Post-classical history



My topic is the mobility of artists, chiefly in early modern Italy. Simply put, I understand mobility as a cultural practice that comprises an artist’s displacement, either voluntary or unwilling, from a homeland; confrontation with and work within an alien environment; and finally, the reception of that mobility by both foreign counterparts and compatriots. Mobility provoked commentary, censure, praise, reflection, and ultimately debate by sixteenth-century writers on art and by artists themselves. At stake in these confrontations was that significant index of subjectivity, that personal quality which could secure fame or precipitate oblivion—an artist’s style. And these disputes have implications for our understanding of a historically contingent conception of artists, geography, and works of art, how they were imagined to coexist, how they functioned.


Now these claims are both broad and dense, and it is my task in the forthcoming pages to unpack them, to present arguments for and, more important, against my assessment of the vast and therefore elusive discursive process of mobility. But first, a few qualifications: it would be absurd to claim that artistic mobility, as we might call it, was somehow exclusive with respect to two coordinates: historically, to the early modern era; and geographically, to the loose conglomeration of city-states, duchies, principalities, and kingdoms constituting the Italian peninsula. We only need to think of well-worn labels such as “International Gothic,” the Wanderjahre of the craftsmen, or the drawings of the itinerant Villard de Honnecourt to see that mobility was an especially powerful feature of medieval visual culture. The many oltremontani artists originating north of the Alps—Albrecht Dürer, Frans Floris, and Maerten van Heemskerck, to name but a few—who traveled great distances to reach Italy could fairly be described as more mobile than their Venetian or Florentine counterparts. To entertain the political philosopher Carl Schmitt’s transhistorical and global perspective, humans may be land beings but they are also land crawlers, standing, going, and moving to and fro upon the stable earth.1

What endures, however, is the deeply rooted perception that early modern Italian society was one relentlessly on the move. “The true discoverer ... is not the man who first chances to stumble upon anything, but the man who finds what he has sought.” So declared the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt in his monumental The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Borrowing fellow historian Jules Michelet’s phrase “The Discovery of the World and Man,” Burckhardt would describe the longdistance achievements of those Italians who had discovered what they had sought. From Crusaders approaching the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, to Marco Polo at the throne of the Great Khan, to Christopher Columbus venturing into distant seas, Burckhardt identified mobility as a key cultural phenomenon of early modern Europe. Notwithstanding a vein in Western intellectual traditions that criticized physical travel as a distraction against the more worthy pursuit of Stoic and Christian interior reflection, mobility in the wake of Burckhardt’s words would emerge as a topic of rigorous academic pursuit in its own right. And the current preoccupation with “globalization” has galvanized ever greater concern with mobility’s historical origins. While some may decry that cross-cultural approaches endanger emphasis upon local history and the power of tradition, encounters with the foreign repeatedly confronted agents of cultural production within a given tradition, even if those elements of alterity have in the end been willfully suppressed or discarded.2

We need, of course, to revisit Burckhardt’s notion of the Renaissance as a triumphal parade of achievements realized by the Italians, “the first-born among the sons of modern Europe.” Also notable is that some early modern sources themselves, such as Polydore Vergil’s encyclopedic On Discovery (1499), pay little attention to travelers’ landfalls, favoring instead the invention of things that facilitated mobility, among them footwear, the navigational compass, horsemanship, and vessels. And yet, producers of a wealth of material taking advantage of the printing press would distribute the news of the New World throughout the European continent. From the late fifteenth-century woodcut pamphlets recounting Columbus’s arrival to the “Indies” to Theodore de Bry’s multivolume folios (1590-1634) with their sumptuous engravings of the Americas, early modern books and authors were keen to point out that mobility and mobile individuals were distinguishing events and figures of their time. In his Delle navigationi et viaggi (1550-59), a compilation of travel accounts both ancient and modern, the Venetian humanist and diplomat Giovanni Battista Ramusio commended Columbus “as a man who has made born to the world another world.”3


