Modalities of the Idea: Stylistic Change and L'Idea della Bellezza in Early Modern Italy

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Hutson, James Lee
Colantuono, Anthony
In the careers of many prominent seventeenth-century painters such as Annibale Carracci, Guercino, Domenichino and even Caravaggio there is a familiar stylistic progression: each began their careers with a chiaroscuro manner rooted in Venetian and Emilian naturalism and then later shift to a markedly classicizing manner characterized by a brightening or lightening of the palette, a tendency to idealize the human form, and an insistence on composing in a series of parallel planes. The art-theoretical concept known as L'Idea della bellezza was the touchstone in cases where this stylistic phenomenon manifested itself. Developed and modified in antiquity to maintain its relevance to art theory, the Platonic Idea went through many variations and interpretative models until it was reintroduced to art theory in the Renaissance. At the same time, expectations of artists increased as the arti di disegno sought to be included among the liberal arts. Artists' primary and secondary phases of education ensured a reading knowledge of Latin and equipped them with the ability to engage with the theoretical material of their day. This intellectual interest was reinforced by the foundations of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, and later the Bolognese Accademia degl'Incamminati. As the number of publications by artists seemingly dwindled in the period following Mannerism, it was assumed that artists were increasingly disinterested with the complex theoretical discourse taken up by a growing number of critics and theorists. However, artists of the early modern period did participate in the debates of their day, which in turn reveals their sensibilities. A number of treatises and writings on art have survived from Pietro Testa, Orfeo Boselli and Nicholas Poussin that demonstrate a sustained interest in theory. Within these writings we find that art-theoretical concepts such as L'Idea elucidate each artist's conceptual process and metaphysical understanding of art. In the Seicento the dominant position taken by artists and theorists alike was the reemerging Nominalist formulation for art production, which explains the move from a carefully observed naturalism in an artist's early career to a more abstracted later style.