Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe

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Overview

Geography of the Gaze offers a new history and theory of how the way we look at things influences what we see. Focusing on Western Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, Renzo Dubbini shows how developments in science, art, mapping, and visual epistemology affected the ways natural and artificial landscapes were perceived and portrayed.

He begins with the idea of the "view," explaining its role in the invention of landscape painting and in the definition of landscape as a cultural space. Among other topics, Dubbini explores how the descriptive and pictorial techniques used in mariners' charts, view-oriented atlases, military cartography, and garden design were linked to the proliferation of highly realistic paintings of landscapes and city scenes; how the "picturesque" system for defining and composing landscapes affected not just art but also archaeology and engineering; and how the ever-changing modern cityscapes inspired new ways of seeing and representing the urban scene in Impressionist painting, photography, and stereoscopy. A marvelous history of viewing, Geography of the Gaze will interest everyone from scientists to artists.

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Editorial Reviews

Art Newspaper
“[Dubbini aims] to explore how technological advances in science, art, mapping and visual epistemology from the 17th to the 19th centuries affects the way the landscape was perceived and what it might be expected to tell us through mariner’s charts, atlases, military cartography and views from garden design.”—Art Newspaper
Il Sole
Praise for the Italian edition:

            "Brilliant and inspiring. . . . We go from the natural to the artificial scene, from map-making to landscape painting, from travelers' tales to geological exploration, from the discovery of the Alps to the discoveries of ancient Egypt, from the microcosm of the garden to the metropolis, from journeys by carriage to those by rail or even in balloons.— Enrico Castelnuovo

Il Manifesto
A valuable study of the connection existing between vision and the history of landscape at the outset of the modern age via those unique kinds of spatial documents, such as landscape paintings, photographs of places, city maps and plans.

— Marco Belpoliti

Il Sole - Enrico Castelnuovo
Praise for the Italian edition:

            "Brilliant and inspiring. . . . We go from the natural to the artificial scene, from map-making to landscape painting, from travelers' tales to geological exploration, from the discovery of the Alps to the discoveries of ancient Egypt, from the microcosm of the garden to the metropolis, from journeys by carriage to those by rail or even in balloons."

Il Manifesto - Marco Belpoliti
"A valuable study of the connection existing between vision and the history of landscape at the outset of the modern age via those unique kinds of spatial documents, such as landscape paintings, photographs of places, city maps and plans."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226167367
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Renzo Dubbini is a professor in the Istituto di Architettura at the University of Venice. He is the author of Architettura delle prigioni: I luoghi e il tempo della punizione (1700-1880).

Lydia G. Cochrane has translated many books, including most recently The Myth of Pope Joan by Alain Boureau.

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Read an Excerpt

Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe


By Renzo Dubbini

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Renzo Dubbini
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226167372

CHAPTER ONE - The World Described

1. Recognizability

If landscape is a result of human labor, the image that effectively captures its characteristics and identifies its essential lines is a document that reveals a given society's aspirations and its ability to transform the environment. As George Duby puts it, "The topography that the geographer has before his eyes and attempts to understand depends of course on elements as material as geological formations, but it also depends, much more than one would think, on mental representations, value systems, and an ideology. Moreover, it represents the translation, the inscription on the terrain, of the whole of a culture." This means that all topographical projections, which are based on a dual operation of deciphering and presenting signs, are likely to be motivated by economic concerns, military strategies, or movements for reform. Above all, they reflect a vision of the world; they are attempts to analyze the structure of the historical space of existence and represent its true aspects.

