Sandro Botticelli’s contrappasso
About the unpleasant purification of visuality on the threshold of a new era
Now wax ye proud, and on with looks uplifted, ye sons of Eve, and bow not down your faces so that ye may behold your evil ways!
Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia (1)
It is said that we, the living, cannot see ghosts. If we claim we can, that implies seeing things that are not there. This doesn’t mean that ghosts do not exist, only that they do not appear to be there, they are not present. They seem to populate a twilight zone of the not-seen, of being non-visible. And yet there are people who claim to see ghosts. Is this because they see better than other people? Or because they do not see in a normal way? Or because they want to see them? In any case, talking about ghosts opens up the discussion, not only about their visibility but about the places where they may be, and where they allow themselves to be located. For, despite the urge to see them does exist, they are not visible. Perhaps the question then to ask of ghosts is nothing else but this: what is ‘not-seeing’?
Well now, to begin with, what is seeing? To see things which are not there is met with disbelief, as in the case of ghosts. The human urge to see, in other words, is driven by the presence of the visible. Seeing narrows visibility down to the actually visible, it reduces potential to presence. In underestimating as well as seeking only his own perspective, man imagines that the actuality of his vision embraces the whole reality. “I see no ghosts, therefore they don’t exist.” If ghosts do exist, they teach us that seeing and visuality could be the last Grand Narrative. As for not-seeing? That’s for sissies.
Our seeing is imbued with visuality, that is the appropriation and regulation of looking according to a Gestalt-theoretical pattern. Let us disregard here this subtle distinction between seeing and looking, the more so because within visuality they both involve the mode of volition. Our looking thrives on an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’, an undervaluation of looking itself, of the mediation of the looking act. Though we are still walking erect, visuality has become our ultimate sensory prosthesis, an orthopaedic intervention by which looking can be disengaged from its physical capacities.
In a technological sense, an almost perfect mediation – with the camera as prototype – has paradoxically increased that ‘pure visuality’, it has made looking even more naive and pure in its representation of reality. For the ‘looking technology’ is able to eliminate totally its prerequisites at the moment it is putting that reality as presence and making it visual.
The idea of pure looking has mainly been formed through the arts – as a visual Gestalt par excellence which supercedes the corporal image. In the arts of the Renaissance, seeing was for the first time claimed by radically aligning painting and looking with each other. According to Alberti a painting was nothing else but a “window looking out at the world”. That was not the case in former days, because in the light of the divine mystery, medieval arts positioned themselves with much more modesty with respect to the representation of reality. And talking of modesty, remember that Renaissance artists were also producing ‘art’ for the first time; they were pretentious in spiriting away the crafts aspect of their skills, being inclined towards eminence and spiritualisation driven by inventio and aemulatio.
There the ball started to roll, for in the Quattrocento who looked at a painting, didn’t see a painting, but reality itself. At least, reality as it was cleverly represented in a pictorial theatre. A Renaissance painting is a theatre or showman’s box, in which the figures are taken from life in order to insert them into a harmonic visual frame, determined among other things by the principle of the golden section. Symmetry and geometry impel the direction of the eye, and find their climax in the (then just discovered) perspective and vanishing points. According to the model of Brunelleschi’s camera, the eye is fixed, so that behind that peep-hole reality displays itself in a linear form.
This evolution tells us not so much about the status of reality as about looking. For the art of painting in the Quattrocento appropriates looking, and subsequently mounts it on a stage. Precisely by concealing its artistic character, its prosaic origins of paint on a base, the painting can pretend to be reality. Lyotard saw very well that already in the Renaissance there was this same ‘disappearance dynamic’ going on, like that which became explicit with photography. (2) The pictorial representation hides what falls outside the frame, and hides in one movement its own limits. It puts reality as being present and looking as being absent. In this maximal theatrical setting the illusion of maximal visibility prevails, because reality and the visible coincide with seeing, which is nothing more than a construction.
Perhaps there can be no question of not-seeing without seeing. Only the wings of looking-as-theatre are haunted. But in turn, is seeing possible without visuality? No, but the notion of conditions of possibility and limitations has to be acknowledged both in seeing and in looking. For both looking and the visual gesture of painting are transgressing the visible by their composition. Their acknowledgement asks for activity – an anamnesis of the visible. (3) But how to deal then with ghosts on the fringe of visuality – ghosts don’t even belong to the visible?
Today, visuality in artistic expressions has been gradually unmasked, being attacked for over a hundred years by the avant-garde. Where visuality is manifesting itself, it is immediately pulled down. However, the fact that this double movement was already in question in the very Quattrocento, exceeds the wildest expectations.
I have a cycle of drawings by Sandro Botticelli in my mind, illustrations for La divina commedia by Dante Alighieri. (4) Strange pictures, attractive and even stylish in their sobriety, although not at any price. In a number of drawings whole sections of the paper have almost systematically been left white. However, there’s no reason to use an expression like non finito, as the pictures appear finished. Yet the white spaces are shocking, they are looking back at you, so to speak. So your eye isn’t drawn up into a showman’s box, transformed into theatre. What seems not be executed successfully, is visuality itself.
