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Absence Made Present: Drawing the Memory Body, 1400 – 1750

Caroline O. Fowler

A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2013 – 2015


Luca Ciamberlano, print from drawing book, c. 1610 / 1620. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow

Leon Battista Alberti wrote in De pictura (1435) that painting is divine because, “as they say of friendship, a painting lets the absent be present.” My book “Absence Made Present: Drawing the Memory Body, 1400 – 1750” examines this relationship between absent and present objects and subjects in early modern artistic pedagogy. Alberti’s statement refers to portraiture’s ability to capture a face so that presence endures in likeness. Yet the philosophical complications of what it meant to create the illusion of a person’s or object’s presence in the condition of absence has yet to be addressed fully by scholars as a guiding force behind early modern artistic theory. As my research demonstrates, this dialectic between presence and absence guided artistic pedagogy. Artists first learned to draw from present objects: prints, drawings, sculptures, and bodies. In the final stages of training, draftsmen became masters once they could draw from the intellect with no object or body present.

Whereas recent studies in art history have focused on the “visible” (particularly life drawing, or drawing ad vivum), my book argues that drawing pedagogy did not, in fact, seek to teach how to imitate what was before the eyes. Instead, an artist’s virtuosity manifested itself when he brought forth histories and images that stimulated in the viewer the sensation of being present before the historical moment, the person, the still life. The manifestation of presence remained not only in the sensation of sight but also in the sense of being before an extended body that exists in all the sensory perceptions of touch, taste, and smell and in the sixth sense: that of sensing, the experience of existence. Although the camera obscura and Keplerian theories of vision may have emerged as pervasive models for describing early modern artistic practice (particularly in the seventeenth century), my book demonstrates that the Aristotelian conception of impression persisted. In this system, objects impressed themselves into the psyche of the artist through the outer sensory organs with the aid of the inner senses, such as memory, cognition, and imagination. Indeed, pedagogical theory aimed to train those inner capacities so that the artist might master the ability to evoke the outer sensations of sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound.

To define the contours of draftsmanship in early modern pedagogy, my research focuses on the emergent genre of printed drawing manuals, authored by major artists to teach drawing. Famous examples include Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung (1525), Luca Ciamberlano’s Scuola perfetta (1610 / 1620), Crispijn van de Passe’s Licht der teken en schilderkonst (1643), Abraham Bloemaert’s Artis Apellae liber (1650 – 1656), and Johann Daniel Preissler’s Gründliche Anweisung zu richten Entwürffen (1737).

My work identifies two genres of drawing manuals. Treatises such as Dürer’s Underweyssung der Messung begin with the geometric elements of the point and the line. Instruction proceeded from these geometric universals to “the particular.” Other manuals, such Ciamberlano’s Scuola perfetta, initiate draftsmanship in copying sensory organs (eyes, ears, noses) and include no geometric images. This pedagogy developed in the early seventeenth century in response, as I argue, to the publication of Federico Zuccaro’s L’Idea de pittori, scultori ed architetti (1607). In this treatise, Zuccaro argued that it is impossible to start at a universal form (such as a geometric shape), for knowledge unfolds by progressing from the particular to the universal. Thus an established workshop practice of copying ears, eyes, and noses became a popular subject for printed drawing manuals as artists visually explored a conception of draftsmanship founded within a progression of learning from the particular experience of the object to the “universal” form. My book maps the artistic manuals, from Dürer’s Underweysung to Preissler’s Gründliche, that both define and transgress these two pedagogical systems.

By examining the products of early modern artistic pedagogy from printed drawing books to theoretical works, my book explores a period in artistic practice when art, mathematics, and philosophy were founded upon the interlinking of sensory and suprasensory worlds, entities in which the physical and the metaphysical were interwoven, from Euclidean points and lines to eyes, ears, and noses. After 1750 artistic pedagogy became divorced from the suprasensory and was instead devoted to the empiricism of the five senses, particularly the ocular world. In unraveling the pedagogical threads from 1400 to 1750 we can chart the foundational presence of the metaphysical in early modern drawing practice and explain why this presence became untenable in the “absence” of God.


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Absence Made Present: An Early Modern History of Drawing and the Senses
Caroline O. Fowler
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2013 – 2015

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