapidaries, and herbals. There are several existing manuscripts in which individual recipes were copied as literature independent from the entire text. The Lucca manuscript, translated into Latin around AD 750-800, is one such early craft treatise. It has recipes in common with Vitruvius, as well as Pliny, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides. Two examples from Leiden, MS 1310 and MS 1302, also illustrate this occurrence of piecemeal copying of Vitruvius’s treatise. In MS 1310, several isolated recipes follow the text of Vitruvius and appear to be in the same scribal hand. It is reasonable to include this information as an appendix to Vitruvius, but in MS 1302 the recipes appear at the end of a late-9th early-10th century collection of classical texts, which are non-technical and literary in nature. Again, this additional information is written in a hand and format indistinguishable from the literary part of the text. Presumably one of the texts was used as an exemplar, and earlier recipes were preserved in subsequent copies because the recipes that were originally added at the end of a codex began to be perceived as integral.

When using craft treatises to reconstruct artists’ methods, one must keep in mind that discrepancies between the texts being copied in a particular time and place and the workshop practices of that time and place arose for many reasons.  One which the 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti complains of was the imperfect transmission of texts. Another reason is simply that texts and practices were transmitted in an independent and unrelated way.

In the rare extant manuscripts of Vitruvius that include illustrations, these drawings demonstrate a combination of influences. The appearance of architecture in the renderings borrows from the aesthetic of the medieval minor arts as well as some descriptions in Vitruvius’s text.  As Anat Tcherikover notes, the draftsman of the Sélestat manuscript exhibits an interest in diagramming Vitruvius’s words rather than depicting real architecture. The images of Doric and Ionic columns do not appear to be informed by observation of the Antique architectural originals and are instead related to an erroneous understanding of the text. Also, several scholars note the similarities between the Sélestat diagrams and such works as the Arnulf ciborium, or a Carolingian ivory in Munich depicting the Holy Sepulchre. Given the Carolingian taste for miniaturized architecture, it makes sense that the impact of Vitruvius would be felt in the medieval minor arts.

The manuscript tradition of Vitruvius’s De architectura in the Carolingian period and later centuries, suggests his influence was pervasive across many aspects of the medieval culture. Like so many texts from Antiquity that survive only in later copies, Vitruvius’s work makes it possible to assess the transmission and preservation of texts for both antiquarian and practical interests. That his treatise survived for posterity when Varro’s and the other authors he mentions fell into obscurity indicates medieval copyists perceived his work either as useful for its novel information or as confirmation of their own aesthetic principles. In its fragmentary and excerpted forms, the extant copies are evidence the work gained appeal as a practical and functional craft guide. The individual recipes and methods in abridged versions of Vitruvius found their way into other craft treatises like the Mappae Clavicula. In the cases of complete copies of the Ten Books on Architecture, these manuscripts suggest that among the Carolingians there was an interest in the preservation of classical texts in general, and for more speculative reasons, an interest in Vitruvius in particular. L.W. Jones notes that at the scriptorium at Cologne, where he surmises the Harley 2767 manuscript was created, the gatherings in this copy were arranged flesh side out, like in ancient books, and opposite of that used in most ninth-century manuscripts. This arrangement signifies, ‘It [the manuscript] is to be considered a conscious revival’. Classical texts qua texts are appreciated during the Carolingian renaissance, which is undoubtedly one reason for Vitruvius’s survival. Even the more specific contributions Vitruvius made to medieval culture are largely textual in nature. As already mentioned, his practical guidelines and information on pigments are incorporated into many other craft treatises, and his architectural terminology is adopted in other works of aesthetic discourse. Even when his ideas were applied to actual building practices, it was his words, which were interpreted and transformed into visual guidelines for architectural plans, diagrams, and projects.

As a polemical text in its own time, De architectura had a theoretical significance that differed from its practical purpose.  Although the Carolingian reception and transmission of Vitruvius served different cultural needs from its original status in the time of Augustus, the text maintained verbal significance separate and distinct from its practical use.

Works Cited in this Post

Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. by Peter Goodman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982)

Clarke, Georgia, ‘Vitruvian Paradigms’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 70 (2002), 319-346

Clarke, Mark, The Art of All Colours: Mediaeval Recipe Books for Painters and Illuminators (London: Archetype Publications, 2001)

Conant, Kenneth J., ‘The After-life of Vitruvius in the Middle Ages’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 27.1 (1968), 33-38

Eco, Umberto, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. by Hugh Bredin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)

Fernie, Eric, The Architecture of Norman England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Gneuss, Helmut, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: a List of Manuscripts or Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001)

Isager, Jacob, Pliny on Art and Society: The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, (London: Routledge, 1991)

Jones, Leslie Webber, ‘The Provenance of the London Vitruvius’, Speculum, 7.1 (1932), 64-70

Krinsky, Carole Herselle, ‘Seventy-Eight Vitruvian Manuscripts’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 30 (1967), 36-70

McClendon, Charles B., The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005)

Ogilvy, J. D. A., Books Known to Anglo-Latin Writers from Aldhelm to Alcuin (670- 804), (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Society of America, 1936)

Pellecchia, Linda, ‘Architects Read Vitruvius: Renaissance Interpretations of the Atrium of the Ancient House’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 51.4 (1992), 377-416

Pollitt, J. J., The Art of Rome c. 753 BC-337 AD: Sources and Documents, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966)

Reynolds, L. D., ed., Text and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Riché, Pierre, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)

Sellers, Eujénie, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, trans. by K. Jex-Blake (Chicago: Argonaut, Inc., Publishers, 1968)

Tcherikover, Anat, ‘A Carolingian Lesson in Vitruvius’, in Medieval Architecture and Its Intellectual Context: Studies in Honour of Peter Kidson, ed. by Eric Fernie and Paul Crossley (London: Hambledon Press, 1990), pp. 259-267

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans. by Ingrid D. Rowland, comm. and illus. by Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

 

 

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