Saturday, December 11, 2010

Biblical Natural Philosophy in the Royal Library at the Escorial

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/11 at 11:56 AM

[Note: I regret having arrived late and thus having missed Tayra M. C. Lanuza-Navarro’s commentary on Maria Portuondo’s paper. What follows is a brief summary of the paper itself and then an account of the questions and discussion that followed the commentary.]

It has been a great term for people interested in early modern European science. Maria M. Portuondo’s “The Study of Nature and the Royal Library of San Lorenzo of the Escorial” on 19 November was the latest (but not the last) of the PACHS colloquia on various early modern themes. Maria’s paper situates itself within a particular historiographic debate about art history and the interpretation of the frescos in the Royal Library at the Escorial, and stakes a claim about the nature of natural philosophy in late-sixteenth-century Spain (and perhaps, implicitly, in Europe more broadly).

Maria Portuondo responding to commentary on her paper at the recent PACHS colloquium, hosted by The Academy of Natural Sciences

Maria offers a new interpretation of the frescos that decorate the Royal Library in Escorial. She focuses on the allegories that decorate the ceiling, allegories of philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, music, geometry, astrology, and theology. She approaches these frescos through the lens of a particular text written by José de Sigüenza.

She begins by reviewing the historiography and largely rejecting the historiography that has approached these frescos though narrow art historical approaches that have studied “the iconography of the frescos with the final objective of uncovering what the frescos mean and what they can say about the intellectual universe of Philip II’s court.”1 This literature suffers from at least two problems: first, following René Taylor’s work in the late 1960s, most scholarship has adopted a simple, unified, occult-Catholic orthodoxy that ultimately falls “into a trap of a reductionism where everything in the library becomes hermetic;” second, most scholarship has tried to attribute the iconographic program to a single author. Maria’s warning here about the problem of historiographic reductionism is on target. In the paper she walks a fine line: while rejecting unified authorship of the frescos and rejecting previous efforts to privilege a particular text or author, she focuses on Sigüenza’s text, which relies heavily on a text by Arias Montano, as the key to understanding that the message

coded into the frescos of the Royal Library was an exhortation for others to undertake the Montanian program of supplanting scholastic and patristic authorities with a new approach to biblical interpretation that relied on the philological study of the Hebrew Bible.

To be fair, at times Maria makes it clear that she is recounting Sigüenza’s interpretation. But at other times she seems to attribute Sigüenza’s description to the frescos, as if it reveals the message the frescos were intended to convey.

Sigüenza was the librarian at the Escorial and must have had ample opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the frescos. Maria’s analysis of his description of the library, La Fundacíon del Monasterio de San Lorenzo, convincingly argues for Sigüenza’s particular form of exegetical natural philosophy. His approach to knowledge, especially natural knowledge, was grounded in his reading of Arias Montano’s Magnum opus and Montano’s claim that only by returning to the revealed word, the Bible, could scholars establish a true understanding of nature. Sigüenza intended his text to provide a guide for visitors to the library, so that they would not misunderstand the frescos. Maria steps through his interpretations of the allegories in the frescos: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, music, geometry, astrology, theology.

Maria responding to questions at her colloquium, with an image of the interior of the Royal Library behind her.

The audience pressed Maria on a variety of issues. Predictably, one of the first questions focused on the audience and who might have seen the frescos as well as who might have read Sigüenza’s text. Maria claimed that a focus on the possible audience has informed much of the existing historiography and rapidly reduces to reading the frescos as political statements. Maria wants to use Sigüenza’s text to interpret the frescos as an expression of “science.” When asked about possible cabalistic influences, Maria said there was no obvious or unproblematic cabalistic evidence in the frescos. Citing Copenhaver, she is careful not to extend terms like cabalistic, occult, hermetic, magic beyond what the sources will support.

Interestingly absent from the frescos are allusions to the New World. This absence indicates that the New World did not yet play a role in conceptualizing monarchical power and that they did not yet know how to interpret and understand the New World.

One question asked about the relationship between these frescos and the others in the library. Maria explained that Counter Reformation art was intended to teach, to instruct. Maria seemed to want to distinguish these allegories from the other frescos. This group of frescos reveal a progression and reflect a story, a lesson. In this way, Sigüenza has been misread. We need to recover the “authorial intention” and see the reform he is trying to lay out: the study of nature does not occur for its own sake, but as a quasi-religious, Catholic project.

Another way to ask that question might be: How do these frescos, this library, relate to contemporary libraries that were decorated with equally elaborate artistic programs. Although nobody asked the question, it might be interesting to compare this library to the other Habsburg royal library established about this time: Emperor Maximilian II’s imperial library in Vienna. Here again the librarian—Hugo Blotius—offered contemporary guides to how the library was intended to function and the messages it was supposed to convey. The literature on this library has situated it within the context of Counter Reformation Vienna and Maximilian’s broad political and religious program.2 It would perhaps be interesting to analyze the Royal Library in the Escorial as an expression of a political and religious program as well as a manifesto to reform natural philosophy. It might also be interesting to ask about the relationship between the frescos and the books on the shelves. It seems at first glance reasonable to assume that as the librarian, Sigüenza could have rearranged the books to fit his goals. Is there any evidence indicating how he arranged them and why? And what about that audience? I, for one, would like to know more about both how visitors to the library understood it and who the intended audience for Sigüenza’s was. But these last questions are perhaps unfair: Maria didn’t set for herself those tasks. She offered a detailed analysis of a particular text that presented a particular interpretation of the frescos. Within those parameters, she presents a compelling story.

1All quotations from Maria’s circulated paper.
2A recent analysis of this library can be found in H. Louthan, The Quest for Compromise (Cambridge, 1997), 67–84.

Tags: art history, escorial, jose de siguenza, natural philosophy, pachs colloquium