In seventeenth-century Dutch culture the scientific view was one particular aspect of geographical representation; it aimed at orienting observers and training them to viewimages in specific ways. From Pieter Saenredam to Claes Jansz Visscher and Hendrick Goltzius, artists and topographers sought to use detailed, truthful descriptions to register the transformations that were taking place in the environment. Their aim was to set before humankind the reality of the world it had constructed. model for the entire Western world) was the famous atlas Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1571-1617), an extraordinary labor of documentation that dispatched collaborators to all the cities of Europe to draw their physical characteristics in exact but somewhat theatrical views. This famous collection offered a public eager for knowledge but perhaps unable to undertake long and costly voyages an opportunity to admire, at home, a succession of elegant images of the most noteworthy achievements of urban civilization. Works of this sort were intended not only as documents; they also aimed at seducing the reader by a structure that was to some extent narrative. The seventeenth-century topographer in fact did his best to crowd the flat surface of the representation with the largest possible amount of information about the visible world. He was perfectly aware that landscape could be understood only through the use of the laws of vision. This was what led Dutch painters and topographers to an interest in optical devices, microscopes, and, in particular, telescopes. Samuel van Hoogstraten spoke of geographical or topographical representation as a particular form of writing, a system of signs constituted as a mechanism for acquiring knowledge on the basis of conventions that were primarily optical in nature.

Svetlana Alpers has demonstrated, perhaps definitively, the enormous influence that an investigation of optics had on Dutch art of the seventeenth century. Scientific description became a fundamental axiom in both cartography and landscape painting, to the point of producing surprising technical overlaps between the two genres. In both views and local maps, woods, hedges, and even individual trees came to be shown with just as much painstaking realism as bell towers, windmills, bridges, and canals, because such landmarks served as indispensable directional signals to both travelers and the inhabitants of the region. Together they formed a system of coordinates set down for practical reasons in which both natural features and man-made objects could be clearly distinguished. What mattered was an accurate account, a readable view of the territory into which one might want to penetrate.

Representations of port cities viewed from the sea belong to the same sort of topography. They take care to delineate lighthouses, arsenals, and break-waters--constructions that needed to be immediately recognizable because they served navigators as points of reference or signals of dangers to avoid.

Recognizability came to be an important concern for English marine cartographers of the mid-seventeenth century. Joseph Moxon's Book of Sea Plats (1657), an outstanding collection of sea charts, provided inspiration for The English Pilot (1671-72) by the hydrographer John Seller. In his next two works, Atlas Maritimus (1675) and A Book of Sea Stories and Prospects (1680), Seller sought to accompany his work with more incisive images by collaborating with a highly talented artist, Wenceslaus Hollar. Hollar, who had already demonstrated his own qualities as a hydrographer in a colored map of the Thames (1662) that included views of London, Greenwich, Woolwich, Erith, and Gravesend, went on to do a series of plans and views of the islands and cities of Sicily in which he showed to what extent better-quality images helped to communicate information and make topography more intelligible. During the same years Colonel George Legge published The Present State of Guernsey with a Short Accompt of Jersey (1680), a work that contained watercolor-enhanced plans and views by Thomas Phillips, an engineer and artillery expert. In his drawings (for the most part views of cities and fortifications viewed from ground level) Phillips's style to some extent reflects Hollar's, once more showing a profitable exchange between the figurative culture of artists and the culture of technically trained topographers.

As the marine view became more accurate, need for it increased. Recognizability demanded an exact (in many cases, three-dimensional) description of the landscape. Admiralty circles in England accepted the notion that drawings aided the identification of places better than any written description could, and they assigned a high priority to training specialized draftsmen. Thanks to the energetic efforts of Samuel Pepys, secretary of the Royal Navy, and Christopher Wren, courses in drawing were instituted at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ's Hospital, where students were taught navigation, given a general introduction to cartography, and trained to draw views of ports and cities with details that showed every object of navigational or strategic importance. Such courses were taught by prestigious figures, men with a solid background in science and mathematics, but also a firm command of representational techniques. In the eighteenth century, Alexander Cozens, an artist of great talent, was among their number, and he strove to give his students a sufficiently sure grasp of graphic technique to be able to note the salient traits of a landscape quickly and accurately. Cozens specialized in the marine view, and his students produced a large number of drawings of coastlines and islands. During a trip to Italy in 1746 Cozens made views of the port of Naples and a series of drawings of the fortifications and the port at La Spezia. During the same trip he met Claude-Joseph Vernet, a leading French landscape artist who had created a dramatic series of French ports, commissioned by the king. It is hardly surprising that an artist who taught courses in drawing coastlines in pencil and ink should subsequently work out a basic theory of landscape perception that stressed making forms recognizable by identifying their essential characteristics and interpreting them directly.

2. The Dutch Scene

Although it found expression in different ways and served a variety of aims, the topographical cast to Dutch art can easily be seen in the three closely related genres of the architectural view, the landscape, and paintings of domestic interiors. In the Netherlands each type of representation was based on autonomous principles, and well-defined stylistic divisions dictated that the architectural view and the landscape should display a higher degree of realism and that interior views should emphasize symbolism. Everywhere, imaginative manipulations show that any rigid separation between these genres is impossible, but they differ technically by a contrast between the aerial perspective of landscapes and the geometrical perspective reserved for urban scenes and buildings.

Although architecture remained an important part of any clear vision of the urban landscape, Jan (also called Hans) Vredeman de Vries was one of the first artists to treat it as an independent genre. He completed his experience as a draftsman by drawing up plans for fortifications, triumphal arches, and city gates in several German and Flemish cities. Vries's ideas about representation are documented in his treatise Perspective; Id est, Celeberrima Ars (Leyden, 1604), where he presents a series of plates drawn according to a very particular kind of perspective in which the natural horizon in every scene coincides with the artificial horizon and the vanishing point (the point at which the lines of perspective converge). This made for an intimate connection between near and far objects, while still permitting the eye to gauge the distance between them, thus giving the viewer a direct vision of his urban scenes and a clear perception of the absolutely geometric nature of the composition as a whole. The eye is led through arcades, colonnades, and galleries and urged to investigate their three-dimensional construction. The background, the landscape, and the endpoint of the vista always retain their sense of contiguity with objects in the foreground and the middle ground. No absolute distance ever remains undetermined, without points of comparison. Highly concrete objects appear on the horizon line--a backdrop of buildings around a square, a wall enclosing a garden, a gate that signals the city limits. The background is a constructed landscape, a horizon on which the microcosm inhabited by the observer ends but with which that microcosm communicates.

Vries's urban scenes are constructed in a theatrical manner, and they contain clear references to the Italian tradition of scene painting, but in their construction they also show a broader awareness of the possible spatial inversions and the relations between inside and outside space inherent in the city. Not by chance, Hendrik van Steenwijk, one of Vries's pupils, applied the same type of perspective in his paintings of church interiors. For van Steenwijk and many other artists of his day, the construction of perspective became a flexible framework within which to render a wide variety of scenes, even while it remained a mechanism for defining the autonomy of particular spaces.

When paintings of interiors drew a contrast between the intimacy of the home and the city, they documented what landscape artists and painters of architectural subjects could only hint at by giving a glimpse of private life through a doorway opening onto a courtyard or a street. Interior scenes complemented the precise descriptions of building exteriors that the painters of urban scenes provided. It is also true, however, that interiors have a value that goes beyond the narrowly documentary: both the objects glimpsed inside houses and facades that protected privacy were an integral part of a symbolic system. Representations of this sort capture a cultural condition that goes beyond the social condition; they display a way of organizing collective modes of habitation that was a model for an entire society. As Simon Schama has observed, in Dutch domestic scenes the intimacy of private life is separated from the public sphere but shows no traumatic break with public life. A dependable social order guarantees the reciprocal relations between the two spheres: "In these paintings . . . distinction between home and the world, between safety within and unknowns without, is sharply emphasized by the prominence of the door frame. But in all of them, too, the outside, represented in views of handsome streets or landmarks of the civic world . . . is not in the least threat-ening."

Peering into a domestic interior was often made even more attractive by illusionistic tricks of perspective or the use of optical devices. Examples of this are the light box invented by Samuel van Hoogstraten, which showed domestic scenes under various conditions, or the optical devices that Carel Fabritius used to create suggestive church interiors. In one of these boxes the illusion was created by having light shine into it from the top as the viewer looked inside through an eyepiece. The viewing distance remained fixed, which meant that no distortion was apparent and the scene figured inside the box seemed to be perceived naturally. Optical effects were often used to reveal details and organize space in particular ways in urban scenes as well. One of the most interesting of these urban scenes is Fabritius's view of Delft, which shows a person in the foreground concentrating on playing a musical instrument. The view is composed in such a way that the observer first notices the musician in the foreground, but his gaze soon shifts toward the apse of the church in the background and toward the buildings ranged along the canal, which appear slightly out of kilter in a strongly curved perspective that enhances the distance between foreground and background--that is, between the figure placed in an open arch and the buildings in the distance. Pieter de Hooch's painting Musical Party in a Courtyard (1677) is a magnificent example of a similar contrast between exterior and interior. The buildings beyond the courtyard appear framed by a stone arch, and the entire meaning of the painting lies in the contrast between the figure on the threshold and the architectural elements and in the opposition between private life and the urban scene.

Artists often produced realistic depictions on commission from municipal governments. In general such descriptive renderings of places, buildings, or monuments were realized coldly and objectively. At times, when a painting solemnized a moment of importance to the community such as a fire or a major political event, the genre closely approached historical painting. Artists who specialized in urban views included Jan Beerstraaten and Jan van der Heyden, both of whom were famous for their images of Amsterdam, and the Berckheyde brothers from Haarlem, but other artists--Reinier Nooms, Jan Wijnants, Johannes Lingelbach, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Meindert Hob-bema--depicted city scenes as well.

In a slight shift from strictly urban scenes of the principal monuments of a city or its central areas, there were also depictions of the outskirts of urban areas or of rural landscapes that showed buildings or town profiles in the distance and gave a sense of the relationship between the city and its surrounding territory. One interesting example of this genre is a view of The Hague by Jacob van der Croos in which the main view is surrounded by twenty-five images of nearby centers (1663). The Hague itself is shown as a city with no defensive walls or industries but teeming with court officials, foreign diplomats, and military men. The city was in fact divided into two parts, with one sector for public services and commercial activities and the other reserved for government offices and political agencies. A continual influx of functionaries' families and new service personnel was responsible for the size of the city's suburbs.

3. The Atlas

As early as the sixteenth century, the atlas provided a means for identifying places but also, increasingly, for describing them. The depiction of landscape in the cartography of the time was usually dual in nature: as Numa Broc has observed, cartography was "a work of science, but also a work of art." Aesthetic pleasure was combined with a desire to elucidate: "The Renaissance cartographer worked just as much for the 'pleasure of the eye' as for the instruction of the observer; he sought representation 'from nature' or 'for effect' rather than mathematical exactitude. The topographer's art was not completely detached from that of the landscape artist, and this fact led to an infinite number of amusing or picturesque details that recall medieval minia-tures."

The graphic techniques available to artists of the time were hardly adequate to tackling the problem of realism or to dealing with the complexities of possible modes of vision, sense perception, or the mathematical representation of space. Almost always, "the conflict between representation in perspective and representation in the form of a plan was unresolved. The regional map . . . was still more of a panoramic picture, the 'portrait from life' of a stretch of countryside, than a geometric abstrac-tion."

The playful and in some respects picturesque aspects that appear even in works that had a rigorously scientific approach, far from declining in the seventeenth century, were if anything reinforced by the increased precision of the view. Very often the seventeenth-century atlas presented the reader with a collection of genuine objects of "marvel." What the atlases offered the public was not so much recognition of the world, described exactly but conventionally, but rather an opportunity to admire the beauties, natural and artificial, of the regions of the earth in all their variety. The public could learn by what architectural principles and in what styles cities had been built, whether they were built of wood or stone, and what the monuments and gardens of different cultures and of the most distant populations of the earth looked like.

The marvelous was already a prominent feature of the many volumes of Matthaeus Merian's Topographia Germaniae (1643-75), a work that offered a collection of maps and regional views, images of cities and individual buildings, and detailed views of art objects and archaeological materials. The eight volumes of Jan Jansson's atlas Theatrum Urbium Germaniae Superioris (Amsterdam, 1657) provided a vast documentation of the architecture of the German cities. The images of Dutch cities--Amsterdam in particu-lar--in the atlases of Pieter van der Aa and Frederik de Wit were equally spectacular.

One of the most interesting atlases was Joan Blaeu's two-volume Theatrum civitatum et admirandorum Italiae (1663), a work with an extraordinary iconographic organization and a remarkable thematic structure. The first volume includes views of cities in the Papal States, accompanied by dramatic views of villas in Latium, as well as the Temple of Fortune at Palestrina, the Villa d'Este, the Temple of the Sybil and the Grand Cascade at Tivoli, along with some natural wonders. The second volume is given over instead to highly effective images of the obelisks of Rome. There is a direct logical connection between the obelisk and the garden: obelisks were placed in many famous private gardens, where they were displayed not only as a monument but also as a linguistic enigma, an object that bore strange cryptic signs. But the obelisk was also a piece of sculpture that was recognizable as part of the landscape. It indicated distance and served as the gnomon of a sundial, signaling the passing hours as its shadow moved across the ground. In Rome obelisks marked crucial points in the great urban plan that Sixtus V had conceived with the collaboration of the architect Domenico Fontana.

Obelisks set up in the major squares of Rome marked the city's principal points of interest; during religious celebrations and visits to holy places, they provided pilgrims with unmistakable signposts that helped them to follow their route. It may have been that function of obelisks that led Blaeu to reserve a prominent place among the images that he published for the dramatic spectacle of the transfer of the Vatican obelisk, an operation conducted by Fontana amid great public rejoicing. At this point in his work Blaeu inserts a series of plates (the same ones that Fontana had published in 1590 and in 1603) to illustrate techniques for raising obelisks. The atlas had become a veritable "Theater of Machines" that focused the reader's attention on mechanical devices and their possible applications and celebrated technology as the culmination of urban civilization.

There is nothing particularly original about the images in Blaeu's atlas, and for the most part they are made up of materials that had already been published. They include Giovanni Guerra's plates for Fontana's books, Etienne Duperac's view of the Villa d'Este, and other equally well-known images. The work's originality lay instead in Blaeu's choice and presentation of his illustrative materials. In this case, the atlas was at once a collection of geographical materials, a work of antiquarianism, and a catalogue of mechanical devices.

Many similar publications were structured as objects placed in a geographical framework with an accompanying explanatory text. One typical early-eighteenth-century example of the genre is Nicolas de Fer's Atlas curieux. After a general introduction on the continents, de Fer offers a description of France, then one of Paris, with its urban plan, its monuments, and its major public services. Sweeping perspective views show the surrounding communities, the Hotel des Invalides with its broad avenues extending into the countryside, and gardens at the city's periphery.



Continues...

Excerpted from Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe by Renzo Dubbini Copyright © 2002 by Renzo Dubbini. 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 by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
Ch. 1 The World Described 10
1 Recognizability 10
2 The Dutch Scene 16
3 The Atlas 20
4 The Landscape of War 28
5 Garden Topography 36
Ch. 2 The City Reflected 49
1 The Physiognomy of the City 49
2 The Mechanics of Analogy 56
3 River Views 60
4 Rivers and Cities 64
5 Guides and Panoramas 73
Ch. 3 Nature and Antiquity 83
1 The Natural Archetype 83
2 Ambience and Representation 94
3 Ancient Sites 98
Ch. 4 Light and Motion 115
1 The Power of Optics 115
2 The Theatrical Image 118
3 The Diorama 121
4 Dioramas and a Sense of History 129
Ch. 5 The Picturesque Voyage 135
1 The Composition of Place 135
2 The Search for the Characteristics of the Place 142
3 Landscapes and National Monuments 148
4 Histories of Buildings 160
Ch. 6 Images of a World in Transformation 166
1 Flow 166
2 Speed 173
3 Meteorology and Vision 177
4 The Marine Frontier 181
Ch. 7 Gazing at the Metropolis 186
1 Loss of Horizon 186
2 The Throng 195
3 The Photographic Eye 199
4 Stereoscopy 204
Notes 210
Index 241
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