The Art History of Michael Baxandall, Part 1: Tracing the Origins of a Visual Language

This entry begins a new series on the art historian Michael Baxandall (1933-2008). (The second essay in the series is here.) One of the most thought-provoking art historians of his generation, Baxandall wrote books that did more than tell the story of Western art and its surrounding taste cultures; they made significant conceptual and methodological contributions that pushed the boundaries of what it meant to write art history. These are the contributions that interest me in this series and in my ongoing research. In my forthcoming book, The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and his Market, I revise some of Baxandall’s tools and reopen the question of the origins of the auteur, with the cinema of Robert Bresson as an extended case study. My hope is that this series will help to contextualize the methodology I develop there. Just as importantly, I hope that these commentaries encourage students of film, art historians and anyone interested in the history of ideas to form a greater appreciation for Baxandallian thought and research.

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Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, 1350-1450 (1971) is Michael Baxandall’s first attempt to reconsider the language of art as a constitutive force in the development of artistic styles. In all of the texts we will consider in this series of commentaries—Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy (1972), The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985), and Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1996)—a recurring theme is the question of the power of words to describe art works. To develop this theme, Baxandall innovates an approach that involves two stages of research (in Giotto and these other texts):

1) he returns to the criticism surrounding the art works under consideration in order to turn out a more punctilious visual vocabulary, that is, to find a more precise way to capture the main components that make these works objects of visual interest;

and 2) he investigates the manner in which the “period eye” was shaped by linguistic circumstances—circumstances which, as the print record (letters, art theories, contracts, etc.) perhaps shows, were of prime concern for artists as they developed styles in order to meet and shape market demand.

One might boil Baxandall’s position down to the following axiom: because the language that distinct periods develop to describe its art conditions the aspects of the works contemporaries see and value, the terms marshaled to express the visual characteristics of these works, if prominent both in terms of visual surrogates in the works themselves and the writings of artists, can be cast as a critical factor in the explanation of the styles that materialize.

Otherwise put, language is a significant aspect of the psychology of making. But, of course, language is itself historically conditioned; it is such that it shifts in terms of relevance as a causal factor in art. Baxandall’s writings suggest that periods that turn out words that are less effective as eye-steering instruments are less likely to be considered as prime causal considerations when it comes to the emergence of artistic styles. The position taken in Patterns of Intention, as we will see, is that some of the descriptors we employ (“assured handling” or “palette excited” or even “well composed”) are cause words (as opposed to comparison words and effect words) (p.6). Embedded in some description of art (and more than description—in pleasurable viewing, as we will see in Tiepolo) is the notion that the works register as products of intentional human activity (as the end result of self-styled injunctions by artists “to compose well” or “to handle assuredly” or “to excite the palette”). Some descriptions have explanations woven into them.

With Giotto and the Orators Baxandall reminds us that some such descriptors—in this case, those relating to the concept of composition—are not natural but rather the product of historical circumstance as well. New words can create subtler lookers, and subtler lookers open the door for subtler play by artists with a wider variety of elements of visual interest. Such is Baxandall’s view on the potentially direct causal relation between words and pictures.

While Giotto and the Orators focuses on the origins of the concept of composition in Renaissance humanist discourse (on painting and on issues in which painting is invoked comparatively), by the final chapter his study inevitably turns to causation. In the period he covers (1350-1450), a period which sees the beginnings of art criticism, descriptors move up a scale. At first, they are remote comparison words (evoked metaphorically for rhetorical purposes that are often other than the description of works), but by the end of the period, descriptors are increasingly precise cause words (evoked for the purpose of describing the visual interest of specific works).

To say that words become more “precise” means that the words evoked by humanist orators increasingly reflect a direct encounter with the visual characteristics of paintings. A vague term for describing art works cannot be invoked as a causal mechanism of styles because, unlike precise terms that refer to a work’s visual features, the vague term would not speak to the “maker’s share” (Tiepolo p.48), that is, to how the artist sees the world visually and, more specifically, how she sees the tasks, risks and problems of painting as a pictorial challenge she either presents herself or that is presented to her. (Again, Baxandall would insist that the historian must provide evidence that this artist, or others like her, uses and promotes these terms as well).

In Giotto, Baxandall argues that there is “a linguistic component to visual taste” (, tracing the emergence of “compositio” in order to clarify the humanists’ contribution to our “expectations of painting” ( As he states in the Preface, chapters one and two, which focus on the form of humanist Latin and the development of humanist commentary on painting, prepare the path taken in chapter three, which gives an account of the discovery of “composition.” This approach is motivated by “an interest in the relation of language habits to visual attention” ( But the visual attention discussed here is not just that of the beholder, although this does form the core of his inquiry. In chapter three, Baxandall positions Alberti’s De pictura (1435) as a response on humanist terms (albeit slightly modified) to certain tendencies in humanist writing on art and, just as crucially, to certain trends in painting. In the process, Baxandall develops a history that is both intellectual and art-stylistic: in ways perhaps unrecognized by humanists of the period, De pictura represents the culmination (or end-point) of a process of refinement in humanist writing on art and, simultaneously, the launch-point for a new period of vigorous polarization in writing and painting between restrained and florid styles. Alberti ties various humanist strains together in order to argue against many of the principles valued by the humanistic tradition in which he was partially grounded. It is therefore on chapter three that I will focus my comments, here.

At the end of chapter two, Baxandall explains why humanistic writing on painting became locked into a set of clichés that prevented it from developing a visually sophisticated language of painting:

If we speak, therefore, of a failure of humanist criticism, this is not because humanist criticism is often such poor stuff; it is rather because its conventions so quickly became of a kind to exclude so much that was available in humanism itself. In short, the trouble with humanist art criticism from our point of view is that its conventions were not of a kind to encourage a Lorenzo Valla—or, in a different sense, an Alberti—to operate within them. (p.120)

In a manner of speaking, although their writings did yield insights into painting as an art form, they could not see past their own words. Particularly trendy was the inclination to view painting as a metaphor for writing. It took Alberti—something of an outsider whose writing came from the position of a practitioner and was geared to the particular circumstances of Mantua’s Euclid-inflected humanism—to discover a different point of view:

[…] Alberti’s book is not just much larger and better than anything else a humanist wrote on painting, it is written from a position of personal contact with the art and from an interest in developing method […] Alberti was a completely equipped humanist, but when he writes about painting he no longer belongs entirely with the humanists; he is instead a painter, perhaps of a rather eccentric kind, with access to humanist resources. (p.121)

Alberti’s was a “freakish conjunction” of good humanism and practical painting experience, and the fruit of this conjunction was “composition.”

Several points should remembered about the humanistic position in general and its view of painting, in particular the aspects that Alberti was responding to (all of which link the humanists to a Latin rhetorical tradition exemplified in the writings of Petrarch (pp.51-66), Filippo Villani (pp.66-78), Manuel Chrysoloras and Guarino (pp.78-96), and Bartolomeo Fazio and Valla (pp.97-120)):

