IDEA IN THE THEORY OF ART: PHILOSOPHY OR RHETORIC?
Ernst H. J. Gombrich
IDEA IN THE THEORY OF ART: PHILOSOPHY OR RHETORIC?
411

According to the much-quoted remark of Whitehead the whole of West-

ern philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. If he was right, as I think he

was, the twenty-one relazioni of this colloquio have added at least 20 new and

important footnotes, and since these were commented upon in the discussion

there are more footnotes to these footnotes. I am sure you will appreciate

that if I now attempted in my turn to comment on these footnotes and their

progeny we would arrive at an infinite regress, or possibly at an infinite con-

gress. Admittedly this transition to eternity would not frighten us, the partici-

pants, for who would not enjoy to continue these discussions and to benefit

forever from the hospitality of our wonderful hosts? The question is only, how

long our hosts could sustain the burden of such an infinite congress and I must

limit myself therefore to a few remarks only in addition to those you have

seen printed in the “Messaggero” and displayed on the notice board of this

aula 1.

What struck me, as a student of art, in these contributions is the frequent

reference to the experience of seeing, of visual perception, in the many trans-

formations of the concept of idea. Not that this is surprising. We have learned

from Professor Saffrey’s introduction, that in ancient Greek the word idea

clearly signified «the outward appearance of things perceived by the sense of

sight». I believe that many of the subsequent contributions offered interesting

reminders of the fact that the very word “seeing”, or its equivalents, prefi-

gures the multiplicity of meanings which the term idea inherited, as it were.

I would never complain about this multiplicity. I side with those who

have reminded us of the value of plasticity in the use of words. If every term

of the language were only allowed one meaning that excluded any metaphori-

cal use, we could never acquire such a vocabulary let alone use it for commu-

nication. I hope that some of you will see this danger.

412

I believe in fact that it is only in the encounter with concrete problems

that the ambiguity of language can be noticed and resolved. As a student of art

interested in representation I remember that the artist could be asked to repre-

sent faithfully what he sees, let us say his hand, and that there are means of

checking whether he has achieved this aim. But when he is asked to repre-

sent to us how he sees his hand while, for instance, focussing elsewhere, the

task becomes more elusive. Critics from Roger de Piles and Hogarth to the

Impressionists have reminded us of this difficulty 2 which ultimately under-

mines the whole concept of mimesis.

We know that from the outset Plato devalued seeing and therefore mimesis

as mere belief,
doxa. But he held fast to the episteme mediated by geometry.

The famous inscription over the gate of the Academy — however apocryphal

it may be: μηδείς άζεωμέτρητος είσιτω. (Let no one enter who does not know

geometry) 3 provides the most useful paradigm of his theory of knowledge.

Nobody has ever seen or drawn a real triangle of which the three angles add

up to 180°, but we can all think of it and of the consequences of this fact. We

can think of it, because we have seen the real triangle before our soul entered

our body and it is this doctrine of anamnesis which explains our limited grasp of

ideas.

Professor Gregory has reminded us yesterday of the central role which

theology plays in the history of Western philosophy. The fact that the doc-

trine of anamnesis clashes with the central belief of Christianity in the divine

creation of every individual soul at the moment of conception seems to me to

be of much importance in the further modifications of Plato’s wholly self-con-

sistent system of thoughts. True, his firm belief in the immortality of the soul

recommended him to theologians, but pre-existence had somehow to be

glossed over or eliminated. There is no such pre-existence in Aristotle, but

then his view of the soul as the form of the body was not so easily reconciled

with immortality, as Pomponazzi was bold enough to show.

I think it is before the background of these momentous issues that we

must see the debate to which this colloquio has been devoted, and not least

also those concerned with the theory of art. Remember for instance the

solemn words which Vasari devoted to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment·. «E ques-

to nell’arte nostra è quello esempio e quella gran pittura mandata da Dio agli

413

uomini in terra, acciocché veggano come il fato fa, quando gli intelletti dal

supremo grado in terra discendono, ed hanno in essi infusa la grazia e la divi-

nità del sapere» 4. Vasari does not use the word idea here but the sentiment

derives of course from the Theologia Platonica. It may therefore serve me as a

transition to the topic of my relazione as I had originally planned it, I refer to

the famous book by Erwin Panofsky,
Idea. Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der

älteren Kunsttheorie,
originally published by the Warburg Institute in Hamburg in

1924, about 65 years ago 5.

