Boccaccio’s Realism

Mimesis on Trial: Legal and Literary Verisimilitude in Boccaccio’s Decameron

by Justin Steinberg

The essay begins:

Boccaccio is generally the least appreciated of the “Three Crowns” of the Italian literary canon (after Petrarch and Dante), yet his focus on the realistic, even gritty details of everyday life, everyday characters, and everyday language has no real precedent, at least not one of the scope of the Decameron. Studies of the novel typically identify Boccaccio’s masterpiece as an influential precursor in the development of modern literary realism, and Erich Auerbach devotes a critical chapter to the Decameron in his monumental history of Western mimesis. Although recent scholarship has called into question Boccaccio’s supposed modernity, underlining the allegorical aspects of the Decameron and its continued debt to medieval textual practices, it is difficult to deny that, at the very least, Boccaccio expands the frame of what can be legitimately represented in literature.

At the same time, something is inevitably lost when we view the Decameron from the end point of the modern novel. Our retrospective glance privileges a very specific conception of realism, a conception defined by its rejection of rhetorical notions of appropriateness and fittingness. (This unruly literary style befits a genre “in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”) Auerbach, for example, maintains that only once literature has freed itself from the rigid confines of classical decorum is it possible for authors to depict the world in its complex, particularistic entirety. Yet this version of realism does not admit the extent to which Boccaccio’s mimetic art remains preoccupied by rhetorical verisimilitude. While it’s true that Boccaccio incessantly interrogates the status of verisimilitude throughout the Decameron—what it means for something to “fit” in a given scenario—he does so by delving into the precise components of the circumstantiae (the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a case, deployed by an orator to enhance the “true-seemingness” of his argument). Even when exploring its inner contradictions, that is, Boccaccio innovates through, rather than from, rhetoric. Studies that neglect the influence of rhetorical verisimilitude on Boccaccio’s realism, preferring to imagine a seamless evolution from the plausible to the particular, miss this essential tension at the heart of the Decameron between competing notions of the real.

Rather than treating the Decameron as a stepping-stone on the path toward modern realism, I will argue that Boccaccio’s realistic style is a historically specific response to a historically specific crisis of verisimilitude. This crisis was propelled by a critical institutional innovation: the rise and spread of the medieval inquisitorial procedure. In the inquisitorial trial, judges were frequently called upon to estimate the likelihood of circumstantial evidence; this migration of notions about the probable from the rhetorical to the judicial sphere, from persuasion to evidence, is Boccaccio’s primary focus and concern. Through the many trial scenes in the Decameron, he illustrates the dangers that arise when judges, witnesses, and prosecutors are “trapped by a picture”—when the theater of justice becomes a self-fulfilling mimesis of the already known and always seen. The singular, remarkable details that eventually come to the fore in these trials (and that characterize the plot lines of Boccaccio’s novelle) reveal the disconnect between norms of likelihood and the particulars of a case.

Not only do the trials in the Decameron probe the legal uses of verisimilitude as evidence, they also raise questions about verisimilitude as a literary device. What is the relationship between an aesthetic principle of “fittingness” and the normative knowledge of “what happens for the most part”? What is the role of innovation in an art of the probable? How can a plausible account of the facts encompass historical contingency and singularity? These simultaneously legal and literary questions are exactly what the Decameron is wired to navigate: the degree to which the verisimilar picture must be open to the singular case, the structure open to the event.

My argument, then, is not simply that Boccaccio was influenced by rhetorical verisimilitude but also that he employs the numerous “procedural” tales in the Decameron to reflect critically on the nature of, and the increasing real-world power of, realistic narrative. Continually questioning the very realism he employs as a poet, he puts mimesis on trial. Continue reading …

In this essay Justin Steinberg argues that the celebrated realism of Boccaccio’s Decameron responds to the new prominence of verisimilitude in legal contexts in his time.

Justin Steinberg is Professor of Italian literature at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of Dante Studies. He is the author of Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy (Notre Dame, 2007) and Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, 2015). He is currently writing a book on Boccaccio, representation, and the law.

