Theses Doctoral

Comedy, Science, and the Reform of Description in Lombard Painting of the Late Renaissance: Arcimboldo, Vincenzo Campi, and Bartolomeo Passerotti

Moynihan, Kim-Ly Thi

This dissertation investigates the appropriation of natural history and vernacular comedy into the descriptive secular paintings of three Lombard artists: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vincenzo Campi, and Bartolomeo Passerotti. Their paintings feature, on the one hand, highly veristic portraits of flora and fauna and, on the other, comic elements such as coarse subject matter, erotic puns, and parody--a combination that demands further consideration. Since "counterfeiting" nature or imitating it "exactly as it appears" was often evaluated as a dubious or ambivalent pictorial practice in the theoretical literature of the Renaissance (especially in the later Cinquecento), the incorporation of descriptive techniques, vocabularies, and values from critically legitimate sources--that is, from natural history, a burgeoning scientific discipline, and from vernacular comedy, an established literary genre--into a descriptive aesthetic was particularly advantageous for these three artists. Their shrewd use of science and comedy as providing the intellectual foundation for descriptive painting is interpreted, therefore, as part of an aesthetic "reform" of description and its critical reputation.

Considering that all three artists were from the historic Lombard region--known for its veristic approach to pictorial representation--their rehabilitation of descriptive painting is also considered in relation to cultural debates in sixteenth-century Italy, the most prevalent being the defense of regional dialects and traditions against the hegemony of the Tuscan language and Tuscan-Roman tradition. Here, vernacular comedy provides the clearest inspiration since comic writers like Ruzzante (Angelo Beolco) and Pietro Aretino were explicit in their dismissal of literary Tuscan as the standard language for poetic expression. The reform of descriptive painting in Lombardy, therefore, is considered as polemical in nature.

Chapter One establishes the foundation of the dissertation by examining the evaluation of description in Renaissance art theory from Alberti to Zuccaro. Chapter Two examines Arcimboldo's deep engagement with natural history during his employment for the Habsburg emperors. It considers how his "composite heads"--the result of a paradoxical combination of empirical "truth" and inventive artifice--manipulate techniques and values from natural history to meet the creative and inventive demands of art. The humor in Arcimboldo's composite heads is identified and considered in relation to the learned tradition of burlesque poetry. Chapter Three examines Vincenzo Campi's adoption of the descriptive language and themes from vernacular comedy, in particular the rustic farces of Ruzzante, into his secular paintings of peasants selling fruit, fish, and fowl.

The second part of the chapter investigates how Campi's veristic depictions of "still-life" conform to certain conventions of natural history illustration and display: clarity, variety, and order. In Chapter Four, Passerotti's problematic secular paintings are interpreted through the lens of comedy as parodying classical or idealizing literary and pictorial traditions. Following this, the artist's descriptive portrayal of aquatic and ornithological specimens in his peasant market paintings is considered in relation to natural history illustration and the prodigious activities of the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. Passerotti's incorporation of natural history is considered alongside his study of anatomy; both form the scientific or intellectual foundation of his art. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of Caravaggio, the Lombard "realist" from the succeeding generation. The empirical and comic elements discernible in his early secular paintings reveal how deeply Arcimboldo, Campi, and Passerotti--the Cinquecento "reformers" of description--may have influenced his radical cultivation of descriptive painting in the next century.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Rosand, David
Freedberg, David A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 4, 2014