In reluctantly yielding to the request of preparing a revised edition in

1960 the author somewhat distanced himself from his early work. He

explained very frankly how far he considered it out of date, but merely added

a bibliography of writings which had been published on the topic in the inter-

vening decades. I must leave them and many other points on one side

because I think that Panofsky’s Idea in its original form still deserves to be

called a classic. It represents a highly significant stage in the historiography of

ideas and may therefore be all the more useful to us in pointing to certain

problems of method which have, in my view, contributed to a change in our

point of view.

The book is very short, only 72 pages of text though almost as many

pages of notes and appendices in smaller print. Naturally I cannot offer an

adequate summary and I must hope all the more that this brief outline and

any critical remarks which will follow will not prevent you from reading the

original text which must give anyone pleasure who can appreciate intellectual

ingenuity combined with immense erudition.

The first chapter on the ancient world lends itself comparatively easily to

a précis. Taking Plato’s theory of ideas and his views on art more or less as

read, Panofsky opens the discussion with a brilliant analysis of the passage in

Cicero’s Orator where the perfect orator is described as an idea that cannot be

found in reality but only conceived by the mind. Cicero compares this image

with the creations of artists who must strive to transcend the beauty of real

things and even the beauty of previous works of art.

Though Cicero refers to Plato in this passage it is clear that he has trans-

formed his views. He has offered a synthesis between Plato’s doctrine and

that of Aristotle who had located eidos in the mind of the artist, identifying it,

for instance, with the architect’s plan for a house before that house is ever

built. In thus setting up the Platonic view as his thesis, the Aristotelian as his

antithesis and the Ciceronian passage as his synthesis, Panofsky arrives at a

414

cognitive map onto which he can enter other currents of thought. Seneca, in

talking of the painter interprets the idea almost exclusively as a psychological

notion, a mental image. Plotinus, of course, reverts to Platonic metaphysics

but concedes the possibility of the artist being granted a vision of the superna-

tural idea.

Having thus established these contrasting positions Panofsky proceeds to

describe their subsequent evolution and interaction, demonstrating how they

cross, intertwine, separate and join again almost like the dancers in an intri-

cate ballet.

Passing rather quickly over the middle ages, mostly in the thrall of the

Aristotelian view, and the earlier writers of the Renaissance, not yet touched

by the Neo-Platonic revival that dominated philosophy, he concentrates on

the period of Mannerism, which had of course just come into view in the early

twenties as a hitherto neglected period in the history of art. He aims at find-

ing parallels to the various currents of artistic style which had just been postu-

lated by Friedländer, playing on the instrument of dialectics with a virtuosity

to which only long quotations could do justice. Very briefly, he finds an

intrinsic tension in Mannerist art between the rejection of rules and their eag-

er acceptance, a tension he finds also reflected in the contradictory attitudes of

theoreticians who for instance both despised and advocated systems of propor-

tion. While in his view the antithesis between subject and object had not

troubled the writers of the Renaissance it is now recognised as a problem. He

claims that it is for the first time in history that the question is posed how

artistic creation is altogether possible, in other words how the artist’s mind, in

confronting reality through the senses, can ever conceive ideas. Art theory, in

Panofsky’s view, is now faced with the task of legitimising artistic activities by

asking in accents that must remind you of Kant: «How is artistic representa-

tion and, in particular the rendering of beauty, at all possible?» Wie ist die

künstlerische Darstellung, und insbesondere die Darstellung des Schönen überhaupt möglich?
).

It is in answering this question, or rather these two questions, that Panofsky

sees the theorists using the traditional notion of idea in two typically antitheti-

cal ways. He dwells at some length on Federico Zuccari’s L’idea de’pittori, scul-

tori ed architetti
of 1607 which draws on the Aristotelian tradition by stressing

the idea in the artist’s mind, which Zuccari calls the disegno interno , while fol-

lowing St. Thomas in regarding these ideas as mere reflections of the perfect

ideas in the mind of God and the nearperfect ideas in the minds of angels.

For Panofsky this ricorso to Scholastic ideas is of profound symptomatic signifi-

cance, because it acknowledges the gap between subject and object he finds so

characteristic of Mannerist art. He sees Zuccari’s approach complemented by

Lomazzo’s reversion to Ficino’s Neo-Platonic conception of beauty which, as

Panofsky was the first to notice, he simply plagiarized. The chapter concludes

415

with a psychological diagnosis of the spirit of the age: «Divorced from nature,

and the human spirit seeks refuge in God in an emotion that is both helpless

triumphant and that we recognize in the sad and proud physiognomies and

gestures of Mannerist portraits and of which the Counter-Reformation is but

one expression among many».

The subsequent chapter on the Neo-Classical theory which Panofsky sees

emerging in the 17th century again proceeds dialectically to another antitheti-

cal position codified in Bellori’s famous oration on the Idea. Bellori is shown

to have called in the notion of the idea as an ally for his fight on two fronts —

the fight against Mannerism which is said to rely on formulas and against Nat-

uralism which is said to neglect the artist’s vocation of improving on nature.

Thus the metaphysical creed of the late Cinquecento which attempted to

resolve the opposition between subject and object by taking recourse to God,

was followed by an attitude that tried to achieve an immediate harmony

between subject and object, Spirit and Nature, which manifests in Panofsky’s

view that return to the doctrine of purified nature that was summed up in the

slogan of the Ideal. In a sense, it is here that the book should end, but Panofs-

ky appended a chapter on Dürer and Michelangelo whose ideas he could not

quite fit into his intellectual epic.

I hope I have at least given you the flavour of that remarkable tour de force

though I must still refer you to its concluding paragraph in which the produc-

er of that ballet of ideas steps before the public and explains that it was all an

idle play, because that antithesis between idealism and naturalism which con-

tinued to engage the minds of philosophers/is really nothing but a dialectical

antinomy, since we now know — if I may cruelly over-simplify Panofsky’s

involved argument — that what we call reality is in itself nothing but the

product of our minds 6.

Soon afterwards Panofsky gave substance to this conviction in his famous

essay on Perspective as a Symbolic Form 7 in which Cassirer’s philosophy is again

linked with the same kind of deterministic dialectic which he saw as uniting

the successive world views with the evolution of human consciousness and

human art, a vision of history surely derived from Hegel.

Ladies and Gentlemen, having explained, when speaking to this forum a

year ago, why I personally cannot accept any such version of historical relativ-

ism, I hardly need spell out why my admiration for Panofsky and my profound

416

respect for his intellect has not sufficed to make me accept his reading of Re-

naissance artistic theory. As a realist in the modern, not the mediaeval sense

of the term, I remain convinced that intellectual history should not be a ballet

of abstractions, however enticing, but an investigation of enduring problems.

Take another passage from Vasari, this time one where he does use the

term idea. In his Life of Titian Vasari defends the Tuscan emphasis on draw-

ing, alleging that Giorgione and the other Venetians shunned preparatory

sketches and painted directly on the canvas: «non s’accorgeva, che egli è ne-

cessario a chi vuol bene disporre i componimenti, ed accomodare l’invenzioni,

ch’e’ fa bisogno prima in più modi differenti porle in carta, per vedere come il

tutto torna insieme. Conciossiachè l’idea non può vedere né immaginare per-

fettamente in se stessa l’invenzioni, se non apre e non mostra il suo concetto

agli occhi corporali che l’aiutino a farne buon giudizio» 8.

Here the word idea is used in its psychological meaning as identical with

consciousness or mind, but what I find interesting in this passage is that Va-

sari was right in stressing the importance of what we now call ’feed-back’ in

art, though of course he was wrong in claiming that the Venetians never made

drawings.

I am equally convinced of the fact that the problem of universals which

had originally given rise to Plato’s theory of ideas continues to confront us in

various forms and that the historian has to take a stand in these matters.

It so happens that I had an opportunity of exemplifying my conviction

precisely in relation to Raphael’s famous letter on the Idea. Having suggested

a link between that formulation and a passage from the younger Pico’s De

imitatione
(1512) I also attempted to show that we can express the problem he

broached in our own terms when we consider the relation of Ideal and Type in

Renaissance Art
9 . I even went so far as to express my view that there are not

only objective standards of fidelity to nature but that even the ideal of beauty

should not be regarded as a purely subjective notion.

What sense we can make of Zuccari’s disegno interno have tried to show in

my book on Art and Illusion where I investigated the role of what I call the

schema in representation 10.

Somewhere in this direction I’d be tempted to look for the answer to the

question which Panofsky attributes to Zuccari of how painting is possible, but

frankly I’m not persuaded that this was ever Zuccari’s concern. If you read

417

him you will find that what he desires to prove is not the possibility but the

dignity of his art. It is strange that this concern is not mentioned by Panofs-

ky. We realize increasingly how much more these questions of hierarchy of

dignity and nobility mattered to the past than they matter to us.

Donald Hirsch in his book Validity in Interpretation 11 has made the impor-

tant point that we cannot begin to interpret a text before we have decided to

what genre it belongs. I think it is clear that Zuccari’s treatise belongs to the

genre of eulogies or panegyrics in praise of a particular vocation or discipline.

In writing such a panegyric, the orator will be at pains to praise, among other

things, the noble connections of his subject. If he praises a prince he will

dwell on his ancestry and if he praises a discipline he will have to demonstrate

its direct line to Almighty God. If you had honoured me with an invitation

three hundred years ago to speak at your convegno you would have expected me

to begin by saying that the first lexicographer was God whose sacred work you

are now continuing and to produce many learned quotations to back up my

claim.

It is not by accident, I believe, that some of Zuccari’s arguments for the

divinity of painting are anticipated in Leonardo’s Paragone of a century earlier

exalting the nobility of painting. Being the genius that he was, Leonardo con-

densed the whole lengthy argument in the wonderful passage: «Come il pit-

tore e Signore d’ogni sorte di gente e di tutte le cose. Se’l pittore vol vedere

bellezze, che lo innamorino, egli n’e signore di generarle, et se vol vedere cose

mostruose, che spaventino, o’che sieno buffonesche e risibili, o’veramente

compassionevoli, ei n'e signore e Dio... e in effetto ciò che nell’universo per

essentia, presentia o’immaginatione, esso l’ha prima nella mente e poi nelle

mani; e quelle sono di tanta eccellentia, che in pari tempo generano una pro-

portionata armonia in un solo sguardo qual’ fanno le cose» 12.

Even Zuccari’s claim that disegno governs all the liberal arts would not

have surprised Leonardo.

Needless to say, Panofsky was fully aware of the contents and import of

Leonardo’s Paragone , he even prints the passage I have cited in one of his many

footnotes relating to a different topic, but he obviously did not wish to discuss

it in the context of Idea, because Leonardo did not use that word and his text

could therefore not find a place in Panofsky’s Begriffsgeschichte. I am sure that

every lexicographer must be familiar with the problem posed by this decision.

Should he concentrate on words, or on the thoughts behind the word? If he

418

does the former, as Panofsky decided to do, he may be in danger of missing

important clues, if the latter he may lose the thread which he decided to fol-

low.

