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The Aesthetics of Verisimilitude and Buon Gusto
The Arcadian Academy launched a program of literary reform, altering the dynamics between truth, taste, style, and representation in Italian poetry, drama, and opera. As the founding members used publication to circulate their ideals, the collective Arcadian definitions of verisimilitude and taste shifted, from embodying a reformulated, idealized pastoral ideology to creating a broader philosophy of buon gusto incorporating the tragic and other classical literary modes. The Arcadian cultural environment, and its artistic production, is therefore bound inextricably to a broader seventeenth-century history of taste. The Arcadians encountered preexisting notions of taste by various means, including the pervasive emphasis on bon goût in French culture and the intellectual products of Queen Christina of Sweden's Accademia Reale, but redefined these precedents to create an innovative aesthetic that would influence multiple fields of endeavor.
In the early seventeenth century, intellectual discourse on good taste originates primarily from French philosophy and culture. Bon goût appertained to persons and things. Possessing bon goût entailed discerning tastefulness in others, as in physical objects, gestures, or behavior, and displaying these traits oneself. Judgment — an intellectual ability and a personal characteristic — was therefore a prerequisite to acquiring taste. Believed to be the natural outcome of noble birth and education, judgment was commensurate with an outwardly honest demeanor. Taste, whether embodied by objects, artistic style, or personality, would reflect inherent purity and truth. Therefore, a nascent naturalism, verisimilitude, or at least plausibility, motivated the overriding aesthetic in art and literature.
Within the Roman environment, influences from French bon goût were more tacit than explicit, even if pervasive. Cultural transfer between France and Italy was pervasive in the seventeenth century. French artists were traveling to Rome to engage with classical monuments and Roman art; the Académie de France (French Academy) was founded in Rome in 1666 and began offering the competitive Prix de Rome in 1674 to prominent French painters, sculptors, and architects. Encounters with Roman antiquities fueled French neoclassicism and pastoralism in both art and drama; translations of French dramas circulated in Roman musical circles, through spectacles, oratorio, and other performances in private and religious institutions. Politically, however, tensions between French, Spanish, and Italian interests in the Roman Curia became critical by the end of the century.
While individual members of the Arcadian Academy would have encountered French influences in a variety of ways, for the academy, the closest site of contact was through their declared figurehead, Queen Christina of Sweden. Although Queen Christina was the first to examine Italian literary buon gusto through her own Accademia Reale in the 1670s (as discussed in the introduction), her interests extended the values she encountered through her deep knowledge of French philosophy and culture. Queen Christina emulated French aesthetic at her court in Sweden, before abdicating her throne and reestablishing herself in Italy. Christina maintained correspondence with Descartes beginning in 1646, inviting him to Sweden as her tutor on several occasions. Descartes accepted in 1649, traveling to Sweden in the fall of that year, but succumbed to pneumonia in February 1650, his illness and death likely hastened by the harsh winter in Stockholm. Christina also cultivated French forms of drama and spectacle, from the court ballet to the carousel, transforming her country from one on the cultural margins to a cosmopolitan outpost.
By consciously aligning their priorities with the academic, aesthetic principles of their figurehead, Queen Christina, the Arcadians also (perhaps somewhat unconsciously) continued the French tradition of practicing good taste. Many of the characteristics exemplified by bon goût remained in Arcadian buon gusto; at least initially, the Arcadian Academy could not escape French cultural influences. The Parrhasian Grove cultivated a bucolic idealism ostensibly fashioned after ancient Roman literature and Italian Renaissance pastorals, but perhaps more immediately inspired by the landscape paintings of two French artists working in Rome — Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin (see introduction). Furthermore, several Arcadian librettists emulated French classical drama, translating, modifying, and restructuring tragedies by Racine and Corneille. Since these French authors, in turn, imitated ancient Greek and Latin literature, the pathway to Arcadian verisimilitude is somewhat tortuous. The multiplicity of influences created both an inherent conflict between Arcadian pastoralism and Arcadian tragedy, and an intrinsic irony — the Arcadian aesthetic originated in response to French criticisms of Italian literature. Unable to elude French influence, the Arcadians decided not to name it as such. Instead, they assumed an outward posture of "Italianness," situating their reforms in Renaissance and ancient Italic and Greek traditions. It is indisputable that the French were the first to practice "good taste." But in the hands of the Arcadian Academy, several innovations arose, evident from the academy's earliest publications. If the Arcadian movement began as reactionary, defensive, and emulative, it soon evolved into a nationalist project influencing literary culture both beyond the Alps, and beyond the seventeenth century.
