Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 16, 2022
Frank Fehrenbach Quasi Vivo: Lebendigkeit in der Italienischen Kunst der Frühen Neuzeit: (Quasi vivo: enlivenment in early modern Italian art) Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, 2021. 598 pp.; 48 color ills.; 122 b/w ills. Cloth $68.99 (9783110374438)

The most influential publications in early modern image theory over the last thirty years have either positioned the work of art as imagining its own completion by a beholder or described the actual responses of the beholder in front of a work. John Shearman’s Only Connect . . .  Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (1992) was an attempt to study period notions of spectatorship and the human imagination in order to reveal artistic “messages” embedded in Italian Renaissance paintings. David Freedberg’s The Power of Images (1989) looked beyond the confines of “high art,” untangling the psychological and perceptual mechanisms on the threshold between lifelike images and the attribution of actual life to those images. In particular The Power of Images marked a shift to the interest in the experiences of works of art as capable of animation, a shift registered, for example, in Frederika Jacobs’s The Living Image in Renaissance Art (2005). A more recent contribution is Horst Bredekamp’s Theorie des Bildakts (2010; published in English as Image Acts: A Systematic Approach to Visual Agency in 2018). Bredekamp understands images as energetic agents with the power to both act on the viewer and cause actions on the viewer’s part, amply documented in the conflation of body and image in acts of iconoclasm. Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998) still looms large. We can now add to this list Frank Fehrenbach’s Quasi Vivo: Lebendigkeit in der Italienischen Kunst der Frühen Neuzeit (Quasi vivo: enlivenment in early modern Italian art).

Several major exhibitions with impressive catalogs, such as the The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008) and the blockbuster Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018) have drawn attention to realism and hyperrealism in sculpture, redirecting the discourses on art as life in paintings toward the phenomenology of objects and the history of the human body. In the case of sculpted—that is embodied—images, the fictional status of a human likeness in an image is complicated by the presence and the physical actuality of the object, which is fundamentally different from the two-dimensionality of a painted surface. Sculptures de facto share the same space and reality with us, here and now. This actuality brings about the experience of a categorical confusion that can be just as unsettling as it can be arousing.

It is one of the many merits of Frank Fehrenbach’s magisterial study on life and liveliness as key categories of artistic production in early modern Italy that he addresses a fascinating breadth of media and materials—prints, drawings, painting, sculptures, objects, manuscripts, and poems. What Fehrenbach introduces as a set of experimental drillings (“Probebohrungen,” vii) in fact sums up twenty years of scholarly work driven by a profound interest in phenomena of vivacità in the arts, from the late Middle Ages to the Italian Baroque.

This ambitious book, in fifteen chapters, includes a conceptual introduction and an epilogue dedicated to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first Italian Journey of 1786–88. Moving elegantly between large analytical concepts and detailed case studies, Fehrenbach provides new inroads to the age-old topic of art and its existential ties with human life and death. He argues that by creating an experiential surplus through visceral and intellectual experience, that by consciously visualizing and pointing to the slippages and crossovers between life and death, Renaissance art offers a sensory philosophy, exposing the paradoxical nature of our existence in unprecedented and highly self-aware ways.

The book’s introduction stakes out an expansive terrain: life and liveliness as epistemological categories in both early modern sciences and the arts. Once charged with entering the difficult competition with nature itself, sculpture and painting had to rely on an array of newly invented optical strategies that foregrounded the primacy of visus—the faculty of sight. Ideas of liveliness were deeply rooted in antique natural philosophy, early scientific discourses on the nature of the body and its functions, and in the novel quasi-religious concept of the artist as an alter deus.

