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Renaissance Poetry

              I.   Prelude: Words and Colors
              II.  What is Art Interpretation?
              III. The Philosophical Foundations of Poetry and Painting
              IV. A Riddle by Michelangelo Buonarroti
              V.  Francesco Petrarca's secretum
"Ancora Imparo": A Widespread Misattribution to Michelangelo


"Sed exitialis haec persuasio cepit hominum mentes, ut non placere nos illus putemus, quibus errata nostra non placent, liberumque amicorum judicium, vel odium, vel morositatem ; adulationem vero, amorem et naturae bonitatem interpretemur.  Ita fit ut dum laudari malumus vel immeriti, quam vel merentes castigari, irrideamur semper, laudem numquam mereamur." (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, "Response to the first objections [raised against the De Ente et Uno]"


Prelude: Words and Colors

The difference between words and colors in their respective articulationWords are mathematical entities midway between colors and insights.  From the perspective of physical bodies, words have lost their color, without being cut off from particularity.  The world of words appears as a world made of the shadows of colors, though these shadows extend more readily than colors to the “otherworld” of meaning. Proper speech connects colors to philosophical ideas, so that from the perspective of colors’ end, i.e. of their essence, words are the shadows of ideas, rather than of sensory colors.  But where speech’s proper telos is obscured, or where speech posits itself as its own end by cutting itself off from the physical world of colors, speech, being now corrupt, appears as a shadow of merely physical forces.


What is Art Interpretation?

Entering into matter (inferno, being the abyss of imagination) to emerge victorious: fire is needed to strengthen the civilizing sword of virtue. The human Phoenix re-emerges from the depths of earth (humus) as hero. He is the living artwork—the shadow of virtue, while those forgetful of their heroic nature bow to an abstracted marketable shadow of shadows: dead “material.

         The uprooted artwork is an empty shell. The pertinent labor of true interpretation consists of retracing the shell to its pristine rootedness: discovering the shell in the light of its source, as a living being. This way, interpretation awakens us to our heroic stature, dependent directly upon the vis mentis, the “strenght of mind” that is the agency disclosing, sustaining, conserving the human world.

          Interpretation is given its proper end by the very source of the work of art. Aside from this given end, interpretation remains trapped in a vortex of shadows at a second remove from the truth that is virtue proper as “master key” to the constitution of art as context.  Contextualization of artwork is misguided as long as it does not rise to “context” as living artwork—as long as it conceives “context” as dead material. Genuine art-interpretation is the attempt to rise from the dead context of artifacts to its living counterpart as art itself. In this respect, interpretation must cross the valley of death, experimenting the hero’s journey—rehearsing his feat, albeit not as end in itself, but as stage for a return to the truth about the hero.


The Philosophical Foundations of Poetry and Painting

Modernist and post-modernist "Art Critics" as such approach paintings from without as instances of a "res extensa" to be quantified, but the "quality" of which is to be "enjoyed" in private as something "added" onto a painting from without.  

Modern art history as such abandons a pre-Cartesian understanding of the painting as inherently meaningful or as bespeaking a deep or hidden meaning.  Paintings are now talked about from without, rather than from within or in the language of paintings themselves.  The critic's language is incommensurate to that of the painting's (and painter's) language, leaving its audience perplexed in the face of an incongruity between word and image.

The premodern or pre-"scientific" approach to paintings is properly poetic.  Now, poetry imitates nature, not paintings.  How then is poetry to shed light on a painting?  How could the imitation of nature help us understand a painting that--in its premodern valence--is itself an imitation of nature? 

Intending poetry and painting as two modes of imitation of nature, we are practically forbidden from overcoming the distinction between the two modes.  In imitating nature, poetry points to painting, or it takes painting as its "mirror of nature"--as our own stage of reflection.  The "contrived" image of nature is articulated poetically in the respect that poetry "unravels" the painting in the direction of its natural prototype.  The poem crosses the "lofty passage" (Dante's alto passo) that separates the artful appearance of nature from nature itself.  Here nature is not the mere appearance beheld by our uneducated senses, but the self-subsisting "substratum" of all appearances--both the uneducated and the educated.

We are accustomed to consider a painted image as a mere artifact and an "outdoors" landscape as purely natural.  Constructivism or postmodernism notwithstanding, we sense that no man has created ordinary physical landscapes--their sky, stars, mountains and rivers.  These things we might be able to inhabit, but we cannot create them as we create a painted landscape on canvas.  We may "remold" them in some cases, but we cannot create them as we please, as if out of nothing, or ex nihilo.  Yet, the physical world as such is a world of appearances relatively to our sensory faculties: the physical world is constituted through the imagination.  Yet, our imagination, a "sense" common to all of our senses, is hardly accountable for the order of the physical world.  Not the imagination, but reason orders the parts of a whole image or form.  Imagination grasps wholes, or parts as if they were wholes; it does not "measure" or "weigh" distances; it does not "compare" parts by way of ordering them into a hierarchical or intelligible order.  This is the work of reason, or ratio.  