  • Humanists tended to lean heavily on critical metaphor; it “was potentially one of the humanists’ most effective critical resources” (p.17). They used metaphors from visual experience, but these were sometimes “half-dead” (p.17).
  • As we’ve already mentioned, humanists relied heavily in their discourse on analogies between painting and writing, particularly Petrarch, who borrowed it from Pliny’s gloss on Apelles (p.63). Baxandall underscores the advantages of relying on accounts of ancient art as “a reservoir of analogies” (p.64); these analogies, particularly when it came to capturing the mysteries of skill, established “a background of assumption about art from which real and immediate criticism of a new kind [i.e. Alberti’s] could grow” (p.66). This blossomed into a full-blown institution of comparing writing to painting (p.39)—one which Alberti, as we will see, tapped into as well.
  • Humanists had a taste—due to their Latinate pursuits—for the periodic sentence (p.20-21), which “became at a critical moment a humanist model of artistic composition in general” (p.21). It soon became “the early humanist’s art form” (p.29).
  • Humanists held the view that art is teachable through rules. They also believed that these rules should not be cobbled together from a variety of sources, but should follow from a single model, of which Giotto became one (pp.40-44).
  • Their praise for painting often fell back on “epideictic grace-notes” (p.52). In other words, humanists were more preoccupied in their writing on art to emulate the structures of Latin prose and to evaluate rather than to describe their experiences of art. (See especially pp.46-40 for a key passage on the relation of language to visual attention. Here, Baxandall compares and contrasts the “normal” circumstances in which the remarks of art criticism are shaped with the circumstances of humanist art criticism). Baxandall’s point is to claim that there was a “distinct humanist point of view on painting” (p.49)—“an approved set of categories, a repertory of favored syntactic frameworks for them, and some matter-suggested rhetorical drills” (p.49). For a humanist like Filippo, for instance, to say that Giotto is to be preferred to the ancient painters was “a humanist formula of praise” (p.72).
Fig. 1. Guarino Veronese (1374-1469).
Fig. 1. Guarino Veronese (1374-1469).

The Humanist’s passion—particularly for students of Manuel, like Guarino—was for “bravura ekphrasis” (p.85), which tended to “describe qualities of detailed lifelikeness, of physiognomic expressiveness, of variety. They capture these in an affirmative mode, for ekphrasis is an epidiectic device, a rhetoric of praise or blame: there are no neutral ekphrases” (p.87). Of particular interest to this strain in humanist art criticism was the eye for variety in works, particularly in the case of Pisanello, whose works became an occasion for rhetorical varietas (p.96).

It is here that Baxandall for the first time proposes a causal link between critical rhetorical modes and art styles: “For whether he was aware of it or not, Pisanello’s work sometimes has the character of contriving a series of cues for standard humanist responses—Mongols and birds for variety, whole menageries for decorative itemizing, flashy foreshortening for ars, snakes and gibbets for the principle of pleasurable recognition” (p.96), or, the “beholder’s act of recognition,” a principle which Manuel borrowed from Aristotle (p.83).

While there are no doubt other important characteristics of humanist art writing, these are perhaps the most significant for considering the context in which Alberti wrote:

When Alberti tried to formulate in De pictura a new and more rigorous idea of pictorial composition, this nexus—Chrysoloras’s propositions, the ekphrastic values, and the art of Pisanello—was the nearest humanism had come to the body of articulate taste in such matters, and it set Alberti great problems. (p.96)

As he and Svetlana Alpers would later argue in Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, Baxandall appears in Giotto to see humanist criticism (apart from Alberti) as succumbing to a literary perspective that closed off or failed to capture visual experience:

It would be wrong to call humanist discourse unreal, but it was able to exercise with a quite unusual independence of verification against un-literary experience. Even more than is usual in any language, a humanist remark is shielded from reality by a series of other interlocking remarks composed of the same categories and instructions. To say this is not to condemn humanist discourse, since it was never intended as a breathless statement of fresh perceptions of the world […] (p.47)

Of what, then, did the “Albertian revolution” (if this is not too strong a formulation) consist?

Fig. 2. Title page from Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura (On Painting), 1540.
Fig. 2. Title page from Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura (On Painting), 1540.

One might extrapolate from Baxandall’s account four principle aspects in Alberti’s intervention. These aspects are critical to Baxandall’s apparent position in this book that De pictura constitutes not merely the richest fruit of humanist art criticism (see p.122 for the four ways in which it is humanist) but, less explicitly, the very point at which art critical language became interested in capturing in words the concrete features and overall organization of works and therefore, by extension, became at least potentially a causal factor in style formation.