Quasi Vivo starts with a chapter on death. Fehrenbach notes how early modern tombs transform the medieval opposition of life and death into an aesthetic experience in limbo: “In oscillating between these poles, the (inanimate) work of art releases a surplus that visualizes the signs of life as latency and emergence” (In der Oszillation zwischen den Polen setzt das [tote] Kunstwerk ein Surplus frei, das die Zeichen des Lebens als Latenz und Emergenz visualisiert, 39). The following chapter looks at the culmination of this trend in Michelangelo’s Medici mausoleum in the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo, densely analyzing the complex relations between the sculptures and their maker, between facture, iconography, and space. Michelangelo’s non finito manifests the transitory nature of human ingenuity, marking the sculptures as immortal documents of the artist’s mortality. The timeless postures of the statues of Lorenzo and Giuliano are interpreted as a sculptural anticipation of the beatific vision when the soul itself turns immobile in the act of apprehending the immutable. What the Medici dukes contemplate from inside their niches is their own creator, but twice: God and Michelangelo, who—although he was infamously absent during the production process—is present in the ingenuity of his “living” statues and their visible toolmarks.

The book then turns to a fascinating anatomical treatise by Guido da Vigevano from the mid-fourteenth century, with its reinterpretations of religious image types on the one hand and its intellectual anchoring in the history of philosophy on the other. It provides a prelude to a longer chapter on Leonardo da Vinci’s understanding of the human body as simultaneously living and dying, caught in a complex system of physical processes that generate and consume, create and absorb. The dynamism of the body’s conflicting powers, the flow of liquids, the tension of muscles, all this is not only represented in new and naturalistic ways in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, it is also expressed through the style of his later anatomical drawings that reenact, or retrace, the dynamism of bodily fluids and movements.

Two longer chapters—“Oberflächen der Skulptur” (Surfaces of Sculpture) and "Das Leben der Farben” (The Life of Colors)—are dedicated to questions of materiality, the wet surfaces of fountain figures and the vitality of tonal color coordination. Fehrenbach argues for the deep structural and material analogies between Aristotelian and Galenian concepts of human physiology, the ensoulment of matter, and their pivotal role for Renaissance art theory (Zucchari) and practice (Titian, Lippi). The artistic strategy of the non finito is discussed in depth in the chapter “Michelangelos Ungeborene” (Michelangelo’s Unborn). Another study explores paintings by Titian and Tintoretto and their strategies of compensating for the dilemma of human transience with the glamour of nudity and money—vital forces that both exemplify and ignite human desire. These ideas are further developed in a series of studies on erotic images—from the relations of pornography and power to the enlivening functions of blushing and the softness of flesh in paintings.

The chapter on flower paintings, an enlightening excursus into the Northern Renaissance, consults sources in early modern botany, moral philosophy, and metaphysics to rethink the role of the still life in both activating our senses and reminding us of death. A seventeenth-century tulip vase from Delft with multiple openings for individual flowers and adorned with hunting scenes celebrates the cutting of flowers as an act of capture and domestication that establishes a new economy of preservation.

Giambattista Marino’s (1569–1625) ekphrastic poems, firmly rooted in the rhetoric of enlivenment, attempt to fully blur the boundaries between life and death in the Baroque period. The chapter “Tra vivo e spento” explores Marino’s pan-dynamic perspective where “everything is a living image” (416), activated by sympathetic recognition under the magnetic attraction of love. The book’s real culmination point lies, not undramatically, in the colpi vitali, the vital blows sent to us by Bernini’s sculptures—those exclamation marks of artistic virtuosity. Fehrenbach not only shows how Bernini is an ingenious director of light, he also identifies as the signum of Bernini’s living artworks the underlying philosophical and scientific ideas on the conglomerating forces of life—“the visualization of the transitions between light, ingenium, spiritus, warmth, force, and vitality” (Visualisierung der Übergänge zwischen Licht, ingenium, spiritus, Wärme (calor), Kraft und Lebendigkeit, 458).

Quasi Vivo is an erudite book and more than just another publication on the alleged “life” of artworks. Fehrenbach rethinks and complicates important artistic concepts such as mimesis, nature, ingenuity, the power of presence through thorough analyses of works of art, and their intellectual and experiential contexts. Art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods—and beyond—is an intellectually self-aware play of the senses, and its sensual appeal leads to profound insights to human nature. In other words: Art is always “just” quasi vivo and that is exactly what makes it so powerful.

Jeanette Kohl
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside