Ekphrasis, the Paragone and baroque violin playing…

Back in 2009, I was approached by the Weiss Gallery in London as part of a team assembled to research one of the most exciting discoveries of 17th-century British painting to emerge in a century, the portrait of Nicholas Lanier, first “Master of the King’s Musick” under Charles I, and a prodigious collector of drawings and connoisseur who guided the King’s art collecting. Alongside a monograph produced by the gallery, my article in Early Music in 2010 brought to light more pertinent issues that concern the way we use paintings to understand historical performance practice.

This blog goes a step further.I hope it is of direct help to musicians when considering paintings as documentary evidence. Benjamin Hebbert writes. 


Throughout our cultural history the idea of the Ekphrasis has been central to our perception of the arts. In Greek and Roman times, this was expressed by the appreciation of the nine muses, Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope, the daughters of Apollo. Each was emblematic of a virtuous pursuit, respectively Epic Poetry, History, Love Poetry, Musicians, Tragedy, Hymns, Dance, Comedy and Astronomy, and hence over time the number of muses have been rationalised at times and changed to encompass such things as painting.

The philosophical idea of Ekphrasis was the rhetorical concern that one of the arts may seem to triumph over another when they were theoretically equal. The Paragone dealt with a relative latecomer to this idea, and it relates to the theoretical discussions that looked to compare painting and sculpture with the other arts, that emerged in the late medieval period both in Italy and Northern Europe. We can credit that philosophical concern with the rise in the standard of painting in order to stand comparison to the muses and the embrace of their philosophy in the creation of a theoretical framework for Renaissance art, and in so doing it related to the inherent and ancient concerns of Ekphrasis – can one better describe a moment of architecture or poetry through a painting?

With this in mind, I would like to reintroduce a psychologically terrifying image by the Ferrarese painter Lorenzo Costa, composed around 1488-90 for the leading patron of the arts in early Renaissance Italy, Isabella d’Este. I simply don’t think art critics have ever quite understood the subversive nature of this image, and it’s innate ability to unbalance the viewer – his ‘concert’ of musicians in London’s National Gallery.

I have wondered without reaching any firm conclusion if the seemingly undersized violetta and the oversized lute are meant to enhance the unnatural state to which the painter is referring, but the capture of the expression of the three singers is at once both a virtuosic essay on the musculature of the singer’s face, and yet psychologically unnerving, because when the mind sees the human face contorted in such a manner, the mind also expects to recieve sound.


The painting falls into a group of more communicative paintings that place the viewer within a more human experience to which Antonello de Messina’s Virgin Annunciate (around 1476) is a landmark drawing the viewer into the the embodiment of the time and space in which the Annunciation takes place (is the Angel Gabriel in the room, behind the viewer? Does the viewer take the place of the angel?). Ortolano’s altarpiece of St Demetrius places the viewer as a Roman Soldier in the act of martyring St Sebastian and Corregio’s Christ Presented to the People painted later, around 1531) sees an impassioned Pontius Pilate calling out to the people and placing the responsibility of Christ’s death within the sins of the viewer.

Yet Costa’s Concert has no religious nature, and instead is – I think – a deliberate test of the ideas of the Paragone, for when the painter is closest to achieving the musical subject, the result is antithetical. It is unsettling rather than satisfying, and becomes as a result, one of the most significant essays in understanding the Paragone, more powerful that the various rhetorical writings that survive from the period.

Hence, it is from this point onwards, excepting angels and tavern scenes – those whose position is either too low or high to bother with the concerns of Renaissance humanism, that artists who ascribed to the Paragone conscientiously avoided the musical act. Paintings can relate to music, and frequently do, but painting could not express music. Hence, Giorgione’s Impassioned Singer in the Galleria Borghese that dates from around 1510 presents another of very few challenges to the Paragone, and is – in my opinion- a another extraordinary image. Whether it is a singer or a poet, I would argue that the subject is in the throes of ‘impassioned’ performance, but the closed mouth leads us to a moment of tacit – the seconds after the words have ceased when the viewer is still situated well within the performance experience of whatever music or poem.