What emerged here—both in Alberti and elsewhere—is the belief that looking at painting constituted an “intellectual activity” (p.122). But if the informed beholder was distinct from the informed reader, in what was the informed beholder, who takes pleasure in paintings, informed? In its concern for the education of the informed beholder Alberti’s treatise utilizes four strategies:

  • It co-opts, for its own ends, the period analogy between writing and painting, specifically the concept of “composition.”
  • It relies upon a concretely described non-classical model—namely, the paintings of Giotto (whose Navicella is “the only actual composition praised by Alberti” (p.130)).
  • It aims to influence practical artistic methods.
  • It sunders ekphrasis in order to lay the groundwork for praising works that show compositio rather than dissolutus.

Alberti’s audience was not just any humanist. “De pictura,” Baxandall notes, “appears a handbook in the active appreciation of painting for an unusual kind of informed humanist amateur” (p.129). More specifically, Baxandall speculates that “a group equipped with the skills presupposed by De pictura did exist in the pupils of Vittorino da Feltre of Mantua, and in a sense the book seems obliquely directed to this school” (p.127). (See pp.127-9 for Baxandall’s discussion of Vittorino’s geometry-based teaching of the liberal arts, including drawing.) This is in contrast to the school of Vittorino’s friend, the aforementioned Guarino, which had a more philological syllabus (p.128). The Vittorino-style mathematic focus can be seen in De pictura’s Euclidean first book, “the earliest account of the optics and geometry of representing three-dimensional objects on plane surfaces, pictorial perspective” (p.125). The links between De pictura, Vittorino, and the geometrician Biagio Pellicano of Parma, whose Quaestiones perspectivae is now taken as the direct source for developers of linear perspective, are examined extensively by Baxandall (pp.127-8).

Nominally, De pictura is a book for people with three skills: 1) a mastery of neo-classical Latin (the language in which it was written, although it was translated into Italian and abridged sometime later); 2) a grasp of Euclidean geometry; and 3) a desire to draw or paint (pp.126-7).

Let us examine briefly the four aspects of De picture I mentioned earlier. First, he borrowed from humanist rhetoric the concept of composition—described here as his “weapon” against other, less precise, forms of art writing (p.130). While Baxandall is clear to show that Alberti was not the first to use the term in the context of art (p.130), he redefined it along the lines of humanist rhetorical principles:

By compositio he means a four-level hierarchy of forms within the framework of which one assesses the role of each element in the total effect of the picture; planes go to make up members, members go to make up bodies, bodies go to make up the coherent scene of the narrative paintings. (p.130)

For the first time, painting was conceived in terms of the “total interdependence of forms”—significantly, an “unclassical” description which turned out to be Alberti’s most influential contribution (p.130). In fact, compositio was a concept that every schoolboy in a humanist school grasped, for it applied to language as well: “words go to make up phrases, phrases to make clauses, clauses to make sentences” (p.131). In this way, a painting by Giotto could be treated as if it were a periodic sentence by Cicero; Alberti had developed an “astonishingly firm functional” model for the analysis of paintings (p.131).

Although Alberti’s analyses were at times strained (p.132), De pictura did have influence: Piero della Francesca and Mantegna are said by Baxandall to be particularly “Albertian” (p.133). We will see here the second and third of De pictura’s four contributions—the concrete appeal to a nonclassical model and the influence on practical method. The example Baxandall draws on is Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (p.115).

Mantegna's Lamentation Over the Death of Christ (ca. 1490).
Fig. 3. Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Death of Christ (ca. 1490).

This passage is worth reading closely. Suffice it to say that De pictura’s principles, particularly Alberti’s prescription that drapery blow in the wind to reveal the figure, became a part of Mantegna’s “artistic brief” in this case, in that it posed a problem that required the development of a creative solution (p.134). But Alberti also called for a certain narrative arrangement along the lines of Giotto’s Navicella, with figures composed as an “expressive variation on the common theme of lamentation”—therefore a specific kind of compositional variation, rather than merely random variety through proliferation of “stuffs” that ekphrastic critics relished.

