This post is adapted from a lecture I gave on Pre-Raphaelite and renaissance landscape a week or so ago. My students thought I’d really gone this time…Raphael and dandelions!
In a discussion of Giovanni Bellini’s landscape, Kenneth Clark considers John Ruskin’s categories of perception. According to Ruskin, there are three kinds of perception:. Clark chooses the Frick St Francis, a visual hymn to the delights of nature and the divine joy spreading through the landscape.
“The man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself- a little flower apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be that crowd around it.” (Ruskin, cited in Clark, Landscape into Art, 38-9).
For Clark, Bellini belongs in the third category because he was able to describe accurately whilst infusing his picture of nature with his passion for it. He neither unfeelingly reduced his landscape to symbol nor was so passionless to render it in a dry and academic manner. Although 19th century, particularly Pre-Raphaelite landscape, cannot be considered the equivalent of renaissance landscape, affinities have been seen between the two types. Writing in the catalogue to the Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth To Nature exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2005, curator Alison Smith commented on how mid nineteenth-century English landscape painting, with its microscopic fidelity to detail not only encouraged links, but actually had more in common with the renaissance than post-renaissance landscape.
“Although Pre-Raphaelite landscapes do not closely resemble those of early Italian and Flemish painters, their nom de guerre nevertheless invited such comparisons, and indeed connections can be established in the Victorian painters’ adoption of devices such as the isolation of natural details, and an equality of focus throughout, which suggests a rebuttal of the landscape conventions that predominated after the Renaissance.” (cat, 14).
In Northern renaissance art, nature often had symbolic meaning like the beautiful still-life at the centre of Hugo van der Goes’s renowned Portinari Triptych, all the more remarkable because it was painted before the genre was invented. This arrangement of fruits, flowers and plants is discussed by Craig Harbinson in his Art of the Northern Renaissance (58-9). Everything performs a symbolic function here: violets stand for Christ’s humility, lilies and iris for the passion, columbine for the Holy Spirit, 3 carnations represent the blood of the nailed saviour to the cross, grapes on the fine jar suggest the Eucharist. Adding an interpretation of my own: the translucent glass of water probably represents the purity of the Virgin, but meanings could be multiplied further. I read it as a representation of Christ and his mother anthropomorphised by the vessels which suggest human form.
Although the PRB’s practice of rendering landscapes in minute detail was criticised, Ruskin sprang to the movement’s defence with an argument that considered the Italian Raphael’s approach to art as well as the representation of the natural world.
“We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet highly original manner: that is to say he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules…This I say is the kind of teaching which the Royal Academy lecturing, press criticisms, public enthusiasms, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters.” (Ruskin, quoted in Colin Cruise, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, 64).
Yet as Alison Smith argues in her discussion of Pre-Raphaelite landscape, despite their disavowal of Raphael, some P.R.B. artists were inclined to draw on him and other renaissance master’s treatment of nature when conceiving their vision of it. This tendency seems to have been pronounced in the art of William Holman- Hunt, who in the words of Smith, “..appropriated the quattrocento use of micro-environments of precise natural detail offset by artificial space-creating devices such as window ledges and orthogonal lines of recession.”
According to this curator it was Carlo Lasinio’s engravings of Benozzo Gozzoli’s fragile frescoes at Campo Santo that helped the painter to organise the landscape in a number of early works such as the Rienzi of 1848.
“The trees disposed as if in homage to the law of linear perspective in Rienzi and the Hireling Shepherd (1852) are surely allusions to the friction that exists in fifteenth-century landscape between the primacy of empirical observation and emerging cognitive ordering systems, just as the quotation in Rienzi of the dandelion ‘clock’ in Raphael’s St Catherine of Alexandria was probably intended as a tribute to the patient observation of natural phenomena in Renaissance landscape painting.” (cat, 14).
I have no idea what the dandelion means in HH’s Rienzi, but is it an example of “observation of natural phenomena” in Raphael’s 1507 St Catherine? Why was Raphael interested in plant life? What was his attitude to the “natural phenomena” of renaissance landscape? I found myself wondering and dived into my books on the artist. In Carol Plazzota’s entry on the painting in the London Raphael: Urbino to Rome catalogue, she points out that Raphael included the humble dandelion, probably as a symbol of grief because this “bitter herb” appears in Northern and German paintings of the crucifixion. (cat, 224). This is taking us back to Hugo’s plant life,. but I don’t think there was a dandelion in that. The crucifixion was represented by red carnations (nail flowers).
But Plazzota notes the dandelion’s appearance in the slightly earlier Holy Family with a Palm and the Baglione Entombment (same date as the St Catherine) which definitely is related to the crucifixion. In this composition the dandelion is deliberately juxtaposed with Raphael’s signature on a rock. This seems to have been first spotted by Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny in their book on the master (Raphael, 44). The authors remark on the “curious” combination of painter’s signature and dandelion, and say that the work is “signed”. Puzzling my brains I wonder if this is a kind of anthromorphization of a natural feature and that the dandelion/ painted signature in the landscape refers to the painter himself? It would be a witty conceit to have this kind of artistic calling card invented with the aid of nature. But I have another thought. Returning to Ruskin’s comments on art and nature, he says that 19th century young painters are taught to believe that Nature is full of faults, and that they should improve on her. For Raphael, landscape was not even faulty, just an armature for the art of painting itself. In his early career he placed his ensembles in Perugino’s Umbrian landscapes; when he got to Rome he abandoned the natural world for architectural grandeur. Could Raphael’s dandelion symbol suggest a relationship between art and nature? Not a reconciliation, but a trumping of the natural environment by the artifice of painting. Dandelion= nature, painted inscription = Raphael’s art. Dandelions occur frequently in renaissance art but next to artists’ signatures! This symbol in the landscape must mean something. Why not this?