Toward a Geography of Art

Toward a Geography of Art

by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann

ISBN: 9780226133126

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Study & Teaching

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Historiography of The Geography of Art: From Antiquity to the End of the Eighteenth Century


The term art as the concept is now used in the sense of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, architectur, etc.) was not specifically elaborated as such in antiquity; the modern definition of the visual arts is at most three centuries old. The Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and the Latin ars connote something more general, like a learned skill or craft. Kunstgeschichte, or l'histoire de l'art, the history of art in the contemporary sense, did not become articulated until the end of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Kunstgeographie, the geography of art, is even younger: the term did not emerge until the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, just as it is possible to reconstruct ideas about the visual arts and to demonstrate that certain approaches to the history of art preceded the writing of Johann Joachim Winckelmann on Kunstgeschichte, and that some such approaches even existed in antiquity, so is it possible to locate older ideas about the geography of art. Furthermore, while this book addresses the discussion of architecture and of objects that have traditionally been regarded as works of art-leaving the problem of a definition of art somewhat open, or expanding it to include really anything man-made or crafted with value attached to it-Toward a Geography of Art helps to establish a broader context for exploring what now can be called the historiography of the geography of art.

Long before the term "history of art" was coined or the modern definition of art was formulated, notions of place as well as time were included in discussions of what are now called works of art and architecture. Much as a historical discourse on art may be traced back to antiquity, speaking and writing about art and architecture in relation to the place where these objects were made or located have also long belonged to various discourses. Discussion of the geography of art may therefore be said to be as old as the literature on art.

From the earliest surviving texts of the European tradition onward, geography and history appear intertwined in texts in which objects and monuments are discussed. As noted in the introduction, in the fifth century B.C.E. Herodotus incorporated lengthy geographical passages into his history of the Persian Wars. For example, he interrupts his accounts of the Persian conquest of Egypt and their expedition against Scythia with lengthy descriptions of those lands. His account of Egypt (book 2) includes portrayals of its peoples and their customs, products, and monuments, which in turn contain notable descriptions of temples and particularly the pyramids (2.124 ff.).

As the initiator of the Western tradition of historiography, Herodotus also had an impact on subsequent discussions of the arts. Later writers mined his materials. For instance, among the objects that Herodotus mentions is the golden plane tree of the king of Persia, which he says had been given to Darius (7.27). The second-century C.E. writer Lucian uses a discussion of this tree to disparage the taste of the Persians. Discussing the general topic of rooms ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2.5), he says that this tree, though made and combined with gold, was of venal value; it did not display any technical mastery (art, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), beauty, grace, proportion, or elegance. In his memorable words, the Barbarians are not lovers of beauty but of riches ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

Since the legend of the tree is derived from much earlier sources, and serves as the vehicle for a negative comparison of the Persians to the Greeks, it is possible that this contrast dates to the time of the open conflicts between Greeks and Asiatics. Lucian's stance is not at all an inherently obvious one for him to have taken, if it be kept in mind that the writer, though he settled in Athens, was from Mesopotamia. Even though he was a Greek speaker, Lucian could in another sense have been regarded as an Asiatic.

While Lucian's statements may thus be regarded as a means of self-conscious identification, the contrast he makes may relate to discussions of oratory found in ancient texts on rhetoric. Cicero, for example, contrasts Attic elegance with Asiatic luxury (for example, De optimo genere oratorum [The best kind of orator], book 3); this was a comparison in which Asiatic originally referred to those who speak or write in the classical languages, but live in Asia. Quintillian (12.10.1) specifically compares the differences found in types of sculpture and painting to those found in types of eloquence, and in so doing relates the difference between Greek and Etruscan statues to that between Attic and Asian eloquence. As we shall see, Pliny made a similar distinction between Helladic and Asiatic painters; both groups were presumably Greek. Much later Luigi Lanzi was also to pick up Quintillian's distinction for his own discussion of Etruscan sculpture. In any event, the practice of categorizing types by place remained alive in rhetorical and poetic arguments through the ages. Lucian's comments represent even more directly the fateful association of taste and quality in the visual arts with particular ethnic groups.

It is, moreover, likely that by the time of Socrates in the fifth century, the Greeks generally associated cultural products with their places of origin. In a later antique compilation developed from various sources circa 200 C.E., Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 1.27-28) lists various sorts of items, among them fruits and animals, according to the country, region, or city specializing in their production. In the midst of these lists he includes an elegy by the Sophist Kritias, whose name is also the title of a Platonic dialogue, and who is usually regarded as a pre-Socratic author. This poem talks chiefly, though not entirely, about objects:

The cottabos is the chief product of Sicily; we set it up as a mark to shoot at with drops of wine. Next comes the Sicilian cart, the best in lavish beauty. The throne is Thessalian, a most comfortable seat for the limbs. But the glory of the couch whereon we sleep belongs to Miletus and to Chios, Oenopon's city of the sea. The Etruscan cup of beaten gold is the best, as well as all bronze that adorns the house, whatever its use. The Phoenicians invented letters, preservers of words. Thebes was the first to join together the chariot-box, and the Carians, stewards of the sea, the cargo-bearing clippers; and she that raised her glorious trophy at Marathon invented the potter's wheel and the child of clay and the oven, noblest pottery, useful in house-keeping.

Athenaeus adds: "And in fact Attic pottery is held in high esteem. But Eubulus speaks of 'Cnidian jars, Sicilian pans, Megarian casks.'"

These sources reveal not only that objects were associated with places, but also that works were evaluated according to the taste of the lands where they had been manufactured. This typing of objects according to their place of origin is, of course, an elementary form of geographical categorization.

Ancient topographic treatises further elaborated the description of objects according to their location. Like geography, topography has a twofold definition: as a body or object of knowledge, and in the way it is ordered. Topography is defined as the configuration of a land surface including its relief and the position of its natural and man-made features, and as the accurate or detailed delineation or description of a particular place or places. In the latter sense, topographic interests appear in various sorts of works, including historical accounts, such as Herodotus's, though they appear more clearly in geographical treatises, like the work of Strabo. Topography in antiquity also takes form in a specific genre, exemplified by periegesis (description). Representative of this style is the Description of Greece, as his work is usually translated, by another second-century C.E. author, Pausanias.

Along with natural features of places, Pausanias describes individual cities, such as Corinth. In so doing he indicates where major monuments (temples, statues, and the like) can be found. He lists them and details their patrons, sources, associated myths, and occasionally the artist who made them; frequently accounts of when and why certain monuments were erected are included. Pausanias also seems to have had some idea of the regional character of art; he talks, for instance, about the art of Aeginatean sculpture or works (1.42.5, 2.30.1, 5.25.13, 7.5.5, 8.43.11, 10.17.12, and 10.36.5). Scholars have pointed out his particular interest in what were already ancient works, namely those of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., as reflected in the example he cites from Aegina and those he mentions from other regions.

Although his may not have been the first account of its kind, Pausanias's is the only complete surviving text of this type. It may thus be said to represent the beginning of the tradition of the topography of art. One expression of this tradition is the guidebook or handbook, exemplified in the Middle Ages by various texts for pilgrims and other travelers, like the Mirabilia (Natural wonders) of the city of Rome. The guidebook genre flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when numerous writers, such as Pietro Lami in Bologna, penned descriptions of monuments or artworks to be found in various cities. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an entire periegetic literature was produced for travelers: guidebooks for those on the grand tour. Julius von Schlosser devotes a large portion of his magnum opus on the literature of art to these pre-nineteenth-century sources. In the nineteenth century, works such as Jakob Burckhardt's Cicerone carried on the tradition of guidebooks that describe artworks for travelers. The Baedekers, Michelins, and Dumonts, along with publications of the Touring Club Italiano of today, are guidebooks that discuss art or monuments in relation to the places where they can be found, thereby continuing this aspect of the art topographic tradition.

This type of guidebook may be called artistic chorography, to distinguish it from another tradition of topographic literature, the topographic inventory. In the Renaissance the latter is represented by Marc Antonio Michiel's Notizie, in which objects are simply listed according to where they may be found, place by place, without any sort of connective guiding material. The topographic inventory lasted through the nineteenth century, when a significant development occurred: series of inventories of monuments, often called artistic topographies (Kunsttopographie), were begun in various European countries, including the German lands, Austria-Hungary, and France. The Buildings of England series edited by Nicholas (Nikolaus) Pevsner is comparable. In some regions-the Czech Republic, Poland, and elsewhere-such inventories continue to be made or revised. So, too, are the Dehio handbooks for Germany and Austria.

Works ranging from the account produced by the Venetian Renaissance author Michiel to the modern Michelin Guides may be said to intersect with art history when they provide information on the origins or historical context of the monuments they describe or give some other sort of historical information. Admittedly, distinguishing between the topographic and the historical is often difficult, because in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the two approaches might be combined in the same work. A book that describes a place may also include historical information in its account. And in more recent times, works of art history have included a topographic approach along with a historical one.

Still, some distinctions can be drawn. Even if the two categories at times intersect, topography can be distinguished from historiography. Of the ancient origins of the tradition it has been said that "Pausanias does not write history for the sake of history.... He is not, and does not intend to be, a historian, and should not be judged by the standards applied to historians." Thus although it has also been said that Pausanias emulated Herodotus, more convincing arguments have been made that he "was not a historian, mythologist, or ethnographer, nor did he claim to be." His interests in monuments of the past can better be described as those of an antiquarian. Antiquarianism, an interest in objects of the past for their own sake rather than for their use in a chronological or historical account, dates at least from the time of Herodotus, and may be distinguished from historiography-although, again, the boundaries are fluid.

The interest in monuments that writers in the tradition of Pausanias display often does not extend beyond the descriptive. History enters their narratives insofar as it enhances the description of when something was made; but characteristically in Pausanias and later such writers, no broader historical account, system, or theory of causation is evinced. The topographic approach, in whatever form, is not concerned with a narrative that is arranged in chronological order. Works belonging to the art topographic traditions as here described are instead disposed according to place. Objects made in vastly different time periods but found in geographical proximity to one another may thus be described in sequence; so, too, may buildings or works of the same type or genre, but of vastly differing dates. Thus while topography may intersect with history, it does not correspond to it, and does not necessarily interact with it.

In addition, topography lacks the sort of systematic or synthetic aspect that is found in geography, as usually defined. Geography, including geography of art, may deal with something more general than the description of the place where an object is located, though it may include that in its purview. It may organize material according to its association with space, but it may do something more with it, because place of origin or localization is a central concern in the discipline. Hence, as distinct from topography, artistic geography may be described as an account in which location or place of origin becomes an important issue in the distinctive characterization of the work of art, not just a chance or random fact; place may even be established as a determining factor in the existence or appearance of an artwork. In any event, the tradition of what is here called "the geography of art" originates in antiquity, and in a different context from that of topography. For even though geography may be said to present a synchronic view (like topography and chorography), it may also apply chronological treatments, and not just for the sake of historical examples.

In antiquity, several important ideas were advanced about the effect of geography on its human inhabitants and the objects they made, and some involved discussions of history. Most important of these is the theory that factors such as climate determine cultural products. The belief that climate, hence temperature, hence location affect human beings and their creations has been called the environmental theory of cultural history and has been traced to the ancient Greeks. Clarence Glacken, the scholar who has provided the fullest account of the history of the ideas of nature in relation to culture, locates these particular concepts as appearing in the corpus of Hippocrates and its sources, most particularly in the Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places.


Excerpted from "Toward a Geography of Art" by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Copyright © 0 by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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