Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance

Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance

by Mary Quinlan-McGrath

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Today few would think of astronomy and astrology as fields related to theology. Fewer still would know that physically absorbing planetary rays was once considered to have medical and psychological effects. But this was the understanding of light radiation held by certain natural philosophers of early modern Europe, and that, argues Mary Quinlan-McGrath, was why

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Today few would think of astronomy and astrology as fields related to theology. Fewer still would know that physically absorbing planetary rays was once considered to have medical and psychological effects. But this was the understanding of light radiation held by certain natural philosophers of early modern Europe, and that, argues Mary Quinlan-McGrath, was why educated people of the Renaissance commissioned artworks centered on astrological themes and practices.
Influences is the first book to reveal how important Renaissance artworks were designed to be not only beautiful but also—perhaps even primarily—functional. From the fresco cycles at Caprarola, to the Vatican’s Sala dei Pontefici, to the Villa Farnesina, these great works were commissioned to selectively capture and then transmit celestial radiation, influencing the bodies and minds of their audiences. Quinlan-McGrath examines the sophisticated logic behind these theories and practices and, along the way, sheds light on early creation theory; the relationship between astrology and natural theology; and the protochemistry, physics, and mathematics of rays.
An original and intellectually stimulating study, Influences adds a new dimension to the understanding of aesthetics among Renaissance patrons and a new meaning to the seductive powers of art.  