The difficolty of accounting for order in "the visible universe" was met by medieval Christian theologians with an appeal to God as perfecta ratio, or as a reason immanent in the constitution of physical appearances.  How else could we account for order there where we have yet to begin reasoning?  Here, our reason discovers an order that is already inherent in the sensory world and that our senses fail to account for.  Our reason uncovers the inherence or latency of divine reason in the physical universe, or in nature in its "vulgar" dimension.     So upon reflection, the medieval theologian reaches the conclusion that our reasoning stands as "shadow-image" of a more powerful reason that "creates order in nature": divine reason, not any human reason, holds the "pieces" of our sensory experience together--providentially, so that we may then catch at least glimpses of order in pious recognition of its constitutive agency, or of the "how" of its subsistence.

In abandoning the medieval intuition into the agency of divine reason in nature--an intuition that draws from both Biblical and "Greek"/philosophical teachings--modern "science" has sought to account for natural order as self-generating, or as mechanical.  Modernist conceptions of nature remain mechanistic in the respect that they invite us to discover the "mechanisms" grounding the world of our ordinary experience.  These "mechanisms" are assumed to be the "how" of the constitution of sensory wholes, prior to our rational intervention.  So with modernism, reason returns, not to a rational agent underlying the sensory universe, but to a mechanism, or a fateful chain of reasons--a concatenation of factors that are opaque to any deeper reason.  At the bottom of "nature," modernism finds or invents no living reason or rational agency, but a "geometrical structure" cognitive access to which allows us to reconfigure our experience: by "manipulating" the fundamental mechanism, we may remold our very nature.

Modernism faces the difficulty faced by all mechanistic readings of nature: no sheer mechanism can account for our own rational agency.  A "mechanism" might be believed to be the "reason" for our experience ("reason" may be conveived narrowly as merely instrumental), but it fails completely to account for our own discernment, our own choices, our liberty, our capacity to withdraw from appearances and to "look back" upon things, including such a thing as "underlying mechanisms." Again, it is we who think of mechanisms, not mechanisms that thing of us.  Mechanisms do not think.  Clocks do not know the time they are used to measure.

Outside of the parameters of both modernism and medieval theology, Renaissance Platonism--from Dante to Vico--revived a classical appreciation of the sensory universe as constituted through a hidden rational agency: not a revealed rational God, as in the case of Christian or "revealed" theology, but a secret human agency beyond physical determinations--an agency rooted in its own infinite or indefinite form or mind, which somehow contained all motion or bodies.  The form or mind in question would be human in the respect that it belongs primarily to man's rational faculty and only secondarily to the physical world that our reason comes to order.  Prior to our ordering the sensory world, the world would then be, not primarily sensory or "vulgar," but intelligible and eternal: a "sacred" world permanently ordered within the boundaries of the proper form of our rational faculty.

Given its essential insight, Renaissance Platonism would find no difficulty in presenting itself as Christian.  For Christian theology could be interpreted as teaching, or at least as presupposing that the Biblical God is the proper form of our own rational faculty.  As for dissonances between the Renaissance understanding of nature and its Christian theological counterpart, a solution was offered by the pura philosophia of political-minded Averroists.  Renaissance Platonists could avoid all conflict with orthodox theological doctrines by communicating poetically, or by speaking in poetic riddles within the boundaries, not of "nature," but of "art." Renaissance Platonists would then dedicate their energies both to painting an admittedly fictitious stage for speech, and to speaking poetically, or within speech's feigned environemnt.  Poetry would be the articulation of paintings preparing us to discover the natural-divine foundations of the painter's art.  The poetic, exoteric "imitation of nature" would entail nature as esoteric divine art, or--to speak with Dante--visibile parlare, a logos/speech that contains its form eternally. 


   A Riddle by Michelangelo Buonarroti:

Non sempre a tutti è sì pregiato e caro
quel che ’l senso contenta,
c’un sol non sia che ’l senta,
se ben par dolce, pessimo e amaro.
Il buon gusto è sì raro
c’al vulgo errante cede
in vista, allor che dentro di sé gode.

Così, perdendo, imparo
quel che di fuor non vede

chi l’alma ha trista, e ’ suo sospir non ode.
El mondo è cieco e di suo gradi o lode
più giova a chi più scarso esser ne suole,
come sferza che ’nsegna e parte duole.

(Rima 109, in Paola Mastrocola, ed.  1992.  Rime e Lettere di Michelangelo.  Torino: Utet.)