Such discoveries and their reception in the sixteenth century applied pressure on the concept of mobility, bringing it into prominence as an artful, puzzling, and controversial process. Of course mobility bore a rich semantic import since its inception in classical usage. Mobilitas referred primarily to the athletic qualities of speed, agility, and vivacity. Yet the word’s connotations could also diverge to take on opposing meanings. “What is more shameful,” Cicero demands in his Philippics, “than inconsistency, fickleness, and levity [inconstantia, levitate, mobilitate]?” All the same, the Roman architect Vitruvius in his treatise on building expects the architect to possess a quick and versatile mind (ingenio mobile), particularly in respect to the design of theaters. In medieval Christian sources, this tension persisted, as witnessed in the requirement of stabilitas loci, or physical restriction within the monastery’s walls as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict. By contrast, there existed the class of wandering monks and the virtuous homo viator, the Christian who understands life on earth as a laborious yet meritorious pilgrimage. As Augustine declares, heaven is the city of saints, “though here on earth ... Citizens ... wander as though on a pilgrimage through time looking for the Kingdom of Eternity.”4

To see within mobility a push and pull, a dialectic between the positions of praiseworthy or censorious movement is tempting for the purposes of easy comprehension. Yet in the Italian and broadly defined early modern sources under examination here, mobility is more properly characterized as an iridescent concept, a flickering semantic surface whose hue constantly changes according to the speaker’s disposition, sympathy, or prejudice. Mobility is a term that elicited commentary and gained a wide currency in a number of genres, not least of which was art literature. Fra Giordano’s claim that of all things only God remained immobile underscores the extent to which mobility was understood to pervade all of creation. This included even the heavens, as seen in the concept of theprimo mobile, or first movable sphere, which traveled from East to West within a day’s span. Mobility could also assume a more allegorical register to describe the disorder and fickleness of fortune, fame, and female behavior. “Woman is by nature changeable [cosa mobile],” the speaker in Petrarch’s Sonnet 151 laments. Even so, mobility favorably describes a sensibility that adapts itself and quickly reacts as seen in the expression fantasia mobilissima. In others words, mobility could be synonymous with creativity, even cunning. The fifteenth-century poet Feo Balcari in a sonnet addressed to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici implicitly compares his ingenious mente mobile to the Medici-sponsored baldacchino, grills, and ornament of the Florentine church Santissima Annunziata in an attempt to win patronage. The variability, portability, and creativity nested within the concept of mobility percolates in the representations of traveling artists in art literature. The sixteenth-century Tuscan artistic impresario and man of letters Giorgio Vasari, a central figure in the present study, calls mobility one of the “secrets of nature” and declares that “experience teaches us that very often the same man has not the same manner and does not produce work of equal excellence in every place, but makes it better or worse according to the nature of the place.” As Vasari intimates, an artist’s style, his manner of working, compels the viewer to establish differences, both temporally and regionally. Place is not just a designated point of a schematic map, but rather an entity loaded with agency, either a creative stimulus or stumbling block.5


However much Vasari’s comments might sound like a self-evident precept, mobility was far more than a phenomenon that elicited cut-and-dried description. Nor did the travel book remain in exclusive dialogue with the solitary reader, reading silently in his study. Rather, the book with mobility as its subject could also be a nerve center and hub of discussion among a community of participants. Consider one of the first Italian group portraits, Sebastiano del Piombo’s depiction of the Genoese Cardinal Bandinello Sauli along with several companions, including the historian Paolo Giovio to the extreme right with a pointed finger and, next to him, Giovanni Maria Cattaneo, the cardinal’s secretary (fig. I.1). Commentators have noted this work’s disjointed character—“a unity neither in design nor in sentiment.” Reinforcing the painting’s rambling and loose composition is the handbell resting upon the carpet, an objet d’art that alludes to a suite of rooms and those waiting in service at some remove. Yet what binds the cardinal and his companions to some degree is the open geographic manuscript, perhaps an isolario, or book about the world’s islands. The cardinal’s hands along with those of his companion immediately behind him are part of a circuit that includes Cattaneo’s fingers upon the book and Giovio’s oratorical pointed finger, an allusion to a gesture recurring in Leonardo’s work. As for the manuscript itself, Sebastiano momentarily diverts his attention away from the self-contained portraits half-cast in shadow, contrasting blocks of color, and the carpet’s rigid and repetitive motifs. The artist modulates his painterly register to convey the aesthetic particular to this travel treatise. Fluidly rendered are the cursive black script, red marginalia, rubrics, and the blotches of watercolor denoting the islands floating in the sea (fig. I.2). The impulse of Sebastiano’s facture is to represent the bookishness of the book and the longdistance knowledge contained therein. What is more, this receptacle of mobility that attracts a particular mode of brushwork emerges as a center of gravity, if there can be one, in this meandering group portrait, a protagonist in its own right in debate. As such, the book recounting tales of travel can give rise to discourse that occupies the middle ground between word and image, enriching the complex symbiotic rapport between these two incommensurable media.6


FIGURE I.1 Sebastiano del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers, 1516. Oil on panel (121.8 × 150.4 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Samuel H. Kress Collection.


FIGURE I.2 Detail from Sebastiano del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers, 1516. Oil on panel (121.8 × 150.4 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Samuel H. Kress Collection.


The voyagers whose long-distance exploits were recounted in such books as the isolario were hardly the only mobile individuals in the early modern era. Consider the words of the virtuoso painter Federico Zuccaro, as found in his Il passaggio per Italia (1608), one of the first autonomous travel accounts penned by an artist: “Having always been in continuous motion either here or there (as has my mind moved me to travels)... I have consumed two thirds, no, four fifths of my life in travel.” The early modern artist was a particularly itinerant figure in a society that included other such mobile persons as soldiers, merchants, pilgrims, diplomats, and missionaries who journeyed throughout the Italian peninsula, Europe, and beyond. True, this is a standard observation in the scholarly literature; scholars from Michelet to Burckhardt, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower to Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann have identified the artist as a significant practitioner of mobility. However, one aspect of artistic mobility continues to present a thorny art historical problem. From the case of Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome to van Gogh in Arles, it is a widespread convention to state that the event of mobility plays an instrumental role in modifying that most faithful companion and midwife of the connoisseur—an artist’s personal style. Granted, mobility can be only part of the story, because their styles often changed and evolved even when artists were stationary. Nonetheless, the concept that recurs to account for the causality thought to link mobility and stylistic change is one of the more notorious terms in the art historical lexicon—“influence.” This examination is an attempt to disentangle the origins of this term, seek out historically precise lexical alternatives, and, more important, map out the streams of discourse that associate that term with the representation of mobility in sixteenth-century art theory and practice.7

Through close readings of several key instances in sixteenth-century art literature, namely the publications of Giorgio Vasari, Lodovico Dolce, Giovanni Battista Armenini, and Federico Zuccaro, I advance the claim that stylistic change, as effected under the circumstance of mobility, encountered a particularly fraught and ambivalent reception via figurative language, often rooted in organic metaphors. Artists receiving prestigious commissions at distant princely courts were portrayed as “germinating” and planting the seeds of their style. At the same time, when artists entered into dialogue with foreign styles, artworks, artists, and environments, the tropes of contagion, illness, and amnesia come to the fore. As such, these descriptions function as a bridge that widens the domain of art theory beyond the usually cited disciplines of rhetoric and poetics to include other fields of inquiry such as astrology, geomancy, geography, medicine, natural history, and religious allegory. In particular, stylistic variety gained while abroad arises as a significant concept that takes stock and inflects in a positive way the phenomenon of mobility. This interpretation thus posits mobility as a locus of meaning, an epicenter of a network of cultural references rather than simply as the uncomplicated movement from point A to point B as is often posited in art historical works adamantly positivistic in their orientation.

