Understanding Early Modern Life Key to Understanding the Ornament
Clare Guest’s recently published book The Understanding of Ornament in the Italian Renaissance was launched at the Trinity Long Room Hub in March by Professor Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Emeritus Fellow of English at Trinity College Dublin. Dr Guest’s association with the Hub goes back to 2012, when she was a Visiting Research Fellow. She is currently a Visiting Researcher in Italian at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies. Her new book which was completed during her time at the Trinity Long Room Hub has been nominated for a Bainton Prize, awarded by the Sixteenth Century Society.
Dr Guest looks at the ornament through its historical understanding; challenging us to look beyond modern concepts of ornament as simply ‘an accessory’ and taking us back to the fundamental role of ornament in pre-modern art and literature.
What prompted you to write this book?
My background was in literature and art history, and I always had a strong interest in links between the arts and how those were made in different times and places. What really inspired me was a period teaching on the programme run in Prague on History and Philosophy of Art and Architecture at the Central European University. The experience of a magnificent Baroque city prompted my curiosity to understand how urban spaces worked as wholes – not just as iconography or individual monuments – and to see the continuities between the arts, as they were orchestrated in the ritual life of early modern cities, for example.
The book proclaims that ‘ornament is not only a kind of artistic activity, in the sense of decoration or embellishment’. In what other ways can we understand the ornament?
I want to move away from the idea that ornament is a kind of accessory which is applied to finished objects. That is certainly one conception, but it doesn’t get us far with historical uses of ornament. For example, in old literary uses, we read of a king as the ornament of a realm or virtue of the soul. Here we are obviously not dealing with appliqué but with ornament as something which illuminated what was particularly valuable about a thing. Ornament has a venerable history in rhetoric and poetics, as much as in the visual arts. It always carried the idea of accompanying something else – but that did not only mean that it embellished in the sense of prettifying.
The book is concerned with how the understanding of ornament undergoes a profound shift in the renaissance. Why and how did the understanding of ornament change during this time?
The Renaissance inherits and discovers many meanings from earlier periods – antiquity and the Middle Ages. One very important meaning which carries over from ancient philosophy to medieval theology lies the idea that the creation of the natural species and the world as a habitat was a process of ornamentation – called ornatus mundi or exornatio mundi in medieval commentary on Genesis. That meaning coexisted with other, more rhetorical conceptions where ornament is the ‘dressing’ or ‘equipment’ used to make speech or arguments presented in pictorial form (decorative cycles) more persuasive. The Renaissance is a period involved in energetic recovery of the ancient world, and we see the urge to document and catalogue ornaments of all kinds (architectural decoration, motifs, figures of speech in literature) so that they could become objects of imitation and thus assimilated into contemporary culture. That great effort of research established a link between ornament and historicist style which endured until the nineteenth century, when it became the object of Modernist critique, resulting in the disappearance of traditional ornamental forms from the arts of design.
What is the connection between early cosmology and the ornament?
The Greek term for ornament is kosmos – thus from the cosmic comes the cosmetic. This looks like a paradox to us, whereas in ancient Greek the notion of ordering or arrangement was primary, and the meaning of cosmos as physical universe was an extension of the primary meaning. An attempt to understand these relationships has to reflect on what was perceived to be shared by ornament and the universe – and how that influenced the idea of nature as the model for art and artifice.
How is the ornament viewed in contemporary contexts and what is the contemporary significance of this book for such understanding?
Much contemporary discussion of ornament take its cue from the nineteenth century, when there was intense discussion of the future of craft in the wake of industrialisation. Those debates also provided the immediate context for the Modernist polemics and rejection of traditional ornament – and in turn for post-modern critiques of Modernism. Negative contemporary assessment of Modernism has returned a lot of architectural interest to ornament, but as a topic it remains a bit of a stumbling block. I hope that the book will make it clear that the range of possible understanding is limited by entering the discussion from the nineteenth century, when ornament is already reified into historical style. If we really want to break the discussion open, we need to reach beyond the historicism and aestheticism of the last couple of centuries, and I attempt to give a historical key which can further that process.
The focus of your book is on the Italian Renaissance, are comparisons with other European contexts useful in understanding the significance of ornament?
I concentrate on Italy because it is the predominant European culture of the period, in the high quality and prolific quantity of its production – both in art-making and in reflective literature about the arts. Italy at this time is both a culture (or network of cultures) and an international paradigm for urban culture. In this period there is also an international, Latin culture and I give discussion to its exponents, such as Erasmus. Questions of iconoclasm and stripping of ornament in the Protestant Reformation are one case of a theme which remains beyond the Italian context, but which would be central to discussions of Northern European art.
What research approach did you take to inform your study?
I tried to be genuinely inter-disciplinary in the sense of understanding material in each field in terms of its field, rather than ‘fishing’ from one to another. Linguistic and philosophical competence was fundamental, especially in the classical languages to which the early modern period turned for its intellectual sources. I spent a lot of time in the sites I discuss, in order to grasp how they worked, understand the kind of illusion and experience which was being created. Beyond that it was really question of reading as widely and deeply as possible and of refusing to abandon discussions until their significance and inter-relationships were elucidated.
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