Seeing the Illustrious Past

Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

by Randall Meissen

Francisco Pacheco, portrait of Benito Arias Montano, c. 1580–1644. IB 15654, Biblioteca Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.

The essay begins:

Pacheco was the foremost art theorist of his generation, a longtime member of Seville’s famed humanistic academy, and both father-in-law and mentor to two of the most prominent artists of the Spanish baroque, Alonzo Cano (1601–67) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Pacheco’s unfinished manuscript book, Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos, de illustres y memorables varones (Book of description of true portraits of illustrious and memorable men), currently held at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, was a work in progress for most of his professional life, as he gradually compiled it from 1599 until his death in 1644. The manuscript consists of fifty-six portrait drawings by Pacheco and forty-four short biographical texts on authors, artists, ecclesiastics, and other men of accomplishment. Most of the biographies are straightforward, consisting of a description of the individual’s education, notable military or literary achievements, any written or artistic works, connection to Seville (however slight), and occasional brief anecdotes highlighting the individual’s moral character.

In his treatise Arte de la pintura (On the art of painting; Seville, 1649), Pacheco indicated that he had drawn more than 170 portraits in black and red pencil with the intention of selecting from them up to one hundred eminent individuals representing all fields of learning. The physical construction of the Libro de retratos, evident from several of the unfinished sections, demonstrates Pacheco’s process, as he described it, of drawing, retaining, and selecting the portraits over many years. Seven loose, single-sheet portrait-biographies that he chose not to incorporate into his manuscript book still survive at the library of the Palacio real in Madrid. Pacheco cut each portrait from its original sheet, pasted it onto a sheet of the manuscript, and then framed it with architectural ornamentation drawn in ink and washed in sepia tones. At the top of each finished frame, Pacheco added a biblical verse, and along the lower edge he placed the individual’s name in capitals.

A completed portrait and biography in Pacheco’s Libro consisted of a single sheet folded in half to form two folios. A succinct two- to three-page biographical description followed each finished portrait and often concluded with an epithet or poem. Most of the biographies recorded the death of the individual, and some portraits of individuals who survived Pacheco have blank pages where the biography would go, a detail that suggests Pacheco avoided writing a person’s definitive biography until the ink upon the pages of their life had dried.

Pacheco chose to adopt a genre of historical writing with a classical genealogy for the preservation of Seville’s recent historical memory. The De viris illustribus (“on illustrious men”) genre, which can be traced back to Plutarch and Cicero, experienced a renewed popularity during the Renaissance. Pacheco was familiar with the illustrated editions of famous men by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) and the subsequent work on the lives of artists by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74). Pacheco lamented that although in other nations, “particularly Italy,” art itself was honored by those who wrote the lives of illustrious artists, “only our nation lacks that praiseworthy endeavor,” and artists themselves were to blame. Apparently Pacheco took it upon himself to remedy this shortfall, and he was uniquely well suited for such an undertaking. Unlike Giovio or Vasari, who depended on artists and engravers to translate their projects into print, Pacheco had complete control over both the text and the images of his manuscript book.

The Libro de retratos is in fact a visual history. In its recovery and preservation of a visual record of an illustrious past, it confirms that such a practice existed in Pacheco’s era. It was a practice manifested in a transmedial application of methods adapted from humanistic textual scholarship and early modern antiquarianism as they were applied to artistic media for the preservation and communication of historical knowledge. To understand his Libro it must be recognized that Pacheco constructed his images by basing them on other credible visual sources (employing a method I call visual philology). One might mistake the portraits for illustrations of the text, but instead the texts “illustrate” or describe the portraits, as Pacheco made explicit by titling the collection of works Book of Description of True Portraits.

His Libro is thus a useful object for exploring questions of material culture relevant to visual studies scholars, historians of the book, and early modernists. Pacheco’s claim to produce true portraits was closely related to the distinctive ways antiquarians and ecclesiastics of his era used material evidence to stake truth claims about the ancient world and about the virtuousness of historical personages, respectively. Pacheco attempted to show certain qualities of historical personages—such as prestige, prosperity, illustriousness, and holiness—that were tightly bound to display, pageantry, costume, and liturgy in Seville. My essay, then, will demonstrate how three intertwined visual cultures produced by the antiquarian reimagining of Seville’s Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image theory, and the publishing conventions of Sevillian humanism shaped Pacheco’s expectations about how an illustrious past should look. Let’s consider first how Seville’s elites used reimagined classical imagery to celebrate the glory of their city and how Pacheco employed that visual vocabulary in his Libro. Continue reading …

Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), the foremost Spanish art theorist of his generation, worked on his manuscript Libro de verdaderos retratos (Book of true portraits) for more than forty years. In this essay Randall Meissen addresses how the visual cultures of Pacheco’s Seville, especially the city’s reimagined imperial Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image praxis, and visual conventions of Renaissance humanism, shaped Pacheco’s conception of how an illustrious past could be recovered and shown.