Words become the impetus for new and fresh kinds of pictures. The final section of the book supports this point further. He provides a helpful summary of the practical artistic contributions of De picture:

In De pictura and its system of total pictorial composition humanist art-criticism bore fruit, since the notion is a humanist achievement, a non-classical thing made out of neo-classical components along neo-classical lines. (p.134)

Baxandall then shifts to a more complex matter (De pictura’s fourth contribution): the bold rhetorical gesture in which Alberti sunders ekphrasis, and in the process skewers the customary literary humanist taste for the florid in art and in writing. The most “articulate” body of humanist writing on art had been until then the supporters of Pisanello, those taken with the ekphrastic mode, like Guarino (p.135). What made the invention of compositio necessary was precisely the lack of rigor this writing exemplified. Citing from a long passage in De pictura, Baxandall parses the finer points of Alberti’s polite, but polemical, strategy in four stages:

  • First, Alberti splits ekphrasis into 1) copia (the profusion of words or matter) and 2) varietas (the diversity of words or matter).
  • Second, he detaches varietas from copia, the former remaining an “absolute value,” and the latter now reduced in standing and measurable as part of decorum (i.e., one composes by profusion only when it is appropriate to the events represented).
  • Third, he subordinates the value of copia to that of restraint or modesty or the non-florid.
  • Finally, he urges that copia also be subordinated to compositio, for if it is not, it leads to dissolutus (a disconnectedness or undisciplined floridness).

As Baxandall explains, a humanist would have been aware of the passage’s “slightly scandalous resonances” (p.138). I wish to underscore here that Baxandall’s decision to retain the original Latin terms in his text is evidence again of his commitment to concepts and terms indigenous to the culture, and the ways in which these terms yield insight into the period eye—the unique perspective on art of this culture. But beyond this, Baxandall reads from Alberti’s rejection of a Guarino-style florid prose (and perhaps by extension, of Pisanello) a cultural and historical shift. In the same year as De pictura’s publication, the first comprehensive humanist treatise of rhetoric (George of Trebizond’s De rhetorica libri (1435)) was published. This meant that one trained in the art of rhetoric need not rely upon the classical Latin rhetoric of Cicero and Quintilian. Like Alberti, George rejected the Guarino style—this time explicitly (pp.138-9). From these simultaneous publications Baxandall derives “a polarization of styles common to both painting and writing” (p.139). On the one hand, one had Pisanello-Guarino-dissoluta; on the other, Giotto-George/Alberti-compositio. On this basis, Baxandall makes a final (and unfortunately underdeveloped) historical claim:

Seen through compositio the replacement of a Pisanello by a Mantegna, or indeed of the triptych from by the form of the Sacra Conversazione, is part of the same movement as the replacement of Guarino’s prose by that of the generation of George of Trebizond: the dissolutum was becoming compositum. (p.139)

This slightly puzzling statement is worth considering. More specifically, one might ask: first, did Mantegna “replace” Pisanello? Second, was the triptych form replaced by the Sacra Conversazione form because of a developing taste for compositio rather than unwieldy copia? This would seem to be a reductive position, or one that would require considerable elaboration through an examination of the market. Third, what is the “Sacra Conversazione” form? And fourth, in the broadest of terms, in the century following the publication of De pictura, did compositio replace dissolutum? Could we say that dissolutum returns with a Tiepolo?

Whatever the answers to these questions, as I read it, Giotto and the Orators is Baxandall’s first attempt—perhaps not fully developed at this stage—to examine the complex issue of the descriptive and causal relations between words and pictures.

Fig. 4. Michael David Kighley Baxandall, Nov. 1989, by Max Whitaker.
Fig. 4. Michael David Kighley Baxandall, Nov. 1989, by Max Whitaker.