 

Talk About Pleasing Everyone

Berkeley Book Chats
at the Townsend Center for the Humanities
presents Jeffrey Knapp talking about his book

Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood

12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Shakespeare’s plays were immensely popular in their own day yet history refuses to think of them as mass entertainment. In Pleasing Everyone, Professor of English Jeffrey Knapp highlights the uncanny resemblance between Renaissance drama and the incontrovertibly mass medium of Golden-Age Hollywood cinema. Through explorations of such famous plays as HamletThe Roaring Girl, and The Alchemist, and such celebrated films as Citizen KaneThe Jazz Singer, and City Lights, Knapp challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the relationship between art and mass audiences and encourages us to resist the prejudice that mass entertainment necessarily simplifies and cheapens.

After an introduction, Knapp will speak briefly about his book and then open the floor for discussion.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. The chapter “Throw That Junk!” in Pleasing Everyone was first published in Representations 122 (Spring 2013). An advance version of his new essay “Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” will be posted here in early October.

Artistic Relationships

Brushes, Burins, and Flesh: The Graphic Art of Karel van Mander’s Haarlem Academy

by Aaron Hyman

The essay begins:

With male bodies of deep brown-reds, and others of an eerie bluish cream, Cornelis van Haarlem’s enormous Fall of Lucifer pulses warm and cool at once, creating an energy more appropriate to a bacchanal than to a scene of damnation. The canvas’s surface is filled with naked men: a bare butt turns out to us in the foreground, knotty flesh is seen through gently parted thighs, scrotums punctuate splayed legs, and penises respond to the forces of gravity. Insects, traditional iconographic elements of northern European depictions of falls from grace, are here used to conceal genitals. Yet, ironically, the insects instead serve to fix our attention on male groins. The man standing at the left side of the canvas renders sexual innuendo explicit, as his outstretched hand leads the viewer’s eye toward two men in an overtly sexual position. Across the canvas, the strange foreshortening creates the illusion that the reclining nude in the foreground stares directly at the anus of the man who straddles his face. A penis and testicles appear to hang just inches from this reclining man’s nose.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

These are the figures of Karel van Mander’s so-called Haarlem Academy, a mysterious and posthumously applied term for an important group of artists who collaborated for a brief, but intense, period at the end of the sixteenth century. The figures in this painting instantiated a web of relationships between the members of this “academy”: the painter Cornelis van Haarlem, the engraver Hendrick Goltzius, the patron Jacob Rauwert, and the art theorist Karel van Mander. These men—a theorist and chronicler of art and his closest colleagues—quite literally defined the northern European canon as it was taking form at the end of the sixteenth century. In the year this painting was begun, 1588, the work and lives of these four men were profoundly interconnected, entwined with the sprawling, muscular, nude men of their art. It was the same year in which Cornelis painted a second, highly disturbing work—Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (The National Gallery, London)—one that is equally important to exploring the relationships of this group. In Karel van Mander’s renowned artistic treatise, Het Schilder-Boeck, these two canvases are signaled as the high point of Cornelis’s early career; Goltzius made reproductive prints after them; and Rauwert, to whom a print of the Cadmus piece was dedicated, owned both. These works acted as nodes through and around which relationships between these men were formed and conceptualized.

Probing these works and the collaborative working conditions that brought them into being, this essay explores how making art in the early modern period could create a representational space in which relationships could develop and be worked through. With its distinctive treatment of naked male bodies, The Fall of Lucifer points toward a homoerotic dimension of the Haarlem Academy and of this type of collaborative milieu of making in the period more generally. This essay does not pursue a claim—and, indeed, dispenses with the expectation—that the painting evidences (or even could evidence) homoerotic encounters that took place between these men in Haarlem, in the world. Such an interpretive tack has become standard in an early modern art history seeking to give voice to the makers and users of art from within a silenced space of the homoerotic—or homosexual, as is often claimed post hoc for the early modern. Art historians have often proceeded from the belief, explicit or not, that art has the potential to present homosexuality, the desires or sexual practices of makers that become represented in the work of art and that might be confirmed by dint of historical documentation to verify such a reading. The charge made during the social turn out of which much of this now-canonical literature on homoerotism in the early modern period emerged was to give the picture a weight equal to that of the written word in documenting personal (erotic) experience. But if the artwork might offer the art historian initial insight into social dynamics, it is nevertheless inscribed as the historical and methodological endpoint: practices existed, they were documented, and the work of art represents them. The stake in choosing how to treat the work of art is therefore nothing less than the relationship between representation and history. Continue reading …

This essay examines the erotic works produced collaboratively by members of Karel van Mander’s so-called “Haarlem Academy” to suggest that early modern art making created a space in which slippages could occur between homosocial relationships and homoerotic practices. Hierarchical power relations inherent to collaboration, and to early-modern precursors to formalized academies, facilitated these dynamics because they structurally replicated essential conditions of homoerotic relationships. In turn, the piece proposes ways in which formal readings of works coupled with the interrogation of collaborative artistic production can help explore how works of art do more than index homoerotic relationships and, instead, instantiate them.

AARON M. HYMAN is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (2015–17) and Mellon fellow in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School (University of Virginia). His research has also been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Belgian American Educational Foundation, and the Jacob K. Javits fellowship.

Renaissance Aesthetics and Medical Talismans

Life from Within: Physiology and Talismanic Efficacy in Marsilio Ficino’s De vita (1498)

by Tanja Klemm

The essay begins:

Marsilio Ficino’s De vita, published in 1489 in Florence, is exclusively dedicated to the physical well-being of the sensible living organism—or the corpus animatum, as it had been called since late medieval times. In the proem to the work, Ficino makes it clear that in De vita he writes not as a philosopher, theologian, or priest but as a doctor, a scholar of medicine—of medicina theorica and of medicina practica. And indeed, with its focus on the regimen of intellectuals, of litterati, all three books of the treatise are deeply rooted in contemporary medical knowledge. In this sense, in De vita everything revolves around human physiology, which in that period was understood as the doctrine of nature (physis) dedicated to the understanding of natural processes in living organisms and the constitution of life. In the third book, entitled De vita coelitus comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens) this physiology is amplified into a cosmological doctrine of life and living matter: throughout the text it is connected to astrology—to the macrocosm and to the living stars and planets. To modern eyes, Ficino in De vita coelitus comparanda leaves the realm of physiology and, contrary to his statement in the proem, enters philosophy—or better, natural philosophy. But in premodern times philosophy was part of the medical curriculum, and thus medicine and astrology were tightly linked.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

In the following pages, I would like to focus on the fact that within this cosmological physiology De vita coelitus comparanda develops a consistent phenomenology of imagines efficaces (efficient images). One could also call these imagines “medical talismans,” because, according to Ficino, they act on the spirit, body, and soul of a person—as does medicine, prescribed in the right way. Further, they can absorb powers from the heavens— as can medicine. Thus, in De vita coelitus comparanda, both imagines and medicine are embedded in an astrological framework—and this makes them both talismanic.

Ficino however does not use the term “talisman” in his treatise. Instead, he speaks throughout of imagines (sometimes effigies) or figurae. Imagines, per Ficino, refer to artifacts “made out of metals or stones by astrologers,” that is, to three-dimensional artifacts produced by specialists. He also goes on to specify their production, this time with assistance by “ancients” like Ptolemy, Haly Abbas, Platonist thinkers, and the Egyptians. In order to be useful (utilis), he explains, imagines can be formed according to the planetary constellation or the “celestial aspect” (vultus coelestis) whose healing power one wishes to attract. Figurae, on the other hand, do not designate three-dimensional artifacts in Ficino’s terminology. They refer instead to the figures and signs incised in imagines.

