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22 September 2013

Emulation IX.1

Typing Emulation

The idea of the type, or genre, was critical to emulative thinking. Individual images could be rivaled, but they also incurred suspicions of too overt dependence, or worse, plagiarism. The type was crucial to the whole classical framework, wherein individual expression was channeled through existing, familiar forms. Certainly this was true in the ancient world, especially for the Romans, who cultivated Greek typological forms like the temple, statues of Apollo, portraits of emperors and other famous figures, etc.; these typological forms established a framework of expectations for images, without explicitly prescribing specific images to copy. It is not, of course, that copies weren’t made, but mass production of repetitive images was far less common than free copies and emulations. This way of thinking survived the dissolution of classical culture, continuing in the medieval Christian traditions of depictions of saints and members of the Holy Family. It recovered something like its classical nature in the Renaissance, as artists sought their own unique interpretations of familiar themes. By the Baroque period, expectations of novel interpretations fostered an expansive variety of images that were both typologically grounded and formally liberated.

Imitating Images or Emulating Types: Sts. Sebastian and Andrew

Mattia Preti, S. Andrea
It is the nature of certain figures associated with powerful narrative moments, in particular martyred saints, that a standard type soon emerges that every artist who is charged with depicting the figure must acknowledge in one way or another. This is certainly true of images of St. Sebastian, tied to a tree and pierced by arrows: artists from the fifteenth century onward couldn’t avoid, or couldn’t resist, displaying their command of his partially nude body in a state of restrained agony. There was almost no way to paint or sculpt St. Sebastian without acknowledging—as scholars do with their footnotes—those precedents with which every connoisseur was expected to be familiar. Some of these successor images are more overtly imitative than others, but for the cases of those artists that History has claimed as masters, it was precisely the expectations about the form of St. Sebastian that sponsored imitative or emulative performances, in which those things that distinguished a new version of the theme asserted themselves simultaneously with those that recognized the tradition. In Rome, a similar case emerges a little later with St. Andrew, like his brother Peter crucified in a way different from Christ, and by choice. While Peter was crucified upside down, Andrew chose the diagonal cross, associating forever in Italian the X form with the croce di S. Andrea.

Like Sebastian, Andrew could be shown either appended to his tree/cross, or in some way disengaged from it, the armature more a foil than a support. The dynamism of the X accorded with the dominant Baroque compositional device of diagonal disposition of elements, in both two- and three-dimensions. In concert also with the Baroque fascination with spiritual ecstasy, Andrew and his cross in sculpture are rarely represented as a narrative scene, but rather as an icon or emblem, saint and cross bound as much by choice as suffering. Arguably, the tradition begins with François Duquesnoy’s St. Andrew in the crossing of St. Peter’s, done under Bernini’s direction as part of his combined Baldacchino and crossing piers project; one of four principle saints whose relics the basilica contains, Andrew was the only apostle of the four (the apostle Peter of course was represented by the basilica itself, and his tomb below the Baldacchino). Duquesnoy, otherwise an arch-classicist, here in an early, major commission seems to have taken on rivalry with Bernini not by emulating any existing image of S. Andrea, but imagining that if Bernini had undertaken the figure how he would have done it. While Wittkower discounts the Andrew at the expense of Bernini’s Longinus, Duquesnoy undoubtedly established himself as equal to the challenge of creating a powerful, self-contained figure that could hold its own against the vast scale of the crossing. He also wound up inventing an image of the saint whose ripple effect would propagate around Rome for more than a century.

Succeeding images of Andrew and his cross appeared in the middle of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. Of painted versions, the two most significant are those of Mattia Preti in S. Andrea della Valle, and of the Frenchman who worked mostly in Rome, Guillaume Courtois (Cortese, “Il Borgognone”), at S. Andrea al Quirinale. Both painted scenes involve complex settings, in the former case stressing the mechanics of erecting the weighty cross, emphasizing its verisimilitude, while the latter is tied to Bernini’s concetto of the church, with Andrew gazing up to a cascade of golden painted angels that are extended into gilded stucco figures spilling down from the altar’s lantern. Charged with depicting the moment of martyrdom, each artist shows the saint strapped on the cross, its timber by now as rugged as a newly cut tree trunk. While Michelangelo would sculpt his Christ holding an abstract, geometrical cross in S. Maria Sopra Minerva, something about the diagonal croce di Sant’Andrea would imply the naturalistic logs that Duquesnoy’s figure embraces—a cross in this case almost large enough to have actually supported the figure, unlike most later sculpted images.

Ercole Ferrata, S. Andrea
Ercole Ferrata’s figure in a niche on the façade of S. Andrea della Valle, following on the completion of the architectural armature, shows the saint in rapt, prayerful ecstasy in front of his cross, which acts as a compositional foil to the flame-like form of Andrew. For Ferrata the cross is a useful prop, but hardly integral to the saint’s action: it is, rather, an emblem and armature, and as a formal foil, it at once stabilizes and expands the energy of the figure. What Ferrata adds to Duquesnoy’s type is the aspect of ecstasy, a passionate posture that charges the image with Berninian rapture; the Fleming’s saint is rather in a state of wonder, expressed at the site of the baldacchino as much as the instrument of his martyrdom. Thus Ferrata, in a way, sculpts the image that Bernini in his later years might have done.

It would take Camillo Rusconi’s St. Andrew in the nave of S. Giovanni in Laterano to unite the mass of the marble figure in St. Peter’s with the rapture of the later painted figures and the ecstatic sculpture on the façade of S. Andrea della Valle. Rusconi’s saint lovingly embraces his cross, bonding him to the instrument of his martyrdom with piety and pathos. He is enraptured by it, whereas Ferrata’s figure gazes raptly up and out at heaven. Rusconi’s St. Andrew and his cross are one, a single compositional figure in two parts.

Camillo Rusconi, S. Andrea
None of these interpretations mimics the other, but they are all united by the geometry of the diagonal cross and the rustic hulk of the bearded fisherman saint. They are conscious of their predecessors, but independently conceived, each striving for the most affective representation. For a martyr whose symbolic device is so massive, it is inevitable that that symbol would function almost as a companion figure. Posture, gesture and expression alternately link and distinguish the man from the wood of the cross. One has the sense of a limited range of possibilities being explored, the most poignant exploited as the situation and medium required or permitted. But from the moment of the unveiling of Duquesnoy’s statue, the emulative field had been established. And to imitate any of them too closely was to be guilty of a poverty of invention.