Take the example I have just mentioned, the oration in praise of the dig-

nity of certain disciplines or arts: in his useful volume of 1899 Reden und Briefe

italienischer Humanisten
13 Karl Müllner collected a fair sample of such show-

pieces as inaugural lectures to university courses and letters on similar topics

from the 15th century. The recent reprint 14 also contains a useful index of

words where I find fifty entries for dignitas, forty for gloria, twenty for summum

bonum,
but only one for Idea in a quotation from Cicero’s Academica. No doubt

this observation may be of relevance to the lexicographer, but the question

remains whether the genre of epideictic oratory offers the right kind of evi-

dence for Begriffsgeschichte , the historical analysis of philosophical concepts? Are

we not in danger of doing violence both to philosophy and to rhetoric in ana-

lysing a speach such as Bellori’s Idea too closely for contradictions and incon-

sistencies in the sources on which the speaker drew? Did he really mind

whether he employed the word idea in its Platonic, Aristotelian or Neo-Pla-

tonic sense? Is it indeed always legitimate to ask which of the meanings he

was after, given the fact that it had been the aim of so many philosophers of

these centuries to demonstrate the concordance of these various schools of

thought? So many, after all, held fast to the conviction that ancient wisdom

must have been one and undivided and would not admit that of two contrast-

ing systems only one could be true?

In raising this question in relation to Panofsky’s Idea I do not wish to

conceal from you that similar doubts may also apply to one of my own studies,

my article on Philosophies of Symbolism and their bearing on Art 15 for which I chose

as a starting point precisely such an oration, Cristophoro Giarda’s speech on

Icones Symbolicae, and attempted to sort out the Platonic and Aristotelian cross-

currents in the theories of allegorical and emblematic images, without perhaps

paying sufficient heed to these syncretistic tendencies.

But if the words which occur in this kind of text should not necessarily be

used as evidence of the writer’s or speaker’s allegiance to one or the other

philosophical system, how should we look at them? I know no better answer

than the one given by Arthur O. Lovejoy. I well remember that at this meet-

ing last year we heard a certain amount of criticism of Lovejoy’s approach

some of which may have been quite justified, but to the best of my memory

419

one of Lovejoy’s contributions was not mentioned, his notion of metaphysical

pathos
which he explains in the methodological introduction to his book The

Great Chain of Being
16. He sees it exemplified «in any description of the nature

of things... in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their

association... a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philoso-

pher or his readers». True to his habit of classifying and subdividing his

topics Lovejoy offers us «a good many kinds» of metaphysical pathos. «There

is, in the first place, the pathos of sheer obscurity, the loveliness of the incom-

prehensible... the reader does not know exactly what they mean, but they have

all the more on that account an air of sublimity; an agreeable feeling at once

of awe and of excitation comes over him as he contemplates thoughts of so

immeasurable a profundity...». Lovejoy concludes this witty and astringent sec-

tion with the words: «The delicate task of discovering these varying suscepti-

bilities and showing how they help to shape a system or to give an idea plausi-

bility and currency is a part of the work of the historian of ideas».

I think it is also a legitimate task of the lexicographer because it may be

precisely in the context of such emotional exaltation that terms tend to lose

their precision and gain in flexibility. Idea and ideal became words to conjure

with, words which would be sure of creating an effect and this, maybe, was

how the inflation set in that led to the devaluation and trivialisation of the

term. There is a nice little restaurant in London that is called “The Good

Idea”. One wonders whether Plato would have frequented it. Tayllerand is

supposed to have said that words exist to conceal our thoughts. They may also

arouse the most surprising thoughts or emotions. There is a famous English

anecdote about an old lady who thanked the pastor after his sermon for that

comforting word Mesopotamia. Before we laugh at her, let us remember how

many intellectuals have found comfort in outlandish words which they experi-

ence as grand and dignified — I mentioned these O. K. words in one of my

interventions last year.

In stressing this psychological aspect of language I have the support of a

highly intelligent pioneer of aesthetics who was also a great orator, Edmund

Burke. Towards the end of his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of

the Sublime and Beautiful
17 Burke discusses the effects of words. He comes to the

surprising conclusion that the clarity of speech often militates against its emo-

tional effect. In a passage almost reminiscent of Vico he writes: «Unculti-

vated people are but ordinary observers of things, and not critical in distin-

guishing them; but, for that reason, they admire more, and are more affected

420

with what they see, and therefore express themselves in a warmer and more

passionate manner. If the affection be well conveyed, it will work its effect

without any clear idea; often without any idea at all of the thing which has

originally given rise to it» (Part V, section 1). Burke, in short, denies the

accepted view that words tend to conjure up images in our mind. True, he

writes, «It seems to be an odd subject of dispute with any man, whether he has

ideas in his mind or not» (Part V, section 5). He would have argued that the

word idea itself conjures up no clear picture in his mind.