And De vita coelitus comparanda goes even further: it tells us how the forces of imagines—with or without figurae—are connected to both the human organism and the realm of the heavens. Within this framework, it provides a model of perception based on embodiment, immanent embeddedness, and participation rather than on visuality and observation. It focuses on how imagines or medical talismans worked and how the efficacy of these artifacts was conceived, perceived, and experienced. It explains the belief that talismanic powers had to be mingled with the forces—the spiritūs and virtutes—of the human organism in order to be felt or to lead to any kind of psychophysical metamorphosis, be it the cure of disharmonies of the corporeal humors or the refinement of the corporeal spiritus required to perform intellectual work or to enhance the proper generative (that is, procreative) forces. In short, De vita coelitus comparanda gives us an idea about how efficient images were perceived in the Renaissance. It is this consistent historical phenomenology of efficacy that makes Ficino’s text so original. Continue reading …

In his medical treatise De vita (1498), Marsilio Ficino describes the force of medical talismans and their efficacy on humans against the background of a cosmological physiology. This article focuses on the question of how—according to Ficino—the powers of medical talismans were experienced by humans, by the living, sensible body (corpus animatum). Discussion of this question also leads to theoretical considerations about the efficacy of artifacts in the Renaissance.

TANJA KLEMM is an art historian currently working as research assistant at the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Cologne. She is the author of Bildphysiologie. Körper und Wahrnehmung in Mittelalter und Renaissance (2013) and co-editor of Sind alle Denker traurig? Fallstudien zum melancholischen Grund des Schöpferischen in Asien und Europa (2015). Currently she is preparing, with Stephanie Dieckvoss, a monographic issue for Kunstforum International on the formation of artists in a global perspective.

From Death Mask to Portrait Bust

A Case of Corporate Identity: The Multiplied Face of Saint Antonino of Florence

by Urte Krass

The essay begins:

Strolling through an Italian diocesan museum or an exhibition on the art of the Italian Renaissance, a visitor will inevitably encounter many images of saints, alone or in groups, presenting themselves and their attributes to viewers inside and outside the picture within which they are framed. After a while, any reasonably observant viewer will notice that there is one face that stands out from the crowd of painted saints: that of Saint Bernardino of Siena, the Franciscan preacher and vicar general who died in 1444 and was canonized only six years later. One of the innumerable examples of this uniquely recognizable face is Antonio Colantonio’s Saint Francis Giving the Rule to His Disciples in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples (fig. 1). In the group of men on the left, the saints have been given individual faces by the careful artist. But Bernardino’s face seems markedly different; it seems to stem from our own world, whereas the individualization of the neighboring saints reminds us more of faces in the medieval sample books used in workshops. The beholder’s gaze is compelled by Bernardino’s authentic, emaciated, recognizable features, which are in stark contrast to the other saints’ obviously fictive faces.

KrassPrintFig1

Figure 1

Bernardino of Siena is the first saint whose face, that is, its recognizable physiognomy, is his most important attribute, and the first saint who, thus, can always be recognized even without other identifying characteristics. This is explained mainly by the fact that he was the first Christian saint whose death mask left its traces in further representations of him. Painters and sculptors would copy this mask when they wanted to represent the venerated mendicant friar. As a result, in fifteenth-century Italy, a new visual medium was invented for representing the saints: the veristic saint’s portrait bust, modeled after—or even directly from—the death mask. Continue reading …

This article focuses on the development of portrait busts of saints beginning in the early Renaissance. The category of the portrait bust, which emerged slightly before 1440, is characterized by its reference to—and at times even integration of—the death mask of the recently deceased saint. As such, these images must be seen in close relation to traditional head and bust reliquaries. The particular group of busts showing the features of the Florentine archbishop Antonino Pierozzi is here analyzed through hitherto obscure written sources, and the proliferation of Pierozzi’s bust is then related to that of other saints.

URTE KRASS works as Assistant Professor at the Institute for Art History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Her research focuses on saints’ images from icon to photography, on early artistic theory in the Italian novelle of the fourteenth century, and, more recently, on the political use of images in Portugal and its overseas empire in the early modern period.