From Antiquity Onward
I’m happily not on the Tradarch Listserv, but occasionally I hear if my name or work is invoked. In a recent exchange there was some discussion about the difference between imitation and emulation, and as I’ve pointed out in my book, this confusion is at least a couple of centuries old. But it is a mistake to think that emulation supplanted imitation in the Renaissance, as Carroll William Westfall argues from an almost pre-Raphaelite position in American Arts Quarterly. Westfall wants to separate architecture from the other arts (of which, it was said, it was their mother); but cleaving the metopes from the Parthenon frieze is easier in practice than conceptually (Phidias himself may have operated as an architect). If architecture is not the art of building I do not know what it is. The classical mind does not hold disparate positions on the various arts, whether literary or visual. And emulation is as old as antiquity, as all literary scholars seem to know, but it is also natural to artists, part and parcel of engaging in an art that has coherent standards of judgment. All serious artists want to excel; competency is for craftsmen. Artists of that stripe are as old as Phidias, at least. So, to put emulation in context, here are some quotes:
This writer [Plato] shows us, if only we were willing to pay him heed, that another way (beyond anything we have mentioned) leads to the sublime. And what, and what manner of way, may that be? It is the imitation and emulation of previous great poets and writers. And let this, my dear friend, be an aim to which we stedfastly apply ourselves.
Longinus. 1899 On the Sublime. trans. Roberts, W. R. XIII, 2. http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/longinus/index.htm
For many men are carried away by the spirit of others as if inspired, just as it is related of the Pythian priestess when she approaches the tripod, where there is a rift in the ground which (they say) exhales divine vapour. By heavenly power thus communicated she is impregnated and straightway delivers oracles in virtue of the afflatus. Similarly from the great natures of the men of old there are borne in upon the souls of those who emulate them (as from sacred caves) what we may describe as effluences, so that even those who seem little likely to be possessed are thereby inspired and succumb to the spell of the others' greatness.
Longinus. 1899 On the Sublime. trans. Roberts, W. R. XIII, 2. http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/longinus/index.htm
3. Was Herodotus alone a devoted imitator of Homer? No, Stesichorus even before his time, and Archilochus, and above all Plato, who from the great Homeric source drew to himself innumerable tributary streams. And perhaps we should have found it necessary to prove this, point by point, had not Ammonius and his followers selected and recorded the particulars. 4. This proceeding is not plagiarism; it is like taking an impression from beautiful forms or figures or other works of art. And it seems to me that there would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato's philosophical doctrines, and that he would not in many cases have found his way to poetical subject-matter and modes of expression, unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for the primacy, entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire, and showing perhaps too much love of contention and breaking a lance with him as it were, but deriving some profit from the contest none the less. For, as Hesiod says, 'This strife is good for mortals' (Works and Days 24, at Perseus). And in truth that struggle for the crown of glory is noble and best deserves the victory in which even to be worsted by one's predecessors brings no discredit.
Longinus. 1899 On the Sublime. trans. Roberts, W. R. XIII. http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/longinus/index.htm
23. I remember a practice that was observed by my masters, not without advantage. Having divided the boys into classes, they assigned them their order in speaking in conformity to the abilities of each, and thus each stood in the higher place to declaim according as he appeared to excel in proficiency. 24. Judgments were pronounced on the performances, and great was the strife among us for distinction, but to take the lead of the class was by far the greatest honor. Nor was sentence given on our merits only once; the 30th day brought the vanquished an opportunity of contending again. Thus, he who was most successful did not relax his efforts, while uneasiness incited the unsuccessful to retrieve his honor. 25. I should be inclined to maintain, as far as I can form a judgment from what I conceive in my own mind, that this method furnished stronger incitements to the study of eloquence than the exhortations of preceptors, the watchfulness of paedagogi, or the wishes of parents. 26. But as emulation is of use to those who have made some advancement in learning, so, to those who are but beginning and are still of tender age, to imitate their schoolfellows is more pleasant than to imitate their master, for the very reason that it is easier.
Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, Book 1, Chapter 2
Pliny the Elder
The most celebrated [artists] have also come into competition with each other, although born at different periods, because they had made statues of Amazons; when these were dedicated in the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus, it was agreed that the best one should be selected by the vote of the artists themselves who were present; and it then became evident that the best was the one which all the artists judged to be the next best after their own: this is the Amazon by Polycleitus, while next to it came that of Pheidias, third Cresilas’s, fourth Cydon’s and fifth Phradmon’s.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, 1938, p. 167
Pliny the Younger
It may not be amiss when you have read only so much of an author at once, as to carry in your head his subject and argument, to turn, as it were, his rival, and write something on the same topic; then compare your performance and his, and minutely examine in what points either you or he most happily succeeded. It will be a matter of very pleasing congratulation to yourself, if you shall find that in some things you have the advantage of him, as it will be a great mortification if he should rise above you in all.
You may sometimes venture to pick out and try to emulate the most shining passages of an author. Such a contest is, indeed, something bold; but as it passes in secret, it cannot be taxed with presumption. Not but that we see many persons enter this sort of lists with great applause, and because they do not despair of themselves, advance before those whom they thought it sufficient honour to follow.
Pliny, Letters, Book Seven, Letter 9, To Fuscus
On Ancient Roman Sculpture
Failure in artistic endeavors was not, then, primarily defined as the inability to surpass one’s predecessors. The Romans did not assign that sort of value to progress. Rather, real failure was characterized by a lack of interest in even attempting to meet the standards of “the ancients.”
Perry, E. E. “Rhetoric, Literary Criticism, and Roman Artistic Imitation,” The Ancient Art of Emulation: Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, ed. E. Gazda, Ann Arbor, 2002, p. 163
On Ancient Roman Architecture
Evidently the aim [of Constantine’s arch] was to emulate quite literally the Severan arch, the site of which, at the heart of the Forum Romanum, made it Rome’s triple arch par excellence. It seems highly likely that the later architect overlaid his own design over drawings of the earlier building…[A series of] adjustments made the proportions even more ‘classical’ than those of the earlier arch, presenting an intriguing counterpoint to the otherwise innovative character of contemporary architectural developments.
Wilson Jones, M. 2000. Principles of Roman Architecture. New Haven: Yale. 124
On Petrarch, and by Petrarch Himself
On the one hand he read authors like Ennius and Plautus only once and quickly at that; if he [Petrarch] memorized anything of theirs, it was so alien to his own thoughts that it stood in his memory as another’s. On the other hand, he read and reread Virgil, Cicero, Horace, and Boethius. He digested their works so thoroughly that they entered his bone marrow, not just this memory. They became so much a part of his mind that occasionally their phrases came to his pen without his recognizing the source or even that they came from someone else.
Pigman III, G. W. Spring, 1980. Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance. Renaissance Quarterly. Univ. of Chicago Press (Renaissance Society of America), Vol. 33, No. 1
The inaccessible peak, which Monicus upbraids Silvius for struggling toward, panting and exhausted though he is, is the height of fame, the rarer sort of fame, which but few succeed in attaining to. The deserts where Silvius is said to wander are scholarly pursuits… Murmuring fountains can be used of men of letters and of those who have the gift of eloquence, inasmuch as little streams of intellectual influence flow from the wellsprings of genius that are within them, with a sound, so to speak, that charms and delights us.
Petrarch, Letter, “On the Nature of Poetry”
From Vasari, On Various Artists
So Pietro [Perugino] often used to ask, of those he knew to have travelled the world, whereabouts were the best masters of that calling [painting]: and particularly he asked this of his master, who always replied to the same effect, namely that in Florence more than anywhere else appeared men who were perfect in all the arts, and especially in painting, because in that city people are spurred on by three things. First is the sharp criticism so often expressed by so many people, as the air of Florence breeds naturally free spirits not generally content with mediocre works, but always considering them more in respect of the good and the beautiful than with regard to those who made them. Next, if anyone wishes to live there, he needs to be industrious,… And the third spur, surely no less effective than the others, is a lust for glory and honour which the very air of Florence generates in those of every profession, and which if they are persons of spirit will not let them simply be the equals of those they see to be men like themselves, let alone lag behind, though they acknowledge them as masters.
“Pietro Perugino,” Lives of the Artists: Vol. II, trans. George Bull, Penguin Classics, 1987, pp. 87-88
But some believe he was deterred from this [staying in Rome] by the abundance of works in sculpture and painting to be seen in that city, both ancient and modern, and by seeing many young disciples of Raphael and of others, bold in draughtsmanship and confident and effortless in painting, whom, so timid was he, Andrea did not have the heart to emulate. And so, riddled with doubt, he decided it would be best to return to Florence; and there, reflecting little by little on what he had seen, he benefitted so much that his works have since been highly praised and admired, and, moreover, imitated more after his death than during his lifetime….