The innovative aspects of the Arcadian reform fall into several categories, whether cultural or philosophical. In France, taste depended on social class, politics, and power. Taste radiated from the monarch outward, so that the highest echelons of society, and the prestigious creators of intellectual and artistic culture, reflected the king's ideals. Although officially the various royal académies, established to represent the interests of the king, created and circulated good taste, unofficially taste also developed in the salon culture, where women of high status defined bon goût in literature and art, using the standards of personal judgment, decorum, and propriety. By contrast, the Arcadians distanced themselves both from hierarchical organization and from courtly interests; they expressed a collective identity, creating a group of equals who together discussed, defined, and disseminated an aesthetic ideology. As Crescimbeni writes in his earliest brief history of the academy, the group's pastoral pseudonyms functioned as "masks," not to hide individuality, but to wipe away class distinctions. Similarly, the Arcadians opened their prestigious membership to literary women. Although appropriate narrative representation of gender became one of the touchstones of Arcadian verisimilitude (see below, and chapters 4, 5, and 6), maleness was not a prerequisite to participation. By opening its ranks to women, artists, poets, and composers of notable accomplishment, the Arcadians cultivated an inclusiveness that was unusual for seventeenth-century Rome.
As with many ideological statements, the idealized tone did not always materialize into reality; official policies often negated the true equality of class and sex within the Arcadian Academy. Not surprisingly, cracks developed in the Arcadian façade of social equality as the years passed; by 1693, a separate, more elegant space in the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine was constructed for cardinals. These eminent members would no longer be compelled to use the ground, a rock, or a simple cushion as a seat, as the other "shepherds" had done previously, in the less assuming Parrhasian Grove meeting spaces. While equality of class weakened over time, equality of sex strengthened. For women, the acceptance requirements were more stringent than those set for men; beyond appropriate age, status, and education, women were obligated to be practitioners of poetry, that is, either published authors or well-known improvisers. Despite these restrictions, women actively participated in the academy, including as patrons; noble women could enter by acclamation, instead of demonstrating professional accomplishments. The numbers of women increased considerably through the eighteenth century; overall, women authored roughly 8 percent of Arcadian publications. The crowning of Maria Maddalena Morelli (pseudonym, Corilla Olimpica) as poet laureate at the Capitoline Hill in 1776 represented an important milestone for the academy, and highlighted women's capabilities in literature. While certainly individual members of the group — cardinals, aristocrats, queens, or princesses — had political motives, and convened private Arcadian gatherings for their own interests, as a whole project the academy narrowed the societal distance between the upper classes and the professional, artistic classes, creating a space for men and women to collaborate in intellectual pursuits.
The group's diversity nourished its inventiveness. The Arcadian environment fostered intellectual exchange across multiple subjects, cultivating a remarkable intersectionality. If we only study Arcadian aesthetic today from the lens of one discipline, we lose sight of how one aspect of the academy's productivity influenced another. The two most significant Arcadian writers in the late seventeenth century — Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni and Gianvincenzo Gravina — used concepts borrowed from science, art, and philosophy to define literary verisimilitude. Crescimbeni served as the group's first president (custode) and serious scholar. He was the first person to write a comprehensive history of Italian literature, and the first among the Arcadians to articulate a critical approach to literature through stylistic definitions. Gravina was an influential philosopher and law professor; his learned precision, and application of new arguments to classical texts, redefined the intellectual landscape.
By resuming Italian Renaissance humanism where it had ended, but inventing new critical methods, the Arcadian Academy departed from French bon goût. In the treatises by Crescimbeni and Gravina, we find dialectics pitting sight against sound, mythology against history, and truth against fiction. Both writers engage vision as a metaphor for truthfulness; where Crescimbeni seeks greater unity between sight and sound, Gravina uses imagination, dreams, and perspective to define the audience's perception of verisimilitude (see chapter 3). Each author engages in the rising ocularcentrism of the seventeenth century. By promoting arguments concerning the eye, and its capacity to believe what it sees, these authors align their literary criticism with visual and descriptive techniques used by artists and art historians of the same period (see chapters 4, 5, and 6). By privileging sight over sound, both writers participate in the rising scientific empiricism, relying on observation to gain knowledge. Crescimbeni and Gravina also anticipate the early eighteenth-century Arcadian opera critics, such as Pier Iacopo Martello (1665–1727), Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750), Scipione Maffei (1675–1755), and Benedetto Marcello (1686–1739), who complained about music's capacity to deliver narrative text. If verisimilitude is perceived by the eye and processed in the imagination, as asserted by Gravina (see chapter 3), and if verisimilitude is the result of good taste, as asserted by Crescimbeni, then the new Italian buon gusto encompasses much more than literary style — it represents both a perceptual process and an analytical method. By infusing Arcadian ideology with the emerging scientific empiricism, and creating critical approaches motivated by artists' rendering of light and perspective, the Arcadian Academy imbued literature, philosophy, and opera with new energy and purpose.
