Writing in a foreign language is a strange, alienating experience. Familiar concepts become unfamiliar, unknown. At the beginning, we struggle to force our way of think into grammar structures and words that necessarily cannot be used in that way.
For me, as a writer who loves the philosophy and the philology, the bigger problem is transforming the concepts, clear when I think in my mother tongue, into foreign words.
For example, in these days I was searching how to translate the Italian noun fruitore: in this case, the person who enjoys the work of an artist. I could not find anything exactly equivalent in English, but I found something maybe more interesting: a totally different way of thinking, so I decided to share a few thoughts about this topic.
(Bassa Ducale by Fabritio Caroso played our early-music ensemble Lilium Aeris – Serena Fiandro: Renaissance recorder; Andrea Tuffanelli: colascione, percussion)
There is an old paradox in art itself: the world of the artist and the world of the user. Two worlds, of the patron and the artist, distant but necessarily adjacent, intersecting. It is interesting to see how the English language calls the beneficiary: consumer, user. In Italian, we call it fruitore that has a meaning a little different. Fruire, the verb from which derives fruitore, the person who make this action, means something more like to enjoy, relish, but also to benefit. In English, I found enthusiast, but it is not exactly the same as fruitore. It is more like the Italian term appassionato. Fruitore is something more. In medieval mystic language, the perfect soul fruisce (conjugated third person singular of the verb fruire) the presence of God. And obviously, God (no matter if we are believers or not: I’m focusing here on the concept) is not an object we can possess.
The contradiction is here. From one side, a person who creates; from the other, a person who consumes. But how it is possible to consume a piece of art? But here the problem is just a little of the consumer. The problem belongs to the artist. It begins when the artist forgets of being a creator and becomes, in his or her way, a consumer. How does it happen?
A consumeristic approach to the creation is not only contradictory, but also destructive for the artists and their art. It means considering our work an object that can be used, consumed, not a process that grows by itself from the seeds of our imagination. At the moment we objectify our art, it loses its peculiarity. It becomes a product among other products, nothing special, nothing more.
In order to create freely, the artist ought to be free. It appears like a tautology, but let’s see what this entails. The process of creation needs a certain level of independence from outer pressure, at least, at the beginning. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the artists should not be influenced by the patrons, nor that they should not remember that they are working for their audience, just that they need a moment for themselves, for collecting their thoughts, searching inspiration, and finding other ways in their work.
The time of creation, differently from the time of use, is slow. Only in the slowness and tranquility we can create. Any kind of art needs time. Time to learn, time to think, time to make silence within ourselves. Learning drawing or singing is not a thing we can do in a few months. Gaining an artistic skill needs thousands of hours. Preparing a play or a concert needs a lot of work.
The time of the artist and the time of the user are not the same, necessarily. The problem arises when the artist feels the necessity to run at the same rhythm as the user. People are eager for the latest products, new things, innovations. Anything is not new, is old, uninteresting. And artists are just that, people.
Maybe, we can stop using art and start enjoying it, at a slower pace. We can stop consuming and start a creative approach to the fruition of art. What prevents us from becoming actively present in front of a piece of art and not mere, inert bystanders?
I don’t think art is something passive. I think it is alive, it can act and transform our lives. But in order to allow it to change us, we need to reject the attitude of consuming and embrace the creation itself.
When we paint or draw, there is a mysterious moment, scarcely comprehensible: the first step, when from the undifferentiated nothing of the canvas or the panel, shapes and shadows begin emerging; things that before existed just within our mind. In particular, the moment when the shadows appear, and the drawing suddenly makes sense and resembles, in the beginning vaguely, the reference image.
This is the hard part: if the imagination fails, we get stuck. Here with the term “imagination”, I am talking about not the free and unrestrained daydreaming, but the ability to create clear and precise mental images, to perceive within the white of the canvas the finished work. This first part, obviously, is nothing definitive. It is just the starting point. There will be a time for fixing, changing, adjusting. Later, not now.
But we have to remember that more the mind is aware of its own imaginative activity, and more it is conscious of what the hand is doing, better the outcome will be. Easier. Ease should not be underestimated, in a world that considers valuable just the things we achieve through hard work, suffering, sweat. The first lines and shadows have to be light, evanescent, almost imperceptible, as light has to be our mind. They will change and change again.
I consider this initial stage a mystery. I can not understand, not really, how the order can grow from a shapeless tangle of light and shadow. How the imagination could lead the hand to create something that before did not exist. I do not know how, but I know that it works. If I draw carefully and precisely, layer after layer, the figure will appear.
In this process, the reason plays a role greater than the instinct. The instinct would pressure us to color immediately, before we have visualized and understood; it would pressure the hand to mark the paper with rapid, heavy, permanent signs. The instinct demands high speed.
In order to draw and paint, the instinct ought to be restrained. We have to slow down, stop, look often at our work. And trust the process – trust the fact that it will work. That if we follow the same method, from a point a we will reach necessarily a point b. There are no shortcuts.