I immediately recall the climatic silence that falls after the final note of Monteverdi’s Vespers (albeit from a century later) and how epic a part of the performance the sudden wall of silence becomes (to me that is the single greatest moment of silence in all of musical history – and the most debased – if performed right and with the right setting and the audience refrains from spontaneous applause, for it is as near as passing the strains of music from the mortal to the celestial world). Epic poetry demands the same command of silence to give the words their meaning: This is the essence of Stile Recitivo. There may be some dispute about the attribution and age of the Giorgione painting (my reading of it gives strength in my mind to the traditionally agreed upon date), but from whatever precise point in the Renaissance the work nevertheless stands out in my mind as an exceptional response to the ideas that formulated Lorenzo Costa’s Concert.


I don’t want to rehash too much of what I already wrote in Early Music in 2010 (it can be downloaded from JSTOR here, and our original monograph Nicholas Lanier, A Portrait Revealedhere), but when we were confronted by the portrait of Nicholas Lanier, we were able to decipher an enormous amount about the nature of the music he was playing on the lute. The portrait – at least to my belief – most likely served as a test piece for Lanier’s idea of bringing together a workshop equal to that of Peter Paul Rubens but in London, employing the significant Flemish and English painters working in London within his circle, but most importantly in my opinion, the [self-] portrait was composed by Lanier, and expresses his artistic ideals (another self-portrait which he painted in Oxford during the Civil War survives still in the music faculty there). The combination of the UT RElevet FAtum SOlique … on the cartellino in the foreground and the statuette of Antonius gave significant clues to the Stilo Recitivo aesthetic, something that he had recently introduced from Italy into his writing of music for masques. Ultimately, the relaxed and slightly open lips give the impression of the moment when the lute is ringing on into silence at the end of a stanza. What I argued for in Lanier’s self-portrait is an effective resolution of the Paragone that comes from the accepted nature of silence as part of the recitative style. Hence, for the first time that I am conscious of, an artist was able to better Lorenzo Costa’s concert, and render a performance of music into painting without compromise, because unlike with Costa’s work, what you can hear in the painting is what you can see. Unbridled genius!


Lanier takes us directly to another English painter-musician and another probable self portrait, provocative by any measure and painted by Sir Peter Lely in 1648. With Paragone in mind, are we to assume that he knew of Lanier’s portrait? Although he arrived in England during the Civil War in 1643, he was firmly part of the same milieu of virtuosi. This would seem to be a direct challenge to the same subject matter, simply painted in the newer style that came in the wake of Van Dyck, rather than expressing the Venetian influence of an earlier period that influenced him. Lanier was in large part responsible for Van Dyck’s arrival in England, and Lely was heralded as his natural successor and likewise the two portraits seem to form a natural pentiment to one and other.

It follows in Renaissance art that no matter how intimate a painting is to the musical act, or the identity of the sitter, there is always a barrier. In portrait paintings, we see an entire genre of lute players conscientiously holding their lutes as an emblem of their accomplishment with no consideration for the musical nature of them. This is more obvious when they are simply holding them, but it also feeds less obviously into musical instruments forming part of the background of a painting, as for example Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors or the Family of Thomas More, though this may also be because a sitter has so many accomplishments that they don’t want one to be more prominent than any other.

However, it is with Titian and his various musical scenes that we see, most obviously, the boundaries between painting and music. I particularly like the ambiguity of his many variations on the them of the Reclining Venus in which a lute player or an organist accompanies her at the end of her bed. Here, whichever one it is has their back turned to the sitter, and their head towards Venus, so it is simultaneously impossible to know if they are playing or not, and also unlikely because of their situation in respect to Venus, yet we simply cannot know. We are, therefore, content with their silence without interrupting the innately musical nature of the scene that is presented before us.

Titian’s Bachanal of the Andrians is my favourite piece of unrestrained and lascivious pornography, with respect to the highly academic concern of the paragone. It is painted in the time that Isabella d’Este expressed her displeasure in being offered to purchase a bone (presumably an ivory tusk) to make a recorder by Lorenzo da Pavia, her instrument maker and underscoring the overt phallic references that were applied to the instrument. Hence in this extreme, we see the recorder as symbolic of what immediately faces the maidens outside of the temporal moment of the painting.