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Editorial Reviews

Michael H. Shank
“This fascinating book is an original and intellectually stimulating synthesis of optical theory, astrological medicine, natural philosophy, psychology, theology, architecture, and painting that sheds new light on the deep cultural embeddedness of art in late medieval and Renaissance culture. Quinlan-McGrath breaks new ground, brings together fields that need to communicate more, and offers striking interpretations of Renaissance art by fleshing out the neglected intellectual presuppositions of its practitioners and patrons.”
Christopher S. Celenza
“Among the many virtues of this book, Mary Quinlan-McGrath brings two aspects of scholarship together in an innovative way. First, it is always difficult to explain to modern readers the fluid matter/spirit relation in an era well before Descartes. The idea that certain hidden, originally celestial qualities could impart long-lasting imprints onto materialized entities—and that those entities in turn could have real effects in the world—was shared to such an extent that it often did not have to be articulated. Second, Quinlan-McGrath brings this perspective into the context of patronage studies; this move represents something new in art historical scholarship. She presents a different way of understanding aesthetics and one that is much closer to what fifteenth- and sixteenth-century people experienced as they processed art. This sort of aesthetic appreciation was interactive, primarily, and assumed a fluid link between subject and object in a manner often unfamiliar today.”
Joseph Connors
“Astrology was everywhere in the Renaissance. Criticized, censored, and feared as the work of the devil, it nevertheless pervaded a wide spectrum of human activity. This book, ranging from Greek and Arabic science to some of the greatest works of Italian painting and architecture, explains the how and the why of astrology and helps us understand, even empathize with, a fundamental substrate of Renaissance art and thought.”
Armando Maggi
“Mary Quinlan-McGrath’s Influences is a work of striking originality. With unique clarity and expertise, she proves that Italian Renaissance architecture and visual arts were significantly influenced by a complex but coherent blending of astrology, Neoplatonic philosophy, geography, and other scientific disciplines. Quinlan-McGrath’s work is a truly significant contribution to the field of Renaissance studies.”
PopMatters - Farisa Khalid
Influences is a meticulously well-researched, thoughtfully laid out book—an invaluable guide for students, teachers, and enthusiasts alike. . . . Quinlan-McGrath’s book accomplishes what successful art historical books set out to do: it clarifies a great deal of complex information in an engaging, accessible way as it enhances our understanding of the art and history of the Italian Renaissance.”
Choice - J. T. Paoletti
“This pathbreaking book brings the areas of theology, mathematics, science, art, philosophy, and optics under the umbrella of astrology and shows how they were understood as interrelated and informative practices during the Renaissance. . . . This book promises to be one of the most intensely discussed publications of all those concerned with human perception and the efficaciousness and inherently transformative nature of the visual object during the Renaissance. . . . Essential.”
Sun News Miami - Clifford Cunningham
“A richly detailed exposition that sheds new light on our understanding of the Italian Renaissance.”
CAA Reviews - Charles Carman
“A clear, insightful, and unique assessment of the question of how the Renaissance dealt with the confluence of astronomy and astrology on the early side of any real scientific investigations of the heavens. Influences will be highly regarded by all interested students and scholars of the period. For those intrigued by the larger implications of Quinlan-McGrath’s study, it will be apparent that she has peered through a very interesting portal onto what is a growing interdisciplinary interest in understanding the intersection of spiritual and material reality.”
Renaissance Quarterly - Patrick J. Boner
“A splendid synthesis of astrology, astronomy, optics, and theology that brings the art back to life. . . . This book will attract a wide audience of scholars and students with interests well beyond art history.”
Centaurus - Barbara Tramelli
“Compelling . . . [and] carefully researched. . . . The language is clear throughout the book and complex concepts on optics and mathematics are explained effectively. The book gives new significant insights into the mathematical, philosophical, and astrological cultures of the Renaissance and their application in pictorial works of the period.”
Sixteenth Century Journal - Andrzej Dziedzic
“The book is exceptionally well researched and meticulously documented. . . .  Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance is a truly significant and original contribution to the field of early modern studies.”
British Journal for the History of Science - Steven Vanden Broecke
“Quinlan-McGrath’s fresh look at these astrological canopies opens up entire new vistas of Renaissance intellectual life. This alone makes it required reading for anyone interested in Renaissance visual culture, architecture, and history of natural philosophy. But it can also serve as a model of scholarship. Over the past few decades, it has become far less uncommon for art historians to sink their teeth into premodern intellectual history and history of science. Influences crowns them all in tenaciousness and thoughtfulness.”
Journal for the History of Astronomy
“Quinlan-McGrath’s Influences is an eye-opener. If astrology was indeed everywhere in the Renaissance, as historians of astronomy have shown, there is no reason to assume that it was not in art and in image theories. Putting forward the original, daring, and timely thesis that astrology was indeed there, this book has the potential to be highly influential as it invites historians of art and science to reinvestigate the role of astrology in Renaissance image theories.”
Journal for the History of Astronomy - Sven Dupré
“Quinlan-McGrath’s Influences is an eye-opener. If astrology was indeed everywhere in the Renaissance, as historians of astronomy have shown, there is no reason to assume that it was not in art and in image theories. Putting forward the original, daring, and timely thesis that astrology was indeed there, this book has the potential to be highly influential as it invites historians of art and science to reinvestigate the role of astrology in Renaissance image theories.”
Isis - Nicolas Weill-Parot
"Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance is stimulating for Quinlan-McGrath's praiseworthy effort to bring together theories too often studied separately (optics, natural philosophy, astrology, and visual art) in an attempt to expose a complete worldview that supports the understanding of Renaissance art 'images.' Unavoidably, such a global proposal entails singling out a few well-known authors and theories and hence sometimes leads to general reassessments; but, as the last chapter shows, her approach is fruitful and her analysis of Renaissance astrological vaults will shed new light on a long-discussed issue: the links between science, magic, and art in early modern Europe."
Journal for the History of Astronomy - Sven Dupré
“Quinlan-McGrath’s Influences is an eye-opener. If astrology was indeed everywhere in the Renaissance, as historians of astronomy have shown, there is no reason to assume that it was not in art and in image theories. Putting forward the original, daring, and timely thesis that astrology was indeed there, this book has the potential to be highly influential as it invites historians of art and science to reinvestigate the role of astrology in Renaissance image theories.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance
By Mary Quinlan-McGrath

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92284-3

Chapter One

The Study of the Heavens Is Holy

The Cosmos, the Creator, Vision, and the Soul

None of the accounts now given concerning the Universe would ever have been given if men had not seen the stars or the sun or the heaven. PLATO

Who could know heaven save by heaven's gift and discover God save one who shares himself in the divine? MARCUS MANILIUS

On October 14, 1573, a painter waited in Rome for an order from Cardinal Alessandro Farnese to set out for the family estate at Caprarola, about thirty miles north of the city. There, this painter would undertake the design and decoration of the villa's main audience hall in one of the most beautiful palaces of Italy (fig. 1; plates 1–3). The visitor to this room now looks up through the oval framed ceiling, ringed by painted clouds, and into the sapphire blue (plate 1). There, the great constellations of the heavens, from the Little Bear in the north to the Altar in the south, from Canis Major to the Charioteer, charge the skies as the zodiacal constellations weave between them. All these constellations, recognizable from their personifications and myths, are yet further distinguished by the golden stars that shimmer at their points of light. Two interlopers are camouflaged among them—the single planet Jupiter and a charioteer falling from the sky (plates 2 and 3, respectively). From the upper left, Jupiter hurls his lightning bolt, striking Phaeton across the ceiling at the lower right. There Phaeton, his chariot, and his team of four white horses spin into free fall.

This vault and a decorative zone connecting it with the walls feature the heavens that were related to the cardinal's birth horoscope and, through the planet Jupiter, particularly to the date and time found in that birth chart when he was to be made a cardinal at the age of fourteen years, two months, and fifteen days (fig. 2).

Te next day, a special courier arrived with the order from the cardinal, and the painter began his journey. Why had the cardinal's painter been asked to wait? We will probably never know with certainty, but the evidence suggests that, just as condotieri, ship captains, and merchants waited for the right celestial moment to begin a campaign or commence a trip, the cardinal's painter was asked to wait for the elected astrological time to set out. At least we do know with certainty that important members of the Farnese family, among them this cardinal and his even more learned grandfather, Pope Paul III, were immersed in astrological precepts and practices. We also know from the correspondence concerning the delay that the cardinal was finicky about every detail of this frescoed hall. He was seeking a decoration based on sound "doctrine and practice" and good authors (the astrological poet Hyginus alone is named). Part of best practice for the creation of an astronomical image was the selection of the most propitious celestial rays under which to embark on the mission. This special sky was found through the construction of an election horoscope.

In fact, this vault itself may have been understood by the cardinal as a functioning astronomical image—one that atracted, held, and then passed on celestial rays to the viewer or even to casual visitors. We will return to the cardinal's painter at the end of this book. But it should be noted at the outset that the learned Farnese were far from alone in their devotion to astrology in early modern Italy. In later chapters, I will add to the Farnese patrons such others as the Della Rovere, the Chigi, the Sforza, and the Medici, all of whom also funded astrological works of art and architecture.

* * *

Today, few would think of astronomy and astrology as fields related to theology. Fewer still would consider that physically absorbing celestial rays could have been considered a spiritually beneficial exercise. But early modern scientists oten drew theological and altruistic conclusions from a study of the heavens. Without this religious subtext, one tied to the scientific laws of the Creator's natural world, it would be hard to explain why educated religious people such as the Farnese and others patronized artworks centered on astrological themes and practices.

It is symptomatic of the intimate relation between science and theology in this area that I will rely on natural philosophers such as Plato and pagan poets such as Manilius to make the theological case for astrology in this first chapter. Ten I will turn to theologians to explain the scientific principles in the chapters devoted to science.

Te relations between vision, epistemology, astrology, and theology that are central to the argument of my text are all found, in nuce, within Plato's Timaeus. In this text, four closely interrelated points are salient. (1) Te study of the heavens had convinced ancient natural philosophers that there was a unified cosmos, and this suggested the work of a single creator. (2) This study had led to a corollary belief that the Creator had given people, alone among all animals, a share in the divine intelligence, this share being the immortal part of the soul or psyche. Without this sharing of the divine intelligence, people would neither have noticed the cosmic patterns nor have been able to track and understand them. (3) Vision served as the threshold for the study of the heavens. (In this chapter, we will see how the premise has a philosophical basis, and, in chapters 3–4 and 7–8, we will see the ways in which vision and the visual arts were understood to interact with the heavens in physical ways.) (4) Finally, a corollary of the previous points, the study of the heavens was itself considered spiritually beneficial. It provided insight, especially of a mathematical type, into the created universe. This, in turn, led to a marveling at the cosmic order and from that to awe and reverence for its creator. This process was considered spiritually formative for the immortal part of the soul, preparing it for its return to the Maker at the death of the body. This therapeutic aspect of celestial observation gave spiritual purpose to both the science and the art. Following the logic of the ancient philosophers and poets, it is not surprising to find that an intellectual cardinal, Pierre d'Ailly, living and working in Italy in the fifteenth century, could call astrology "natural theology."

In this chapter, I provide a snapshot of these four concerns, tracking a select group of ancient and early modern authors who were admired by Renaissance astrologers—Plato, Manilius, Ptolemy, Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, and Marsilio Ficino. While these four points will be acknowledged as philosophical concerns in this chapter, in subsequent chapters we will see that all four also had physical consequences. In those physical consequences, the aetherial descends to the earthy. However, both the larger metaphysical concepts and their physical corollaries grounded the belief in astrology and did so in ways in which the visual arts were understood to participate.

See the Unity—a Single Maker

At an observational level, the intricately repeating patterns of the heavens and the apparently purposeful and beneficial relations of these patterns to days and nights, to the seasons, tides, climates, and geographic diversity, had led philosophers to speculate that the universe was not random and accidental but rather a purposeful, interrelated, and beautiful order. Such beauty and harmonious operation suggested the work of a single benevolent mind—a creator of that integrated whole. This observed connectedness of the cosmos was a basic understanding on which both the theory of a creator and the theory of astrology were grounded. Te observations of mathematical astronomy supported the protochemical and physical connections understood to be part of astrological theory.

In Plato's Timaeus, the eponymous speaker is introduced as "our best astronomer [who] has made it his special task to learn about the nature of the Universe." Timaeus then provides the probable account of the creation of the world, an account that seems to have grounded the relation between vision, astronomy-astrology, and the curative nature of the heavens for Renaissance astrologers: "None of the accounts now given concerning the Universe would ever have been given if men had not seen the stars or the sun or the heaven. But as it is, the vision of day and night and of months and circling years has created the art of Number and has given us the notion of Time but also means of research into the nature of the Universe. From these we have procured Philosophy in all its range, than which no greater boon ever has come or will come, by divine bestowal unto the race of mortals." In Plato's account, observation of the heavens and reflection on their logic lead to the development of all the intellectual disciplines, which he summarizes. First among these is mathematics, or "Number." But the further mention of "research into the nature of the Universe" suggests pre-Socratic understandings of the elements, the proto "chemistry," "physics," and "physiology" that are featured in the Timaeus. Finally, the study of the heavens procured "Philosophy in all its range" as celestial observation leads to considerations of the nature of the universe, of the divine, and of the place of the person in the cosmos. This observation of and reflection on the physical, Timaeus notes, had thus led to theories of the metaphysical, "Philosophy," and ultimately to the theory of a beneficent creator of this world, Plato's Demiurge.

Teachings of later Platonists, especially Plotinus (d. 270 CE), were central to theologians in the monotheistic traditions, Augustine being the most notable Christian example. Plotinus interpreted Plato's theory of a unified cosmos in a way even more appealing to these religious traditions. He theorized that the created world was an extension of the Maker, an emanation from the One. According to this theory, a succession of entities flowed forth from the One, each becoming more material as it existed at a greater distance from its immaterial divine source. Within this hierarchical descent, where each superior level governed its successors, the stars and planets occupied an intermediary position between the One and the terrestrial world. Te celestial world was the most rarified part of the material world and carried within it all the Qualities of the lower earthly entities. At the farthest remove from the One was the Earth. Tough sullied by its materiality, it was still connected to the divine.

Plotinus's emanation theory, as it was developed by late antique and early modern scientists, grew to include physical consequences, especially in relation to the physics of light rays. By the thirteenth century, the natural philosopher and bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste, whom we will meet in later chapters, and the fifteenth-century scientist and priest Marsilio Ficino could rely on Plotinus's understanding of Plato for a highly refined theory relating to light, universal causation, and vision that Ficino further connects to practices within astrology and the visual arts.

Turning from the philosophical to the ancient poetic tradition, these four themes found in the Timaeus are also common. Te Roman poet Marcus Manilius's Astronomica is the source for several Renaissance astrological artworks and provides a poetic parallel to the Platonic logic. Appreciated by Renaissance intellectuals and art patrons alike, Manilius probably owed his popularity in this period to his theological speculation. His text is so laced with religious feeling that one forgets at times that it is a work of astrology. In book 1, Manilius asserts that the beautiful cosmic order is evidence of a divine reason and creator: "For my part I find no argument so compelling as this to show that the universe moves in obedience to a divine power and is indeed the manifestation of God, and did not come together at the dictation of chance.... If chance gave such a world to us, chance itself would govern it.... Why are the summer nights and the nights of winter ever made beautiful with the selfsame stars? ... [A]ll of this is not the result of chance, but the plan of a God most high." This ancient tradition on the relation between nature and the divine was seamlessly joined in early modern religious thought. In a long passage defending astrology, Albert the Great discussed the "great wisdom" found in the judgment of the stars and characterized it as a study that links physical and metaphysical disciplines. This knowledge of the cosmic order and its interconnections, especially the natures of the celestial bodies and the changes that these cause in the earthly world, is for Albert "one of the primary proofs that there is only God, glorious and sublime in heaven and on earth."