RANDALL MEISSEN is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Southern California and predoctoral fellow at the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. He has held short-term fellowships at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

New from Michael Lucey


University of Chicago Press 2019

Imagine trying to tell someone something about yourself and your desires for which there are no words. What if the mere attempt at expression was bound to misfire, to efface the truth of that ineluctable something?

In Someone, Michael Lucey considers characters from twentieth-century French literary texts whose sexual forms prove difficult to conceptualize or represent. The characters expressing these “misfit” sexualities gravitate towards same-sex encounters. Yet they differ in subtle but crucial ways from mainstream gay or lesbian identities—whether because of a discordance between gender identity and sexuality, practices specific to a certain place and time, or the fleetingness or non-exclusivity of desire. Investigating works by Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Jean Genet, and others, Lucey probes both the range of same-sex sexual forms in twentieth-century France and the innovative literary language authors have used to explore these evanescent forms.

As a portrait of fragile sexualities that involve awkward and delicate maneuvers and modes of articulation, Someone reveals just how messy the ways in which we experience and perceive sexuality remain, even to ourselves.

Michael Lucey is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. An earlier version of the chapter “Simone de Beauvoir and Sexuality in the Third Person” appeared in Representations 109. His new work in progress is Proust, Sociology, Talk, and Novels. Previous books include Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust and The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality.

New Special Issue, Representations 145


Number 145, Winter 2019 (available free for a limited time from UC Press)

Special Issue
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

“If, as this issue suggests, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.” —from the editors’ introduction

The volume, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz, defines the category of “visual history” and introduces its operations in essays dealing with the impact of visual narratives on and within their historical contexts. It proposes that visual histories can be seen not simply as guides to the times, but as  guides to time itself.

Visual History: The Past in Pictures

Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

The Medium Is the Messagerie

Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Upcoming in Representations 146: The Social Life of Pain: a special issue edited by Rachel Ablow, who provides an introduction, including essays by Darius Rejali on truth and torture, Nancy Scheper-Hughes on social representations of pain and the kidney trade, Mitchell Merback on pain and memory in the formation of early modern habitus, Shigehisa Kuriyama on the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of “good” pain, and an interview with Elaine Scarry. Coming in June.


Sexuality: A Sawyer Seminar at UC Berkeley

Linguistic Anthropology and Literary and Cultural Studies: A Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar: Session 5: Sexuality

Conference/Symposium | March 13 – 14, 2019 | 5-7 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley

 Rusty Barrett, University of Kentucky; Howard Fisher, UC Berkeley; Roshanak Kheshti, UC San Diego; Michael Lucey, UC Berkeley; Damon Young, UC Berkeley; Don Kulick, Uppsala University

If we take as a starting place that sexuality and gender are in part social facts, that while they often feel intensely personal and interior, they are nonetheless to a great extent collective phenomena, involving collective representations that are produced through human interaction, and that they are enacted by means of social forms – combinations of collective representations, sets of practices and inclinations that become institutions, differentially distributed across a social field, subject to modification both by external forces and by the cumulative effect of individual actions –, then we can see easily enough why they are variable across time and space in unpredictable ways, and why, when we deal with these social facts and forms in our interactions with others, we are necessarily involved in ongoing acts of negotiation, contestation, and translation – not only between languages, but also often between implicit arrays of cultural concepts that we use to make the world intelligible to ourselves.

Linguistic anthropological work demonstrates how socio-conceptual structures of various kinds are immanent in, implicit in, everyone’s speech; we could say that those structures are indexed by or invoked through what we say. If something of our social world is shared by our interlocutor, if our interlocutor can reconstruct something of the point of view from which we speak, our implicit invocation of various conceptual structures will be part of what makes us intelligible to them, despite whatever implicitness may be involved in our utterances. Speech about gender and sexuality can serve as a vehicle for conveying a large array of cultural concepts, for staking a point of view on the social world at large. This has practical implications for different kinds of translation, even translation understood in the very basic sense of translating a passage from a memoir or a passage from a novel in which sexuality is in question from French into English – when clearly what must be (but really cannot adequately be) translated is not exactly the words in question so much as the point of view on the social world that those words index. “Is there,” Michael Silverstein has asked, “a sociocultural unconscious in the mind—wherever that is located in respect of the biological organism—that is both immanent in and emergent from our use of language? Can we ever profoundly study the social significance of language without understanding this sociocultural unconscious that it seems to reveal? And if it is correct that language is the principal exemplar, medium, and site of the cultural, then can we ever understand the cultural without understanding this particular conceptual dimension of language?”

This is the fifth of seven two-day meetings of a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar taking place throughout 2018-2019 at UCB. The seminar aims to explore the potential of a set of concepts, tools, and critical practices developed in the field of linguistic anthropology for work being done in the fields of literary and cultural criticism.

 UC Berkeley Department of Comparative LiteratureAndrew W. Mellon Foundation