“Andrea del Sarto,” Lives of the Artists: Vol. II, Penguin Classics, 1987, p. 165
Now that I have described the works of this talented painter [Raphael] I must, before giving further details of his life and death, take the trouble, for the benefit of our artists, to discuss the various styles in which he painted. In his boyhood, then, he imitated the style of his master, Pietro Perugino; and after he had vastly improved on it as regards drawing, colouring, and invention, he considered that he had accomplished enough. But when he was more mature he realized he was still a long way from the truth. Then he saw the works of Leonardo da Vinci,….
“Raphael of Urbino,” Lives of the Artists: Vol. I, trans. George Bull, Penguin Classics, 1987, p. 315
Having considered all this, therefore, Raphael, being unable to compete with Michelangelo in the branch of painting to which he had set his hand [the nude figure], resolved to emulate and perhaps surpass him in other respects. So he decided not to waste his time by imitating Michelangelo’s style but to attain a catholic excellence in the other fields of painting that have been described [in addition to animals and portraits, “countless other things, namely, draperies, shoes, helmets, armour, women’s head-dresses, hair, beards, vases, trees, grottoes, rocks, fires, skies overcast or clear, clouds, rain, lightening, fine weather, night-time, moonlight, bright sunshine, and countless other subjects which are used by painters nowadays.”]
This was because the instinctive grace of Michelangelo’s work was enhanced by study and practice; and every day he produced work that was still more inspired. For example, it was at that time [he was about 17] that he made the copy of an engraving by Martin the German [Martin Schongauer] that brought him considerable fame. Michelangelo did a perfect pen-and-ink copy of this copper engraving, which showed St Anthony being tortured by devils, soon after it had been brought to Florence. He also did the scene in colours; and for this purpose in order to copy some of the strange-looking demons in the picture he went along to the market and bough some fishes with fantastic scales like theirs. The skill with which he did this work won him a considerable reputation. Michelangelo also copied the works of other masters, with complete fidelity; he used to tinge his copies and make them appear black with age by various means, including the use of smoke, so that they could not be told apart from the originals. He did this so that he could exchange his copies for the originals, which he admired for their excellence and which he tried to surpass in his own works; and these experiments also won him fame.
“Michelangelo Buonarotti,” Lives of the Artists: Vol. I, Penguin Classics, 329
Wittkower on Bernini and Poussin
It is well known that most of Bernini’s early works are close to some ancient model. Until a generation ago the Borghese Amalthea was believed to be Hellenistic. His Pluto reveals the close study of the Hercules in the Capitoline Museum, a statue that Algardi had restored at a slightly later date. The David refers to the Borghese Warrior, and the Apollo of the Apollo and Daphne to the Apollo Belvedere …
As a rule, Bernini begins by following a classical model. In elaborating his idea, however, he ends up with an intensely Baroque solution … [T]he paintings of the early Poussin are comparatively loose, and only as he matured did they become progressively formalized; by contrast, the works of the early Bernini are comparatively classical, and only later in his career did they become progressively free and imaginative.
Wittkower, R. 1975.”The Role of Classical Models in Bernini and Poussin,” in Studies in Italian Baroque. Boulder: Westview Press.110; 112-113
Choose a heroic model, and emulate rather than imitate. There are examples of greatness, living texts of renown. Let each person choose the first in his field, not so much to follow him as surpass them. Alexander cried at the tomb of Achilles, not for Achilles but for himself, for unlike Achilles, he had not yet been born to fame. Nothing makes the spirit so ambitious as the trumpet of someone else’s fame. It frightens away envy and encourages noble deeds.
Baldassare Gracián, 1647, aphorism 75, 1993. The Art of Worldly Wisdom. trans. C. Maurer. New York: Doubleday. 43
And lastly, Dryden, from a post of last year:
Bids thee thro’ me, be bold; with dauntless breast
Contemn the bad and Emulate the best…
John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller, Principal Painter to His Majesty”, from Miscellanies (1694), in The Poems of John Dryden, ed. John Sargeaunt, Oxford Editions of Standard Authors, 1948, p. 168.