Understand the Unity—the Divine Soul

The outward observation of a beautiful and interrelated cosmic unity, with its intimation of a single creator, had led to an important inner corollary on the nature of the human soul. If the Creator had not only made the world but also given people, alone among the animals, the ability to observe and understand this order through the discovery of mathematical laws and then to record and pass on this knowledge for the development of mathematics and other intellectual disciplines, it was reasoned that this human intellect could exist only because the Creator had shared some of the divine intellect with people, distinguishing the human race from all other animals. This share came to be considered the immortal part of the animal soul. Without this, what was merely seen as animals see would never have been understood. This divine gift, it was further reasoned, could be neither material nor mortal and would, therefore, return to the Creator at the death of the body.

This theory of the soul had a physical development in Plato's Timaeus and became central to astrological theory.16 The Demiurge fashioned human souls out of the divine intelligence and then sent the souls down through the celestial regions. Although the details in the Timaeus were vague (as a "probable account" the dialogue was not intended to be definitive), the text suggested that the Demiurge had delegated the creation of the physical bodies for these divine souls to the planetary regions or deities. Later theoreticians, following Plato's lead, assumed that the physical planets or planetary deities had invested these divine souls with physical characteristics during their descent. Depending on the configuration of the heavenly bodies at the time of the soul's passage to Earth, the individual souls acquired particular Qualities that determined physical characteristics, temperaments, talents—in sum, much of a person's future.

The late antique author Macrobius (fl. ca. 430 CE) developed this Platonic theme of the descent of the soul through the planetary spheres in his Saturnalia and Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, texts that were popular in Europe into the eighteenth century. In these, he speculated on the kinds of psychological traits that were picked up in the different planetary realms, characteristics that could be described as martial, jovial, saturnine, and so forth, as well as on the portals through which the soul passed on its descent from the Creator to the Earth. According to him, the soul was warmed at birth as it passed through its entry portal at the Tropic of Cancer and then cooled at death as it returned to its celestial home via the Tropic of Capricorn.

In artworks, the most obvious application of this theory is found in the subject of the planetary children. In these series of images, the progeny are grouped with the planetary deity responsible for bestowing their specific gifts. In figure 3, for example, the children of Mercury busy themselves with talents he has given. Depictions of the planetary children can be found in the Italian Renaissance in a wide range of media from luxury manuscripts to modest woodcuts as well as in fresco cycles such as that in the Vatican's Borgia apartments. When, in his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari reported that Michelangelo was born under the happy influences of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, this was but another example of the commonplace that Mercury dispensed artistic talent, supported in this case by the two "beneficents," Jupiter and Venus. Details on talents, physical and psychological characteristics, or portals of entry and egress were folksy applications of Plato's larger understanding of the nature of the soul.

Turning again from the philosopher Plato to the poet Manilius, this theme of the divinely created soul that becomes recognized by meditating on the heavens is similarly found:

[Who] can doubt that a link exists between heaven and man ... into whom alone indeed has God come down and dwells, and seeks himself in man's seeking of him? Who could know heaven save by heaven's gift and discover God save one who shares himself in the divine? Who could discern and compass in his narrow mind the vastness of this vaulted infinite, the dances of the stars, the blazing dome of heaven, and the planets' everlasting war against the signs, had not nature endowed our minds with divine vision, had turned to herself a kindred intelligence, and had prescribed so great a science? Who, unless there came from heaven a power which calls us heavenward.

This soul "calls us heavenward" both to the study of the heavens and, at death, to the divine. Later still, in book 4, Manilius repeats this theme: "Can one doubt that a divinity dwells within our breasts and that our souls return to the heavens whence they came? ... Why wonder that man can comprehend heaven, when heaven exists in their very beings and each one is in a smaller likeness the image of God himself?" This astrological hymn to the beneficent Creator who had given mortals both the beauty of the heavens and the divine intellect to understand and appreciate them must have seemed again a natural theology to early modern intellectuals. Marsilio Ficino, an admirer of Manilius, repeats these same points with ever more hyperbolic extension in a discussion of astronomers both ancient and Florentine. He considered their achievements in mastering the knowledge of the heavens to be proof of their semidivine status. "Since man has understood the order of the celestial spheres—from whence they are moved, where and in what measure they proceed, what they produce—who can deny that he is nearly of the same genius as the author of the spheres, and that he could, in a certain sense, make the heavens if he could obtain the instruments and the celestial mater? Because now he is able to produce them, though of a different matter, but in a similar order."


Excerpted from Influences by Mary Quinlan-McGrath Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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