Asserting that Botticelli was ignorant of painting theatrically is too ridiculous for words. So, his drawings give a clue that something escaped from his looking. Did he see ghosts? Did he already see blind spots and black holes? Or did he just see God? For La divina commedia is all about religious inspiration. However, Botticelli lived about two centuries after Dante, and has moreover been declared by art historians as being the first Renaissance painter who depicted profane subjects. But his profanity is more radical and undaunted than is generally accepted. Botticelli is no less than the first person to not-see – perhaps because of his artistic knowledge he was indeed able to see extremely well. And he was also the first person to admit it, namely by committing ‘profanation’ in the heart of visuality itself.
Ghosts are no longer represented behind the scenes – an anamnesis of the invisible? The visible is too fragile to defend itself against visuality. But ghosts, on the contrary, are effectively disturbing ‘looking’ by their invisibility. Botticelli’s white spaces point to the blanks that ghosts leave behind in looking, they mark the limits of visuality and make an opening for the visible. So, ghosts as workforce in an anamnesis of the visible? Quite an unsatisfactory dénouement after all – and not very ‘spooky’ either.
There has to be more, for Dante’s hereafter in La divina commedia is not always a pleasant place to be – he who looks for ghosts may find them there. The inhabitants of hell are engaged in the most horrific fights with each other, and it is also crammed with revolting plants and animals. And the shades on the mountain of purification are also severely handled. Eyelids sewn up with iron wire for instance should help the jealous to get deliverance from their sins. In preventing the jealous eye, Dante contrives a fine-spun punishment based upon inversion, according to a rule which he calls the contrappasso.
Not only the jealous use their eyes; on closer reading, seeing appears to be even a theme in La divina commedia. When setting foot on the mountain of purification, Virgil catches his companion, Dante’s alter-ego, at only believing his eyes: “Why distrustest thou? Believ’st not I am with thee, thy sure guide?” (5) The dead Virgil is in fact an incorporeal and transparent shade, his body not casting a shadow. Dante is the only human being in the hereafter, encountering one shade after the other who, in their game with absence and presence, are trying his looking behaviour.
Once the theme is introduced, an alert reading of the following cantos clearly indicates that Dante is doing nothing else but commenting upon visuality. Admittedly, it is an anachronism, but we are not the first to attribute visionary qualities to Dante’s principal work. And Dante wasn’t born yesterday, why else would he mention Cimabue and Giotto? If anybody could stimulate Dante’s surmises about the evolution of looking, than it would certainly be these coryphaei from his time, who announced the new art of painting more than a hundred years before the Quattrocento.
During the first tour on the mountain of purification, Dante marvels at the marble-white rock face, “... and so exactly wrought with quaintest sculpture, that not there alone had Polycletus, but e’en nature’s self been sham’d.” (6) Two cantos later the moral of the story follows: “What master of the pencil or the style had trac’d the shades and lines, that might have made the subtlest workman wonder? ... ... with clearer view his eye beheld not who beheld the truth, than mine what I did tread on ...” (7) The coincidence of reality with the picture and with looking, baffles every human perspective.
May it be surprising that Dante, on his tour among the haughty ones, encounters one painter after the other? Or that Virgil remarks Dante’s human dealing with the representations: “Fix not thy mind on one place only ...” (8) A subtle punishment can not stay absent, so the haughty ones are hindered by a boulder that suppresses their proud necks. They have to walk ‘low bending’, while their eyes are always directed to the ground, preventing looking. At which Dante adds: “... those spirits went beneath a weight like that we sometimes feel in dreams ...” (9)
What the painter bears is the delusion of visuality, just as also Botticelli realised when he illustrated Dante’s text. He inflicted upon himself the contrappasso invented by the writer. Bearing the heavy showman’s box on his neck, he felt visuality pressing upon his body. Yielding under the eminence he attributed to his looking, he remembered walking upright, his body as both prerequisite and limit of his looking. (10) Visuality became an additional phantom construction, overpowered by not-seeing. White spots extensively spooking around.
(1) Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia (Purgatorio, Canto XII), translated from the original by H.W. Longfellow.
(2) See Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Economie libidinale du dandy’ (1972), in L’assassinat de l’expérience par la peinture – Monory, London, 1998, pp. 131-136; and J.-F. Lyotard, ‘La peinture comme dispositif libidinal’ (1972), in Des dispositifs pulsionnels, Paris, 1980, pp. 250-258.
(3) A substantial part of Lyotard’s aesthetics has to do with this anamnesis. See for example ‘L’exposition’ (1981), in Que peindre? Adami, Arakawa, Buren, Paris, 1987, pp. 99-110; and ‘La peinture, anamnèse du visible’ (1998), in Misère de la philosophie, Paris, 2000, pp. 97-115.
(4) I am referring to a cycle of 91 drawings, brought together for the first time last year for expositions in Berlin, Rome and London. See Hein-Thomas Altcappenberg et.al., Sandro Botticelli. The Picture Cycle For Dante’s Divine Comedy, London, 2000.
(5) Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia (Purgatorio, Canto III), translated from the original by H.F. Cary.
(6) Ibid., Purgatorio, Canto X)
(7) Ibid., Purgatorio, Canto XII
(8) Ibid., Purgatorio, Canto X
(9) Ibid., Purgatorio, Canto XI
(10) ‘Horizontalisation’ as weapon against visuality has been extensively theorized by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss in Formless. A User’s Guide, New York, 1997.