The poem presents itself as a riddle in the tradition of Dante and Petrarca.  A faithful translation follows: 

Not always is to all so worthy ’n’ dear

what sense contains

that no one lives to sense

well if what appears is sweet or foul or sour.

 Good taste is so rare 

that for the erring many it withdraws

from sight, whereas within itself does it rejoice. 

 So do I learn in yielding 

that which outwardly he does not see 

whose soul is dark, and does not hear his own desire. 

The world is blind and its degrees and laude 

 does it bestow more on those who deserve them least,

as teaching whip that wounds.


Here follows an explication of the poetic riddle:

Not all of the time are all men fooled by appearances, for at least one alone (namely the poet) remains to judge well of them.  Good taste for outward appearances, and thus fine practical judgment, withdraws from the many who are lost in appearances by having erred away from what is not mere appearance.  The Poet pulls back from appearances in order to see them as they are; he learns of appearances by withdrawing from them, lest his soul be obscured and thus blinded by them—as is the blind world whose judgment teaches the poet to withdraw from its sight.

           Francesco Petrarca's secretum

Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta is the title of a "loose" collection of sonnets composed by the Renaissance poeta theologus, Francesco Petrarca.  The collection's original title indicates "scattered verses in the vernacular," but also "fragments of worldly things," or rather--in the light of Christianity's "sacred things" (sacra)--Petrarca's title stands for, "Fragments of a Pagan World"--fragments that the Tuscan sets out to gather into a poetic whole reminiscent of Dante's "wild wilderness" (selva selvaggia).

Sonetto I 

Where the Poet, as teacher of love, or as educator of desire, "humbles" himself by way of inducing his student to be disenchanted with worldly fame or popular approval, which is made vain by its tacit or underlying springboard: the common sense or dream that man is a function of his passions or physical appearance.

You who listen in scattered rhymes to the sound

of those sighs whence I would nourish the heart

upon my first youthful erring

when I was in part other than the man I am;

for the varying way in which I plague myself and reason,

amidst the vain hopes and the vain pang,

wherever is he who by trial understands love

there do I hope to find not mere pardon but pity.

Yet well do I now see how for the many

long have I been a total falsehood, whence often

of myself and by myself I rest ashamed;

and of my vanity is shame the fruit,

and repenting and knowing clearly

that what pleases the world is but a fleeting dream.



Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond'io nudriva 'l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand'era in parte altr'uom da quel ch'i' sono,

del vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e 'l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è 'l frutto,
e 'l pentersi, e 'l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

(published on the 25 of June, 2013)


"Ancora Imparo": A Widespread Misattribution to Michelangelo

The motto "ancora imparo" (understood in the sense of "I still learn") has been long attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Although the attribution has been heralded by universities and doctoral theses, it is spurious.  Pasted below is a copy of the proof recently given by us on "wikiquote" that the expression "ancora imparo" is not derived from Michelangelo. 

The attribution in question (which may be rendered alternatively as "Again I learn") is retraceable to Richard Duppa's The lives and works of Michael Angelo and Raphael (London, 1806), where the author mistakenly attributes a drawing by Domenico Giuntalodi to Michelangelo Buonarroti. The original motto, properly spelled in Duppa as "ANCHORA IMPARO," was popular throughout the 1500's (thus in the course of Michelangelo's life), signalling the return of old age to childhood (bis pueri senex). The motto appeared in one of Giuntalodi's drawings (an image known to us through engravings and etchings by contemporaries), together with the indication that learning is a lifetime endeavor (a Latin phrase from Senaca's 76th Letter to Lucilius is cited to this effect). However, Giuntalodi's drawing--where time's elapse (an hourglass) stands before man's quest for learning--conveighs the "anchora imparo" message in a finely satyrical manner, suggesting the futility of human endeavors (for a kindred antecedent, see 1 Corinthians 13:11), with a specific allusion to humanist learning. See Sylvie Deswarte-Rosa, "Domenico Giuntalodi, peintre de D. Martinho de Portugal à Rome", in Revue de l'Art, 1988, No. 80, pp. 52-60. Deswarte-Rosa misleadingly links the "ancora imparo" motto to Dante Alighieri, to whom Deswarte-Rosa attributes a modified version of a citation that Dante offers with critical intent of Seneca in Convivio IV.12.xi. Throughout Convivio IV.12, Dante distinguishes between ordinary empirical learning (depicted at best as futile) and a philosophical learning returning to "first things." Dante's conclusion is that, "lo buono camminatore giunge a termine e a posa; lo erroneo mai non l'aggiunge, ma con molta fatica del suo animo sempre colli occhi gulosi si mira innanzi"--"The good walker arrives at an end and a rest; the one who errs (i.e. goes astray) never reaches it, but with great effort of the will always with gluttonous eyes looks ahead of himself"; ibid. xix.

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