Knowledge, Experience, and Aesthetic Appreciation

I just had a couple of free weeks from my internship. I thought this could be a good occasion to focus on my dissertation and travel. One of my papers from this year focused on the oeuvre of Giotto and his contemporaries so that Tuscany had a prominent role. For this reason, I decided to spend a week visiting Pisa, Florence, and Siena. While I already knew these venues, I was curious to see how the exposure to new concepts would change my perception. Here some considerations.

The Camposanto in Pisa

When I started my course (you can read more about it here), I assumed that most of the material would be somewhat familiar. In Italy, my high school years were filled with readings of Dante and, unlike some of my coursemates, I knew the main events of Italian history during the given period. Needless to say, the complexity of the paper went much beyond this. As we progressed week by week, I learned new concepts and was able to see new patterns. This changed my perception of familiar works of art dramatically.

Dome of the Cappelle Medicee

An interesting aspect of the course was its focus on the conditions of display. As you enter one of the first Medieval rooms in the Uffizi, you will notice three tall gabled paintings representing the Virgin and Child. These are, starting from the left, the Rucellai Madonna by Duccio, the Ognissanti Madonna by Giotto, and the Santa Trinità Madonna by Cimabue. I always thought these three paintings were altarpieces, probably designed for the main altar because of their notable dimensions (they are all more than 3 meters tall). Actually, I discovered that these objects probably stood on a tramezzo or an iconostasis beam, that is to say, devices used in churches to divide the nave into an inner and an outer area, thus splitting the congregation into different groups. With this notion in mind, my perception of the works changed dramatically as I could visualise them in place, imagining the original point of view of the viewers. In fact, such gabled panels (also referred to as supericons by scholars) would create a connection between the people in the outer nave and the inner nave, where the mass was celebrated.

Florence as seen from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

Ernst Gombrich, one of the most known art historians in the Anglo-Saxon world, was interested in the way knowledge changes our perception of works of art. This comes down to an essential question: is the meaning of art determined by the object or its observers? Gombrich solves this riddle by describing art as “translucent”, not transparent nor opaque. In other words, the work of art acts as a filter. It allows the viewers’ intuitions to pass through it but they are changed in the process. In a phenomenological relation, both the subject and the object maintain an active role. This can be exemplified by my double experience of the supericons in the Uffizi. The first time I saw them some years ago, I thought they must be altarpieces. Then, I saw them again as entirely different objects. They had not changed, while my understanding was transformed by the acquisition of new notions.

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini

The perception of art, in a way, does not depend on a perfect understanding of the object in front of us. We may understand it to be something completely different from what it was actually meant to be, and yet its visual forms will still interact with our mind and, through intuition, generate a variety of responses. For this reason, our perception may change over time according to both our understanding and our sensibility. Aesthetics depend as much on our experience as on our knowledge, combining them in unexpected ways. For this reason, my Tuscan trip was not a repetition but rather a rediscovery of new and exciting places. Experience is changing, complex, and multi-faceted.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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