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13 August 2013

Emulation VIII.1: Excerpt: The Emulative Life

Emulation as Performance

Leading up to the publication of my book The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (scheduled availability, 28 October), I will be posting some excerpts that seem relevant to some contemporary issues. Like this from the New York Review of Books on forgers:
I make a point early in the book that forgery is decidedly not emulation, and while the forger’s ego is a particularly weird one, forgers do tend to love the art they fake, which isn’t all bad, right?

Giorgio Vasari, Rubens, Mantegna, and Giulio Romano

Allegory of Painting, Casa Vasari
For Giorgio Vasari, artistic ability and accomplishments furnished a kind of nobility that could blank out many other defects. It also afforded fame. In the salone of his house in his hometown of Arezzo he painted scenes of famous artists from antiquity, as a means of identity both with their accomplishments and their fame. Indeed, artists’ houses became primary points of emulative performance, where they proclaimed not only their learning but also their status. In Giulio Romano’s house in Mantova—an impressive mini-palace that inspired Vasari to build his own, albeit more modest, version—the Gonzaga’s architect-artist outwardly projected his dignity, while inside his collection of ancient coins and gems displayed his wealth and refinement, something that trumped most ancient artists by equating him with scholars and princes. Artists around Europe knew about Giulio’s house precisely because Vasari visited and wrote about it, and it is not too much of a stretch to say that the Lives themselves are a long essay on a kind of existential mimesis, a trumpeting of the arrival of artists to a stature little known in antiquity, and yet formed on those stories from Pliny the Elder and others about the most famous artists of Greece and Rome. So it is natural, then, that Rubens—who had lived in Mantova, and read Vasari—would see it as essential that he not only build his own house in Antwerp, but that it would project his status and learning in its richness, and most fully in its iconography. And do so in a way that both paid homage to his predecessors and exceeded them.
Rubenshuis, Antwerp
            Rubens’ house on the Vaart canal was at once home, studio, and gallery. Apart from its size, it proclaimed the artist’s status through its rich ornamentation, the collections it housed, and the work for international clients continually being produced there. It also, in its incremental way, contributed to the urban landscape of Antwerp as the city itself tried to recover its lost status as a commercial and cultural hub. The Genoese palazzi that Rubens’ documented and published were meant to furnish models for burgher housing in his hometown, putting the city, along with one of its most famous citizens, on the world stage. Rubens built a noble house because he and his art were noble, and his house conferred nobility on him and his city.
            The Rubens house must have looked exotically Italian, at least in the courtyard, to his fellow Antwerpians. Whether they recognized the specific sources of his house’s details may not have been important to them, but to the painter they certainly were. His richly frescoed courtyard façade would have recalled the most sumptuous frescoed facades of Rome, like those painted by Taddeo Zuccaro; they would also have recalled the relief-encrusted facades of the Palazzo Spada, Villa Medici and Villa Borghese. His gallery of precious antiquities would have called up images of the remarkable marble room and its antiquities in Venice’s Palazzo Grimani. The screen wall and garden beyond might have optimistically alluded to the vastly grander Palazzo Borghese in Rome. These allusions, while endowing a degree of prestige, also conferred a cultural lineage, and a bridge between Flanders and Italy. This same artist advocated the Genoese palazzi of the Strada Nuova as models of burgher housing in his home country. The exuberance of these models too, and their rear gardens on the uphill side of the street, find echoes in the Rubenshuis courtyard and garden. But all of it, in the end, depends on the writings of Giorgio Vasari and his success as court artist to the Medici.

Giulio Romano's house, Mantova
One of the most important of these early houses of Renaissance artists was the one built by Andrea Mantegna in Mantua (begun in 1476, but in which he lived only for the last ten years of his life, from 1496 to 1506). Among the advantages of being one’s own patron was that architectural quality, or indeed architectural experimentation, could be a priority in the design process. Mantegna was renowned as a studious scholar of all things all’antica, and his paintings were consistently peppered with an architecture that strove to be as philologically correct as possible. An important characteristic of the architecture in his paintings is their geometric clarity: his buildings are often evidently assembled out of Platonic solids—cubes, spheres, cylinders, pyramids—and they retain that mathematical purity even as he dresses them in classical ornament drawn from his antiquarian studies. So, when he came to design his house in Mantua he organized its square footprint around a circular interior courtyard—the kind of pristine, abstract clarity that many ordinary clients would presume to be inherently impractical. Being a painter, he filled the house with paintings and frescoes—little of which survive. It was still sufficiently impressive to have merited praise from Vasari when he visited the city for a few weeks as the guest of Giulio Romano in 1541. While there, in the company of the transplanted Roman artist-architect who dominated the Gonzaga’s building enterprises for two decades (see Chapter VIII), Vasari had the opportunity to visit Giulio’s own house which, if not marked by the same abstract rigor as Mantegna’s, was perhaps more profusely filled with all sorts of artwork: the entry door was crowned by an antique sculpture of Mercury, and Giulio (like Mantegna) was an assiduous collector of ancient coins, which he proudly displayed. This too is allied with a then-current idea of the virtuoso, someone who possessed, and was knowledgeable about, rarities of human artifice. In this and other ways Giulio was modeling himself on his mentor, Raphael, who Vasari claims was on the verge of being named a cardinal when he died.

And, speaking of performance: