by Roderick Conway Morris

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Dreams and the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 27 July 2013
National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Dream of a Young Girl by Lorenzo Lotto, c.1505



The rediscovery of the Greco-Roman world that stimulated the Renaissance revived an interest in many aspects, both intellectual and artistic, of these ancient civilizations. A tantalizing, intangible phenomenon that had greatly exercised ancient philosophers was the subject of dreams.

Following in their footsteps, a number of Renaissance thinkers, the leading 15th-century Florentine neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino among them, turned their attention to accounting for the significance and meaning of dreams.

Artists, too, took up the challenge of representing dreams, and some of the most intriguing and memorable products of their efforts are now the subject of an absorbing exhibition, 'Dreams in the Renaissance,' at Palazzo Pitti here. This gathering of more than 70 paintings, drawings, engravings and books is curated by Chiara Rabbi Bernard, Alessandro Cecchi and Yves Hersant, and will travel to Paris in the autumn.

Visitors may find themselves tiptoeing through the first section of the show: It is given over entirely to sleeping figures. They range from a second-century Roman marble of a snoozing cupid to a 16th-century clay model of the slumbering figure of Michelangelo's 'Allegory of the Night' in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence.

There are sleeping nude Venuses in pastoral settings by Correggio, Dosso and Battista Dossi, and Polidoro da Lanciano, and a dormant Christ Child by Livinia Fontana watched over by the Virgin and an infant John the Baptist looking out at us with an index finger to his lips, enjoining silence. The eternally young but narcoleptic shepherd Endymion is shown, in a canvas by Garofalo, visited at night by the Roman goddess Diana, while in Giorgio di Giovanni's panel the nocturnal visitor is the Greek moon-goddess Selene.

Most extraordinary of all is Lorenzo Lotto's 'Sleeping Apollo' from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, from around 1530. In this scenario, the god has been overcome with sleep in a Parnassian grove and, taking advantage of his slumbers, the Muses have ripped off all their clothes - left scattered on the ground at Apollo's feet along with their scrolls, books, musical instruments and an armillary sphere - and taken to the neighboring meadow, where they can be seen dancing and cavorting, stark naked, with girlish glee.

The angel over Apollo's head could conceivably indicate that this singular scene is in some way related to Marsilio Ficino's notion of 'vacatio animae,' the theory that during sleep the soul temporarily vacates the body and becomes free of earthly bonds, but here given a uniquely playful spin.

Another landscape by Lotto, 'The Dream of the Young Girl,' from Washington, opens the next section of the exhibition. This exquisitely painted pastoral vision features a recumbent young girl being showered by a hovering cupid with a stream of flowers, which pour down on her like a shining white waterfall from above, while a female satyr hides behind a tree, watching with amusement the lolling figure of an inebriated satyr at the girl's feet. The cupid and satyrs seem invisible to the girl and may be part of her dream, but as with the artist's 'Sleeping Apollo' the picture defies any definitive interpretation.

Alongside 'The Dream of the Young Girl' are further allegorical paintings with slumbering figures, including Raphael's enigmatic 'Dream of the Knight' from the National Gallery in London. This section also displays copies of some of the ancient texts on dreams by Hippocrates, Aristotle, Macrobius and Artemidorus to which humanist scholars returned, together with Renaissance works by Ficino, Alberti and Girolamo Cardano.

While the ideas contained in such Greek and Latin texts no doubt became familiar in artistic circles, most contemporary artists would not have been able to read them in the original. More important for the visual arts of the period, and indeed for long afterward into the Baroque era, was Francesco Colonna's 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,' or 'The Strife of Love in a Dream,' published in Venice by the Aldine Press in 1499.

This novel, composed in an idiosyncratic, highly Latinized Italian, was cast entirely in the form of a sustained narrative of a beautiful dream and constitutes an extended love letter not only to the nymph Polia, but also to the literature, architecture and art of the ancient world. (Joscelyn Godwin's brilliant English translation of the book was published in 1999.)

A remarkable feature of 'Hypnerotomachia' was its unabashed pagan and erotic nature, at a time when other humanist philosophers and writers were struggling to reconcile admiration for antiquity with the teachings of the Christian church. The novel was illustrated with numerous woodcuts that were to have a resonance even more widespread than Colonna's text. A copy on show here is open at one of its most influential episodes - the one describing the hero's ecstatic encounter with a stupendously lovely and uncannily lifelike reclining statue of Venus, illustrated by a woodcut, that was to be a primary inspiration for the reclining nudes in this exhibition and for thousands of others.

But while the theme of dreams gave license for the depiction of pagan and sensual scenes, artists were regularly called upon to represent two biblical dreams: the story of Jacob's Ladder and Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream. Examples here include drawings by Cigoli, paintings by Andrea del Sarto and a superb tapestry by Nicola Karcher from a cartoon by Francesco Salviati.

Renaissance artists' records of their own dreams are exceedingly rare. An exception is a watercolor by Albrecht Dürer of waterspouts descending from the heavens, the gigantic central one of which is making explosive contact with the earth. Underneath the artist recorded the date, June 8, 1525, and also that 'I awoke trembling in every limb and it took a long time for me to recover.'

The watercolor, now at the Albertina in Vienna, is too delicate to travel. But there is here a pen-and-ink drawing by Federico Zuccari recording a febrile dream his late brother Taddeo had had after leaving Rome, in which he had seen visions of the palazzi he had been studying - one such building being shown suspended, cartoon-like in a perfectly cylindrical bubble above Taddeo's sleeping form.

Italian artists seem to have taken little interest in depicting nightmares until exposed to the works of Bosch and other northern painters, fine examples of whose disturbing fantasies figure large in the penultimate section of the exhibition. Bosch's weird hybrid creatures made an early appearance in Marcantonio Raimondi's 'Raphael's Dream,' of around 1508, an arcane engraving of a night scene, with two sleeping female nudes.

There was a considerable demand for Netherlandish works in Italy from the 15th century onward, and one of the prize exhibits in the famous connoisseur Cardinal Giovanni Grimani's eponymous palazzo in Venice were the four panels of Bosch's 'Visions of the Other World' from 1505-10 (on loan here from Palazzo Grimani), illustrating the fates of the blessed and the damned.

That such images could be understood not merely as artists' imaginings of paradise and hellfire but also as representations of admonitory nightmares visited on the living to warn them to repent is clearly demonstrated by 'The Vision of Tundale' from the Museo Lazaro Galdiano in Madrid. This anonymous painting from the 1520s shows not only a hallucinatory Boschian panorama but also, in the lower left-hand corner, the sleeping sinner Tundale himself experiencing the nightmare.

Most of the dreamers depicted in the exhibition are shown sleeping in broad daylight. It is worth remembering that half a millennium ago the night was almost universally believed to be a dangerous time, when the night air itself was poisonous, with thieves and brigands abroad, and witches and incubi going about their nefarious business.

So the two large canvases that close this exhibition - Battista Dossi's 'Morning: Aurora With the Horses of Apollo' and Dosso Dossi's 'The Awakening of Venus' - would surely not only have been appreciated as the richly colorful and atmospheric paintings that they are, but also as joyful celebrations of the dawning of another day.

Dreams in the Renaissance. Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Through Sept. 15. Musée de Luxembourg, Paris. Oct. 9 through Jan. 26.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024