With this in our gaze, when we return to his further use of the recorder, within more pastorale scenes in which the appearance of an instrument may be more literal than symbolic, there is still an anxiety in the way that they are represented. I think Titian’s recorders are important, because there would be nonsense in suggesting that you play a recorder with your mouth inches from the fipple, and arguing that Titian’s paintings represent historic performance practice would be an utter absurdity. Giorgione’s (Titian’s teacher’s) Fête Champetre in the Louvre is especially helpful when we see how clear the lutenists hands are from any musical use of his instrument. Titian repeatedly used the recorder in his paintings. They are never less than a couple of inches away from being played.


On the subject of utter absurdities, it is self-evident that you don’t play an organ upside down with the pipes falling our of it, as the patron saint of music is shown in Raphael’s Ecstasy of St Cecilia. The painting shows the rapture of Cecilia as she turns  from music during the ecstasy of putting away mortal things in favour of the promise of heaven.


Compare Raphel’s St Cecilia to the works of Orazio Genetileschi and Guido Reni in the baroque, and how they transformed the painting to suit their time and understanding. They are two of a whole string of paintings that take Raphael’s famous prototype as their start point, and whilst Reni’s head is an obvious copy of Raphael, Gentileschi’s rebellious Young Woman Playing a Violin, to my mind is unquestionably another Ecstasy of St Cecilia, incorporating the same pose and gaze, even though the entire composition seems radical at odds with Raphael’s prototypes, with a fiery spirited rather than doe-eyed subject, or any of the other usual tropes of St Cecilia’s iconography. To these it is as obvious to the seventeenth-century reader of the painting that the instruments and the posture is about becoming distracted from worldly music by the promise of heaven, and everything that subverts the nature of musical performance gives further meaning to the theme of the Ecstacy. In Gentileschi’s where the viola is an extraordinarily detailed rendering we cannot exclude the possibility that the bridge position is painted preposterously or slovenly in a direct reference to the falling pipes and broken instruments of Raphael’s prototype.



Gentileschi’s involvement with St Cecilia, takes the discussion full circle as a result of another scene painting of the saint as a girl with an angel – a different point in the narrative of her life. Here the intimacy of the musical moment would seem to be performance, but following the firmly held views of the Paragone we see that her hands are nanoseconds from touching the keys and the space between the fingertips and the keys is definite. The moment is once again that of silence, though I cannot think of a more intimately musical scene. In fact, Artemisa and Orazio Gentileschi returned to the theme of St Cecilia constantly, and every time they tease with the idea of the Paragone. It was vital to them that in painting music should be seen and not heard.


The extent to which the Paragone was so naturally implicit within the theory of painting cannot be measured, except through the continual observation of musicians within different forms of high art, in which it seems to have been a more-or-less implicit characteristic into and beyond the Eighteenth century. What are we to say of Johann Zoffany’s painting of James Cervetto painted by a cellist of a cellist? Even Edwin Francis Burney’s 1820s Musicians of the Old School is determined in the micro detail to ensure that music is seen and not heard in his Hogarth-esque account of musical society of the time.


Amongst today’s painters there still seems to be an unwritten etiquette. It is one thing to portray the act of musicianship using contemporary techniques to build an impression of energy, but when it comes to portraiture, the likes of Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume 1920s portrait of Jelly d’Aranyi might perhaps reveal the further problems of paintings of musicians playing. Recalling the 1643 Lely self-portrait, where the violin becomes ancillary to the portrait of the self, somehow there are too many compromises in Geoffrey-Dechaume’s painting becoming neither satisfactory as an exemplar of a virtuoso violinist, nor as a formal portrait of the sitter.


With this in mind, it is possible for artists to care deeply about musical instruments, and the nature of musicianship, but for their works to have a greater respect for the Paragone. Veronese’s Marriage at Cana places musicians in the foreground in spectacular detail because they are the painters Veronese, Titian, Bassano, and Tintoretto, yet there is ambiguity and uncertainty as to whether they are about to play though they may be only moments from it. When looking at musical icongraphy, especially to inform ways of playing the instrument and postures to adopt, we have to remember not to dismiss paintings, but to look through the lens of the Paragone. 



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