Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Worlds within worlds

In every age and in every place where humans have left records, we see evidence that as soon as societies innovate beyond the needs of bare survival, they begin to create arts, to invent gods, to wonder and theorize about the universe. The line of descent from ancient legends to the modern quests of philosophy, religion, and science is direct and unequivocal. This is the thread of human social development that links the out of the ordinary places that people relate to when they think about a wider view of their place in the cosmos. These are the greater and lesser worlds of which Homo sapiens is a part as a distinctive gathering of stardust endowed with life. In this sense we can relate imaginatively to our place in the solar system, galaxy and universe and our place on Earth as a social animal existing in community groups based on different languages and customs. Here on Earth we interact with other worlds consisting of multicellular beings and unicellular forms, all with the same biochemistry as ourselves, interacting with the dynamics of mineral particles making the rocks and soil of planet Earth. This is the theatre of macrocosms and microcosms in which art and science are applied forms of thinking about where we have come from, the world of which we are now a part and the future for humanity yet to come.
Artists and scientists have taken it upon themselves to explore these lesser worlds, taking a narrow or broader view of how works of art can illuminate the essence of structures and systems and their values. In the West, painters first began to take up this role of delineating worlds within worlds in the 14th century, and one of the first outcomes was the depiction of landscapes which gradually forged a bridge, through geographical studies, with the emerging sciences. After Galileo had discovered the four moons of Jupiter in 1609 he became increasingly convinced that the Copernican, heliocentric system of the world was correct. Nevertheless, there was a constant debate about the right world system during the whole 17th century. Pictorial representation played an important role in it and the illustrations used as book frontispieces were a significant medium for the dispute.

Regarding the role of the high art of the Renaissance, in 1502 a contract was drawn up between the Umbrian painter Bernardino di Betto di Bagio, nicknamed Pinturicchio, and Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini , then archbishop of Siena, to decorate the library adjoining Sienna Cathedral . The library had been commissioned by the Cardinal in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pius II. The project was conceived to celebrate the life of the Pope. The design, possibly subcontracted to Raphael , was conceived as a series of massive fresco panels in brilliant gleaming colours depicting significant episodes in the life of Enea Silvio, set beneath a ceiling covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. The work took Pinturicchio and his assistants several years to complete, being interrupted by the death of Francesco in 1503 shortly after he himself was elected Pope.

One of the panels represents Enea Silvio as an up and coming servant of the church in a procession of delegates leaving the Council of Basel along the shores of Lake Geneva . In its composition this fresco represents one of the first attempts to depict cultural ecology as a seamless knowledge system in which nature is integrated as one with society. In this respect it can be broken down into five lesser worlds within the painted world, framed by a massive decorated arch which marks the pictorial interface between painter and viewer.

The dominant feature is the Alpine atmosphere of the lake and its water economy represented by the dark chaotic sky stain of a summer storm (1), which spans the lake and its mountainous horizon. This is the first time a storm scene had been depicted in Western art. The geological system of the shore is painted as a group of tree-covered stratified rocks and hills (2) on top of which sits a small walled city (3). The tightly grouped procession of diversely clad humanity (4) is dwarfed by the landscape of lake and sky, and is itself hemmed in at the base of the picture by a narrow roadside verge packed with wildflowers (5).

The scope of this particular fresco as a semi-scientific painterly enterprise has been compared with the first expansive evocation of urban culture in its landscape painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s on the theme of ‘Good and Bad Government’. This was produced two centuries earlier on three walls of the council chamber of Sienna’s town hall.

No comments:

Post a Comment