Since the Renaissance, many authors speculated about the artistic invention. I am speaking about the Renaissance because it is one of my favorite epochs, from a point of view both artistic and philosophical, so much so that Italian Renaissance philosophy has been one of the main subjects of my academic studies.
I spend a lot of time studying philosophical and literary texts, but also painting handbooks, finding them great sources of inspiration and new ideas. Lately, I read an excellent book, De Pictura of Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote it both in Latin and vernacular. The third book is dedicated to the painter, with suggestions about the technique and how to improve the mastery of the craft.
A passage, in particular, struck a cord. Never use the stylus or the brush before the mind has built within itself what it is going to make and how to make it, the author writes categorically. It is easier fixing the mistakes with our mind than erasing them from the painting. When the painter has got used to begin working after putting in order mentally any element, the process becomes unbelievably fast: “the intellect, moved and warmed up by means of the exercise, makes itself ready and fast to the work; and the hand lead by a certain reason of intellect follows rapidly”.
Lazy painters (the author uses the word artifex: creator, maker) are slow and insecure when they try to paint things unclear and little known by their minds. They proceed as though blind, using their brush as a stick, groping around the one and the other path, surrounded by the darkness of the error.
Before starting to paint, the artifex needs an intellect well trained to see, well learned.
I imagine that it could be odd, for people not used to the complexity of Renaissance thought, observing the rationalization behind any artistical activity – no matter if music, dance, or figurative arts. Every aspect of the art of painting is analyzed, explored fully, understood in detail. The learning process is simple, direct; there is no room for reveries. The method presupposes learning the fundamentals and then more difficult things harmoniously, step-by-step. The adherence to the reality, the prevailing of the method over the instinct, is the path that had allowed Renaissance painting to create everlasting works.
Leon Battista Alberti does not reject the instinctive part, just refuses that it could be the main and decisive one. He denied that the instinctive method could be good for a true artifex. The hand can not lead the work, because the hand uneducated by the intellect and a clear vision of the finished work is unfit and subject to mistakes. Of course, the intellect too can be mistaken, but correcting the errors within our mind is faster and easier than doing it once the work is done on a surface – the plaster of a fresco, a sheet of paper, a panel, a canvas.
What Leon Battista Alberti, humanist and architect, is explaining, in substance, it that the finished work ought to be present in our mind, clear within our imaginative faculty, understood thoroughly. The subject has to be known, not just experienced outwardly. In the painter’s work, the senses are not enough: first of all, there is the mind that knows and understands everything.
We have to not forget that Renaissance art is one of the many features of the Humanism – and that being humanist means to stay in the central place from which it is possible to fathom the universe, to get an overall view, to reach the philosophical knowledge thanks to the exaltation of the highest human faculties. The authentic painter is a humanist. Renaissance painter, indeed, is rarely devoted to just one art. We find painters who are as well philosophers, architects, sculptors, poets, mathematicians, and more. The fundamental principle is that just one is the structure of the cosmos through the multiplicity of its manifestations; in the same way, one is the human mind, able to achieve the most extraordinary feats, from painting the Cappella Sistina to building complex war machines or learning the secrets of the universe.
The hand, the instinct, the emotion are not denied; they are just scaled down. How is faster the hand lead by a confident intellect, writes Leon Battista Alberti. The mastery over the project allows the hand to rely on something that does not belong to it: the sure knowledge of the depicted subject.
Art is not just the mimesis of nature. It starts from the observation of the reality, from the necessary relationship with the senses, but it elevates itself, becomes ideal, the product of the mind. When they are painting, artifices become gods. This is the reason, Alberti writes, why people venerate painters. Painting, as Counter-Reformation theologians will understand well, is immediate, simple, clear to both the learned and the illiterate. This, because art is not a mere copy of nature, but an imitation of the creative process of nature itself through the mediation of the intellect.
Painter’s work, says Alberti, is not necessarily a difficult one, made with a great effort. Alberti does not believe this. It must be a work made with rationality, with a method. Renaissance painters trust the process more than the instinct, the knowledge of generation about how to blend the colors, the ability to trace realistic and accurate drawings thanks to the grid (called velo, veil, by the author), the study of composition that comes from the perfect familiarity with the represented subject.
Renaissance art is a rational understanding of the process of the painting, from the conception to the delivery to the client who had commissioned the work. Technique, artifice, and process blend into pure inspiration at the moment they come alive with shadows and colors. Now, the hand is able to work alone, lead by the power of the imagination and by the complete knowledge of the intellect.
The painters achieve this through the study, exercise, technical works, but also through the training of the intellect to see things that do not exist yet, moved by the fundamental idea of the centrality of the human being in the cosmos – and more, the centrality of the humanists who fulfilled within themselves the whole human potential and now can shape the invisible of the mind.