Thursday, July 06, 2006


The Art of Science

There is an interesting take on the relationship of science and art in Renaissance Italy and how the same forces may have killed off both. The impetus for the article, "Ways of seeing," by Jonathan Jones, is the opening of an exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, England called The Starry Messenger, which takes Galileo's book of that name as a starting point for an exploration of cosmic imagery in art.

The fate of Galileo is one of the iconic stories of modern times. We think of it as a story about science. But in Renaissance Italy, there was no separation between art and science. Artists were at the forefront of scientific research - Leonardo da Vinci championed experiment a century before Galileo, and even anticipated, without a telescope, his observation that light reflected off the Earth illuminates the moon. Galileo refers to Da Vinci's Precepts on Painting, which means he had access to Da Vinci's notebooks. He praises Raphael and Titian, and uses Michelangelo as an image of the mystery of creation.

But that was not the end of the connection.

Galileo was an art lover - and when he came before the Inquisition in 1633, he was prosecuted by other art lovers. The centrality of this story to the world of baroque Rome has been censored from cultural history. Galileo was confronted by the Barberini family, patrons of Bernini, of the florid ecstatic style of the baroque. Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, commissioned Bernini's Disney excesses that give the finishing touch to the interior of St Peter's; and it was this Barberini Pope who took personal offence at Galileo's Dialogue, believing some of Simplicio's words parodied him. Which they doubtless do.

When Galileo was silenced, you could see this as the triumph of the baroque way of seeing the world over the scientific tradition of the Renaissance. ...

. . . The art of baroque painters owes nothing to observation, nothing to that loving examination of the visible that makes the art of Da Vinci or Titian, and the science of Galileo, so alive. Baroque art looses itself from nature and, for a moment, that is liberating - but compare any of it with the Renaissance and it is a fall.

Milton, who had traveled to Italy and met Galileo "grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy" declared that at least a certain religious belief had "damped the glory of Italian wits."

I have no idea whether Jones is right about the fall of art and the fall of science being connected but, in a way, I hope it is true. For one thing, it would confirm, in an indirect but very persuasive way, that science feeds off the same impulse in humans to strive for truth and beauty that fuels art. And it would promise that science, like art, survives the assaults of the barbarian and the despot and is subversive of all things that would crush the spirit of our species.

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