The argument follows moments of high density when the problem of mobility elicited praise and censure, willful reticence, and vehemence on the part of its interlocutors. Part I (“Mobility in Vasari’s Lives”) begins with a historiographic study of mobility in art historical literature. The focus here is a critique of the misguided use of “influence” (an astrological term which in origin has more to do with fixity than mobility) to describe the rapport between displacement and stylistic change (Chapter 1). Having identified the current anachronistic deployment of “influence” as it pertains to mobility, the subsequent chapters investigate what figurative language Giorgio Vasari, the most significant writer on art in the sixteenth century, drew upon to represent artists’ travels. Themes include the corruption of style as effected through Barbarian, Byzantine, and Gothic arrivals (Chapter 2); artists in exile and the germination of style (Chapter 3); and the “reduction” or cleansing of style and the emergence of varietà/variare as a contemporary term that favorably bridges mobility and stylistic change (Chapter 4). Part II (“The Path and Limits of Varietà) traces varietà’s critical fortune and the waxing and waning of style in the representation of mobility in Vasari and his respondents. Topics explored are the variability of varietà as it relates to Vasari’s Lives of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Perino del Vaga (Chapter 5); Dolce’s anxiety toward the mobility of Titian, Lotto, Sebastiano del Piombo, and other artists coming to and from Venice (Chapter 6); the advent of the first-person narration of mobility and the confusion that varietà can pose to the traveling artist in Armenini’s treatise (Chapter 7); and finally, Zuccaro’s travel account in which style and varietà become eclipsed in favor of depicting travel as an exercise in pleasing the senses—vision, taste, and hearing—so as to align artistic mobility as an aristocratic and non-manual undertaking (Chapter 8). Mobility, as an “external” force acting upon a society, realigns the bonds among artist, patron, competitors, audience. It lays down a route by which art history can open itself to humanistic disciplines and even to esoteric concerns, those about health, astrology, even food. By implication, mobility repositions works of art from exclusively representing the end product of patronage and artistic labor to mediating ideas about the physical self in the world, standards of behavior between that self and others, and the function of art within a natural environment.


A few caveats and parameters: although writers on art often represent artists moving at will, they were not, of course, free agents. Permission had to be granted to travel, especially in the case of artists in the employ of a princely court. We might even go so far as to say that part of the honor of receiving commissions from abroad was the liberty granted to work elsewhere, beyond one’s ambient. In this respect, the social and economic forces conditioning mobility represent a major strand in the phenomenon of artists’ travels. Still a desideratum is a comprehensive study of this topic, along the lines of the economic lives of artists recently undertaken by Philip Sohm and Richard Spear. This book, however, does not narrate a social history of artists’ mobility, as valuable as such as investigation would be. Rather I have placed emphasis upon the perception of mobility in period thought with the hope that further scholarly work might converse with my claims from a variety of approaches, be they microhistorical or synthetic. The cluster of interests borne by social histories of art is in part based upon properties and categories founded upon the discourse of the period. When artists such as Titian, Signorelli, or Barocci received compensation for their work abroad, hard monetary payment was but part of a larger package of honors they received, with such recognition dependent on specific cultural expectations that emerge in both art literature and notarial documents alike. This study maps out this constellation of expectations, supported by analysis of period texts and images.8

This leads me to another qualification: a further aim of this study is to lay out systematically how mobility was conceived, represented, repressed, and controlled, in all of its complexity and confusion in a corpus of text and works of art. Such an approach raises the issue of the complex rapport between word and image: though this examination focuses heavily on texts, it is nevertheless an art historical enterprise, and as such, is rooted in a visual problem. As Chapter 1 will make plain, a significant topic in this book is Lorenzo Lotto as a traveling artist and the problem of regional “influence” upon his idiosyncratic style. Yet in confronting the secondary literature on Lotto, I soon realized that the issues of his unruly style and mobile career were not only nested within the works of art themselves. Also at stake was discerning how art historians employed language to make sense of Lotto’s paintings, using the terms consciously, or as is more often the case, inadvertently, to insert an artist and his oeuvre within a taxonomy consisting of seemingly airtight regional categories. True, some have cautioned that scholarship on art literature has, for all of its best intentions, widened the rift between theory and practice in early modern art history. Nonetheless, this study concurs with scholars such as Leonard Barkan, Michael Baxandall, Thomas Frangenberg, Alina Payne, Philip Sohm, and Robert Williams that art history involves writing about works of art, proceeding with the awareness that language can be both an instrument in the art historian’s conceptual toolbox and a trap. How works of art elicit discourse is itself a cultural product not divorced from images themselves, but rather constitutes part of their power.9


There cannot be, nor should there be, a single history of artistic mobility. A wish for one is only a testament to mobility’s capacity to elude taxonomy’s restrictive clamp. Early modern thinkers themselves often felt puzzled and threatened by artists’ mobility, and these anxieties undergird the more intriguing comments on the subject. Although this book does not propose a complete or geographically global vision of mobility, we may lay down some coordinates which the following chapters aim to reveal:

1. Portrayals of how and why artists travel is prescriptive, not descriptive. Aside from being documentary reportage, the depiction of mobility is an exercise in judgment.

2. The representation of artistic mobility reveals one’s domestic sympathies and regional prejudices.

3. Before an artist is allowed to become mobile, his point of origin must be determined, often indicated by his name. This is expressed through his place of birth, paternal or master’s lineage, or a toponymic designation (e.g., Giottus Fiorentinus). Strong origins diffuse style. Obscure origins predestine disorderly or diverse style (e.g., Perino del Vaga).

4. The foreign is that which exists outside the confines of an artist’s origin insofar as difference is perceived by the artist, his colleagues, or his publics. Nonetheless, a different neighborhood or different city-state can both be foreign. This is a matter of degree, not kind.

5. Mobility is a form of allegorical pilgrimage. Consequently, the mastery and development of style becomes figured as a pilgrim’s progress.

6. When traveling to an artistic center, such as Rome, the traveling artist often enters a community of artists in which differences in nationality and medium specialization can be momentarily elided. Nonetheless, there is often the attendant result of competition and/or collaboration.

7. The emotional and cultural import of artistic mobility occupies a wide spectrum: the joy of triumph and princely patronage, curiosity toward the antique, indifference toward the local vernacular and the retardataire, boredom, or pain and nostalgia in the face of exile and failure.

8. Historical flow is accelerated by the event of the traveling artist’s arrival. Conversely, lack of mobility deprives a locale of progression, historically and stylistically.

9. An artist’s style is defined via the encounter with place. Conversely, place is defined via the portrayal of the traveling artist’s confrontation with foreign artworks, local colleagues and audiences, local history, climate (aria), and food. This interaction posits a mode of selfhood beyond intellection and manual labor to include the senses. Repatriation often indicates the extent of stylistic difference or foreign impact.

10. The artist’s body and somatic reaction register the encounter with the foreign, with varietà conceptualizing the visual manifestation of this refining and rejection process.

11. The reception of the traveling artist, be it hostile or hospitable, demonstrates the artistic merit of that place and the sophistication of local audiences.

12. Mobility is a key barometer by which early modern thinkers measure an artist’s significance, fame, and legacy through his pupils. Immobile artists are only valued insofar as they demonstrate an unflinching allegiance toward a regional style.

In sum, we might say that mobility can be a forceful event that potentially disrupts the order, habits, and regulations of an artistic society. But by doing so, mobility casts a raking light, revealing the imaginary structure and parameters of that very order, forcing early modern thinkers and artists to articulate how a community of people, place, and things ought to coexist. This book maps out, however roughly, the workings of those minds who created that delicate mental landscape.

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