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A Poetic Urgency: Sculpture and Poetry in Dialogue in the Early Modern World

Fernando Loffredo
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2015 – 2017

Melchiorre Cafà, Saint Rose of Lima, detail showing an angel with Saint Rose and inscription, 1665. Convento de Santo Domingo, Lima. Author photograph

The princess hearing of her mother’s statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina, — a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione, that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer.

With these words William Shakespeare describes in The Winter’s Tale the astonishingly lifelike marble portrait of Hermione, queen of Sicilia. Being unfairly accused of adultery, the queen faints during the humiliating trial before her husband, King Leontes, and is thought to be dead. As we discover at the end of the play, Hermione lives on in her memorial sculpture, miraculously realized by the Italian master Giulio Romano (c. 1499 – 1546). Shakespeare here responds to the topos of sculpture as lacking only a voice to be a living presence. I argue that it is through poetry that early modern sculpture finds its voice and changes its meaning.

The two-year A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at CASVA allowed me to work on two projects, the first described in Center 36 and the second a book entitled “A Poetic Urgency: Sculpture and Poetry in Dialogue in the Early Modern World.” My purpose is to emphasize the osmotic interchange between sculpture and poetry in sixteenth-century Mediterranean Europe and beyond. I argue that the frequent association of sculpture with poetry reveals patrons’ intention to provide silent statues with a literary voice and that the aesthetic experience of urban monuments as well as sculptures in private contexts was significantly shaped by the coexistence of poetry. This project thus investigates the ways in which these two arts read, cite, and translate each other.

My aim is to rediscover the evidence of what I call an “urgent need” for a poetic voice in early modern sculpture over a wide chronological and geographical range. This project begins in 1493, the year in which humanist Ambrogio Leone wrote to Jacopo Sannazaro, asking him to participate in the collection of poems he was putting together, called Beatricium. The peculiarity of this anthology, which was never published, is that it was motivated by a statue of Beatrice specifically commissioned for the purpose of inspiring poetry. As I discuss in a chapter of a forthcoming book, the Beatricium constitutes a unique example of a collection of poems dedicated to a sculpture and must be considered a highly significant precedent for the Coryciana. The latter is probably the best-known collection of poetry ever devoted to a sculpture, the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne of Andrea Sansovino (d. 1529), commissioned by Hans Goritz for his private chapel in Sant’Agostino in Rome.

The Beatricium poems elaborate upon the classical contrapposto of
art and nature: sculpture that can attain mimesis to the point of deceiving the spectator, or the work of art that lacks only the power of speech in order to achieve lifelikeness. A century later, Shakespeare played as well with the topos of the living sculpture. The Winter’s Tale was performed for the first time around 1610/1611 and was most probably written shortly before. In the same decade and in a similar vein, Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio (1565 – 1635), the most celebrated playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, took inspiration from sculpture for his sonnets and poems. In 1602 Lope was the guest of his patron and friend Juan de Arguijo, a wealthy Sevillian intellectual also known for his sonnets. The first and second editions of Lope’s Rimas (Madrid, 1602; Seville, 1604) are dedicated to Arguijo, as is the renowned epistle Para escribir Virgilio de las abejas, which contains one of the earliest accounts of Lope’s ideas on poetry and rhetoric. As I wrote in a recent article, one of Lope’s sonnets (120) praises the beauty and naturalism of two statues that were displayed in Arguijo’s Sevillian house: an Adonis and a Venus with Cupid. Lope reflects upon the contest between art and nature, but through the reverse of the process dramatized by Shakespeare. The Spanish writer refers instead to the Ovidian myth of Anaxarete, who was turned into a statue by Venus because her heart was insensitive to love: not a statue come to life but human life converted to the frozen and silent state of statuary.

Finally, this project will explore the relationship between sculpture, poetry, and urban identity, encompassing diverse regions and cultural traditions throughout Europe and the Americas. The heroic poem Vida de Santa Rosa de Santa María, natural de Lima, y patrona del Perú was written in the late 1680s by Luis Antonio de Oviedo y Herrera, conde de la Granja (1636 – 1717), and published in Madrid in 1711. Rose of Lima was the first Catholic saint born in the Americas, and her beatification in 1668 was a crucial event in the history of the so-called New World. Pope Clement IX commissioned a statue from the baroque sculptor Melchiorre Cafà (1636 – 1667), which was shipped from Rome to Peru in 1670 and is preserved in the convent of Santo Domingo in Lima. Oviedo’s poem ends with adulation of the statue just as the vida santa of Rose culminates with her canonization. Oviedo’s writing of Vida de Santa Rosa has been related to the publication of the first plan of the city of Lima in 1688. In a clear juxtaposition, the glory of the city of Lima in these octaves corresponds to the glory of Saint Rose, immortalized in her statue.

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