It so happens that his opinion anticipates the memorable dispute about

the very topic of idea which was mentioned this morning by Professor Hinske,

the episode described in Goethe’s Annalen oder Tag- und Jahreshefte, for the year

1794, of the first meeting between Goethe and Schiller 18 when Goethe

sketched his theory of the Urpflanze and Schiller replied: «Das ist keine Erfah-

rung, das ist eine Idee» (This is not a concrete observation but an idea). Pro-

fessor Hinske’s context did not demand that he also told us of Goethe’s gruff

reply: «It must indeed be welcome news to me that I have ideas without

knowing it, and that I even see them with my own eyes». As Goethe sums

up this encounter, «Schiller took for an idea what I called a concrete observa-

tion (Erlebnis)».

Maybe you allow me a different conclusion: what Goethe might have

said to Schiller was that his Urpflanze came closer to an Aristotelian entelechy

than to a Platonic or Kantian idea. He saw it as a principle that worked

inside the botanical creation to secure the basic requirements of any plant, the

roots, the stem, the leaves, the blossoms and ultimate fruits in their order and

function.

Had Goethe explained his view to Schiller today he might perhaps have

said that plants are ‘programmed’ to follow this pattern in their development

and that this programme is encoded in the sequence of their genes. But this

novel and useful metaphor should not hide from us that with this idea of bio-

logical programming anamnesis has entered by the back door, as it were. If we

or other organisms were not programmed to see, to interact with the world,

we would not survive, but since our programming is not perfect it is only the

fittest that do survive.

1.
The reference is to an article in “Il Messaggero”, 2nd January 1989, p. 14, on the eve

of the conference.
2.
Cf. my book The Sense of Order , Oxford 1979 (Italian edition II Senso dell’ordine, Torino

1984), Ch. IV, Sect. 2-3.
3.
For the sources see A. SWIFT RIGINOS, Platonica, The anecdotes concerning the life and writings of

Plato
(«Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition» ed. W. V. Harris et al., Ill) Leiden 1976,

pp. 138 ff. The argument derives essentially from Republic, 510, D, E.
4.
G. VASARI, Le Vite, ed. Milanesi, VII, Firenze 1881, pp. 214-215.
5.
The Italian translation, Firenze 1952, has a preface by Edmondo Cione.
6.
See my chapter «From Careggi to Montmartre. A footnote to Erwin Panofsky’s Idea»,

in “Il se rendit en Italie'”. Études offertes à André Chastel, Paris-Rome 1987, p. 674 and note.
7.
E. PANOFSKY, Die Perspektive als symbolische Form, «Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg»,

1924-25, Italian in La prospettiva come 'forma simbolica’ e altri scritti, Milano 1961.
8.
VASARI, op. cit., p. 427.
9.
In New Light on Old Masters, Oxford 1986, Italian in Antichi maestri, nuove letture, Torino 1987.
10.
Art and Illusion, Princeton-London 1960, Italian as Arte e illusione, Torino 1965.
11.
E. D. HIRSCH JR., Validity in Interpretation, New Haven-London 1967.
12.
Trattato della pittura, Codex Urbinus Latinus 1270, 5 r (ed. A. P. McMahon, Princeton,

1956).
13.
Wien 1899.
14.
München 1970.
15.
In Symbolic Images, London 1972, Italian as Immagini simboliche, Torino 1978.
16.
Cambridge, Mass. 1936.
17.
London 1756.
18.
«Erste Bekanntschaft mit Schiller», in Paralipomena zu den Annalen, 2, in GOETHE, Sämt-

liche Werke. Jubiläumsausgabe,
n.d., XXX, pp. 389-391.


Ernst H. J. Gombrich . :

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