The founding members of the Arcadian Academy came from various walks of life, including religious, literary, political, and professional spheres. The most prominent among the founders were Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, Vincenzo Leonio (1650–1720), Silvio Stampiglia (1664–1725), and Gianvincenzo Gravina. These four figures represented the primary literary interests of the academy. While Crescimbeni and Gravina were the most prolific writers on the history, philosophy, and aesthetics of literature, Stampiglia was the most prolific writer of texts for music drama. Vincenzo Leonio was known for his Italian and Latin lyric poetry, and for revitalizing interest in the sixteenth-century Petrarchan poet Angelo di Costanzo (c. 1507–91); Leonio founded a discussion group on Di Costanzo's poetry before the Arcadian Academy existed, but his work in this area continued as an Arcadian project. Although there are points of disagreement between these four thinkers, it is clear that they also influenced each other, developing some common ground in the Parrhasian Grove. Perhaps debate at Arcadian meetings led to consensus in at least a few areas. For example, Leonio's interest in Di Costanzo resurfaces in Crescimbeni's historical discussion of poetic style in the L'istoria della volgar poesia (1698), and later informs Crescimbeni's Socratic dialogue on aesthetics and truthful representation in La bellezza della volgar poesia (1700). Similarly, Gravina's visual theory from the Discorso sopra l'Endimione (publ. 1692) resurfaces in Crescimbeni's demand that poetic sound and image should be balanced, in La bellezza.
Just as not every Arcadian was a poet, neither was every Arcadian a writer of any sort. Consequently, modern scholars are challenged to determine what, if any, cohesiveness existed in the literary aesthetic viewpoints expressed by individuals within the whole society. Most of the founders were not Roman, and collectively they represent a variety of educational backgrounds; other than their advocacy for lyrical poetry, the only other similarities between members reside in their elite intellectual and societal status, and personal drive for success. Many arrived in Rome from provincial areas, after exceeding the opportunities available at home. As the academy grew, anyone of importance joined — the group provided a mechanism for patronage, power, and networking, as much as it provided a space for literary discussion. This was certainly the case for the poets; soon, the most prominent music patrons joined the academy, causing commissions for cantata, oratorio, and opera librettos to filter primarily through this august gathering of letterati.
VERISIMILITUDE AND BUON GUSTO
For the Arcadians, diversity of thought afforded richness in material; for the modern scholar, however, the same Arcadian diversity provides a challenge. How can we define Arcadian aesthetic, when individual writers seemingly proposed contradictory literary priorities, or recommended diverging solutions to the acknowledged problems of seventeenth-century poetry? While the most prominent authors — Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni and Gianvincenzo Gravina — offer critical theories, a second tier of writers (such as Alessandro Guidi, a primary subject of this book) provides additional insight. While this second tier of authors did not theorize literature, their poetic style reveals Arcadian stylistic trends; furthermore, critiques of their compositions exist, written by their contemporaries and later literary scholars, up through the middle of the nineteenth century. To this second tier, we could add Guidi's Arcadian colleagues and sometime poetic rivals, Francesco de Lemene (1634–1704) and Benedetto Menzini (1646–1704). In our modern efforts to understand Arcadian aesthetics and poetry, much remains to be uncovered. Although modern scholars tend not to esteem highly the verses of Guidi, Lemene, Menzini, or other Arcadian poets, collectively these authors revolutionized Italian literature. Together, members of the Arcadian Academy collaborated to create an imagistic literary style and forge the opera seria genre, while contributing to Enlightenment epistemologies of vision and perception. In poetry, operatic drama, and literary criticism, the Arcadian Academy developed ocular tools — whether narrative or descriptive, conceptual or metaphorical — to endorse scientific process and philosophical empiricism. Arcadian writers thus advanced an ocularcentric intellectual culture; their efforts in this area were at least as important as their well-known literary reform.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dreaming with Open Eyes"
Copyright © 2019 Ayana O. Smith.
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