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Progymnasmatic Ekphrasis at the Latin School of Arezzo and Vasari’s “Memory Images”

Jesús Muñoz Morcillo

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Institut für Kunst- und Baugeschichte

In the present paper, I focus on Giorgio Vasari's rhetorical formation at the Latin School of Arezzo in order to explain, which ekphrasis understanding was passed down at the beginning of the 16th century and how this progýmnasma may have coined the language of early art history.

Although some authors have pointed out that the father of early art history, Giorgio Vasari, followed ekphrasis patterns for the description of works of art (Albers 1995; 1960), there are no studies dealing with the progymnasmatic influence of the Latin School in the rhetoric formation of the humanist that eventually coined our notion of art history.

Vasari's Lives is probably the best-known case, but also the Aretians Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini wrote epidictic discourses and descriptions. This three Humanists went, at different times, to the Latin School in Arezzo, one of the few free of charge pre-university educational centers in Renaissance Italy (Black 1987, 1996; Grendler 1989; Blum 2011). Traditionally, the humanist program of this kind of school included the Donatus, the ars dictaminis, and the progymnásmata. One of the most advanced progymnásmata was the ékphrasis, “a descriptive speech” that “brings the subject shown before the eyes with vividness”, i.e., ἐναργώς, as described by the rhetoricians Theon, Aphthonius, ps.-Hermogenes, and Nikolaos of Myra. These exercises were known in Western Europe thanks to Priscian's translation of Hermogenes' manual in the 6th century CE. But Italian humanists only knew the whole progymnasmatic tradition after the publication of the Latin translations of Aphthonius' Progymnásmata of and other authors of the Second Sophistic such as Philostratos and Lucian. In some documents of the commune of Arezzo at the beginning of the 16th century, we read that Latin teachers were expected to dominate both Latin and Greek Grammar and Literature (Black 1987, p. 224). Therefore, as Black (1987) suggests, it is possible that Vasari enjoyed a Greek-Latin education. This would explain his encomiastic and psychological descriptions, influenced by Byzantine and Second Sophistic ekphráseis, including those attributed to Libanios and Nikolaos.

Against this background, I will turn my attention to the progymnasmatic influences on Vasari’s ékphrasis understanding. On the base of the manuals and model ekphráseis that were usual at the Aretian Latin School, I will explain the ékphrasis notion that Latin teachers used to pass down there. I will argue that this notion was probably influenced by Nikolaos of Myra's progymnasmatic explanations on ékphrasis of pictures and sculptures and by collections of ekphráseis of sculptures, paintings, battles, and other topics, attributed to Libanios and Nikolaos (e.g., ekphraseis of sculptures, Gibson 2008, pp. 453-476, 479-484, 491-502; Paintings in the Council Chambers, Gibson 2008, pp. 433-444, 435-436). As Ruth Webb has pointed out (2007, p. 465), these model ekphráseis have somehow the signature of an “analytical interpreter,” differing from previous descriptions written by rhetoricians, such as Philostratus, and classical authors that expected prior knowledge and emotional involvement from their audience. I will summarize the main characteristics of some Vasarian descriptions with a focus on emotions, narrative, and artifacts, such as Giotto's Navicella Mosaic (cf. Albers 1995), Raphael's Parnassus (cf. Winner 1995), or Brunelleschi's stage machinery (cf. Larson 1957). Then, I will compare the Vasarian ekphráseis with the main characteristics of model exercises, the recommendations of the manuals, and some classical texts that were most likely known by Vasari, such as Vergil's description of Dido's murals (cf. Putnam 1998), or Lucian's description of the “Calumny of Apelles”. This allows for figuring out, which ekphrastic notion was passed down at the Latin School of Arezzo in the late Renaissance and to which extent the practice and transformations of progymnasmatic ekphrasis was crucial for the emergence of a “new” language for historicizing art, i.e., Vasari's narrative and encomiastic descriptions as memory and knowledge images.

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Constructing a Classical Tradition: East and West

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