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Disegno and Knowledge Production in Early Modern Rome: tracing a new research topic

Read Matthijs Jonker’s research article “Producing Knowledge in Early Modern Rome: Concepts and Practices of Disegno in the Accademia di San Luca and the Accademia dei Lincei” here.

Matthijs Jonker

Royal Netherlands Institute, Rome

The article that has recently been published in the Journal for the History of Knowledge (JHoK) – “Producing Knowledge in Early Modern Rome: Concepts and practices of disegno in the Accademia di San Luca and the Accademia dei Lincei” – derived from my PhD project at the University of Amsterdam. [1] In this project, I focused on the manifold practices—pedagogical, religious, corporate, literary, and patronage—of the first two official art academies in Europe, the Florentine Accademia del Disegno (1563) and the Roman Accademia di San Luca (1593), during the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries.

One of the central theoretical concepts in these art academies was disegno. Originally denoting a drawing or sketch on paper, over the course of the sixteenth century, the term acquired a second, more intellectual and cognitive meaning as an image in the artist’s mind on the basis of which he produced a work. Federico Zuccari (1540–1609), the first president of the Accademia di San Luca, developed the most profound and sophisticated contemporary account of this double-layered notion of disegno in his lectures for the academy and in his writings. Furthermore, in his theory of disegno, which he described as belonging to natural philosophy, Zuccari connected the process of artistic production to that of knowledge acquisition. According to him, artists used their senses and hands to form concepts (disegni interni) of the natural world, and they subsequently used these concepts for producing their works (disegni esterni).

Zuccari’s theory made me wonder how disegno was understood and used by contemporary natural philosophers. How did his understanding and use of the concept, taught at the Accademia di San Luca, compare to that of his contemporaries? The Accademia dei Lincei and its members soon emerged as a suitable case for comparison. It was founded only ten years later and in the same city as the Accademia di San Luca, and, in contrast to it, the Lincei employed artists and produced their own images for the production and dissemination of knowledge of the natural world. The questions that remained were: Did members from both academies know and interact with each other and were the members of the Lincei aware of Zuccari’s theory of disegno?

Walking around

I attempted to answer these questions during a research stay at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (KNIR) in 2013. Working in and walking around Rome allowed me to visit the places where the members of both academies gathered and discussed matters of science and art in the beginning of the seventeenth century. It became evident that they had plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with each other. Academic artists such as Lodovico Cardi da Cigoli (1559–1613) frequented the palaces of Lincei members Federico Cesi (1575–1630), Johannes Faber (1574–1629), and Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657). And Lincei members also met artists – academic and non-academic – in the palace of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1626), who was the official protector of the Accademia di San Luca from 1595–1626.

Given all these commonalities, I was surprised not to find any publications in which the connections between the Accademia di San Luca and the Accademia dei Lincei were analyzed. Therefore, I took it upon myself to explore the connections between these academies. This became a cherished side project to which I would at intervals return. Although the argument and the examples developed over the years, my main question remained the same: Can we improve our understanding of knowledge practices of the Lincei, and especially the images they produced and used, if we look at them through the lens of Zuccari’s theory? In my article published in the Journal for the History of Knowledge, I argue that, aided by Zuccari’s theory of disegno, both images and artists employed by the Accademia dei Lincei came to function as useful tools in the investigation of nature.

Looking up

It is fitting that I started writing the final version of the article as a postdoc fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History, because part of the institute is housed in Federico Zuccari’s palace at the Pincio in Rome. From my office, it was only a couple of floors down to the Sala del Disegno, on the ceiling of which Zuccari had rendered part of his theory as allegory in a fresco from the late 1590s. Needless to say, being able to visit the Sala del Disegno whenever I wanted to study the painting further motivated me to finish my article. Looking up, one sees Disegno as an older man surrounded by his daughters Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Moreover, in other segments of the ceiling (not represented in this image), other arts and sciences were personified. As a whole, Zuccari’s painting conveyed the centrality of disegno for all human thought and activity, including the sciences.

Federico Zuccari, Personification of Disegno and the Art of Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, 1594-1598, fresco, Sala del Disegno, Palazzo Zuccari, Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome.

A particularly interesting aspect of the fresco is the personification of Scientia, who holds a book with the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “Παντες ανθρωποι τον εἱδεναι ορεγονται φυσει” (“All humans, by nature, desire knowledge”). Two decades after the fresco was painted, in 1616, Federico Cesi referred to this famous quote from Aristotle in the title of his programmatic lecture for the Accademia dei Lincei: “Del natural desiderio di sapere et institutione de’ Lincei per adempimento di esso” (“On the Natural Desire for Knowledge and The Institution of the Lynceans for Its Fulfillment”) [2]. It is possible that Cesi saw Zuccari’s fresco in the Sala del Disegno, but that remains uncertain.

It was also in the Biblioteca Hertziana that I started my research project on the Tesoro Messicano, an encyclopedia of the natural history of Mexico, published by the Accademia dei Lincei in 1651. In my article, I discuss several examples from this encyclopedia to show how the Lincei employed artists and their disegni as instruments in their scientific projects. I have continued my research on this topic, focusing on the epistemic functions of the illustrations of the Tesoro Messicano, in my current position as Director of Studies in Art History at the KNIR. By following movements and traces left by members of the Academia dei Lincei, what began with an intriguing, but tangential, question during my doctoral studies, eventually became the main focus of my current research project.  

[1] Jonker, Matthijs. “The Academization of Art: A Practice Approach to the Early Histories of the Accademia del Disegno and the Accademia di San Luca.” PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 2017. This dissertation will be published in 2021 under the same title in the KNIR Papers Series with Edizioni Quasar in Rome.

[2] Cesi, Federico. Il natural desiderio di sapere: testo bilingue/The Natural Desire for Knowledge: Bilingual Text. Vatican City: Pontificia Academia Scientiarum, 2003.

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