Henri Matisse is supposed to have encountered someone who complained that the arm of a woman in one of his portraits was too long. “Madam, you are mistaken,” he replied. “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” She might have replied, “That’s not an argument, that’s attitude.” The painter’s bon mot is what E.H. Gombrich (to whose classic study Art and Illusion I owe the anecdote) called “one of the paradoxes with which modern artists and critics like to tease the long-suffering public.” Such paradoxes can be hard to avoid. Gombrich thought the development of pictorial illusionism—that is, of the European canon of realistic representation—“was stimulated by the dissatisfaction which certain periods of Western civilization felt with images that failed to look convincing.” The statement is itself paradoxical, because it ignores the question of who wants to be convinced by an image. Long before Matisse, the Italian artists of the sixteenth century who came to be known as Mannerists were willing to twist their figures out of proportion, and they did so to create not convincing images, but convincing paintings.
Medieval Christians did not need to be convinced by images; they already believed in what the images were meant to convey. Pictures functioned as signs to remind their beholders of truths already known. But somewhere along the line, the nature of faith changed: by the fourteenth century—in Italy, at least—Christians did begin to feel the need to have their faith informed by convincing images. Hegel observed in his Lectures on Aesthetics that “piety is also satisfied with poor images and will always worship Christ, Mary or any Saint in the merest daub.” If so, the men of the Renaissance were distinctly less pious than their predecessors. They felt a need to see the acts of their savior, his apostles and the saints as if with their own eyes rather than simply to have them signified. The effort to satisfy this need formed the great project known as the art of the Renaissance, and from the time of Giotto onward, painters built on each other’s efforts to make everything they painted seem as true to life as possible without sacrificing the idealization appropriate to sacred truths. A modern equivalent of what these artists were trying to do might be found not in painting but in the cinema—for example, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s plan for a film about St. Paul, in which he hoped to give “the impression and the conviction of his reality/present. To say then explicitly to the spectator…that ‘Saint Paul is here, today, among us,’ and that he is here almost physically and materially. Thus it is our society that he addresses; it is our society for which he weeps and that he loves, threatens, and forgives, assaults and tenderly embraces.”
That such a project was untimely in the twentieth century, even for the cinema, is suggested by the fact that Pasolini was never able to make the film he planned (its screenplay has recently been published by Verso). Yet what Pasolini could only dream of, the painters of the High Renaissance had to some degree already done. By the time of Raphael and Leonardo, 200 years after Giotto, nothing seemed left to add: perspective, sfumato and other techniques sufficed to give a hitherto undreamt-of solidity, naturalness and presence to figures, as well as clarity to the spatial relations among them. All that remained was to apply this painstakingly gathered technical knowledge.
The adventure of discovery was over. That might be reason enough for artists to grow restless. But the nature of faith, too, continued to change. Italy was the scene of almost constant war from the 1490s through the 1550s, and these wars were fueled by religion, which was then in an unheard-of state of flux. Even before Martin Luther’s ideas had begun to spread throughout Europe, Savonarola had castigated the Florentines for their decadence and declared Christ the king of Florence. These views first brought the zealous friar to power; then he was excommunicated and burned at the stake. In 1527, Habsburg troops sacked Rome. Living in early to mid-sixteenth-century Italy must have been more like living in twenty-first-century Syria or Iraq than in contemporary Europe—and amid such turbulence, how could art not reflect the loss of old certainties?