Ars simia naturae: The Animal as Mediator and Alter Ego of the Artist in the Renaissance

in Explorations in Renaissance Culture
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Past research on animals in Renaissance art has indicated their functions as signifiers of human characteristics. This study demonstrates stages in developments of Renaissance art that illustrate transitions from anthropocentric to theriocentric approaches in animal symbolism, where animals are perceived and valued in their own right. Traditional negative animal symbolism was not relinquished, but new types of animal depictions have testified to new attitudes. Iconography of the dog and the ape, for example, represents two issues relating to human-animal relationships in the Renaissance. Changing conceptions of the dog, its function in artistic narrative, as related to the artist, his self-image and awareness of the spectator, are examined. The ape became a metaphor of the universal artist and clever imitator of nature. While late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrations referring to artistic imitatio were harshly judicial, the idea of animals as mediators is demonstrated by the artist who tends not only to empathize with animals but also to identify with them.



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  • Vittore Carpaccio, Venetian Ladies on a Balcony, tempera and oil on panel, 94 × 63 cm., ca. 1495–1510, Museo Civico Correr, Venice.

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  • Vittore Carpaccio, St. Augustine in his Study, oil on canvas, 141 × 211 cm., ca. 1502, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

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  • Typus logicae, woodcut from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Strasbourg, 1503, Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nuremberg.

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  • Jacopo Bassano, Two Hunting Dogs, 1550s, oil on canvas, 61 × 80 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre

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  • Titian, Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, oil on canvas, 117 × 100 cm., Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Inv 2569).

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  • Paolo Caliari, called Veronese, Supper at, Emmaus, Oil on canvas, 242 × 416 cm., ca. 1560, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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  • Paolo Caliari, called Veronese, Marriage at Cana, oil on canvas, 677 × 994 cm., ca. 1559–60, Paris, Musée du Louvre

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  • Annibale Caracci, Self Portrait with his Dog and Cat, oil on panel, 42.5 × 30 cm., 1604, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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  • Carpaccio, Return of the Ambassadors, Ex Scuola di Sant’Ursula, oil on canvas, 297 × 527 cm., 1495–96, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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  • Rosso Fiorentino, detail from Deposition of Christ, oil on canvas, 270 × 201 cm., 1528, Church of San Lorenzo, Borgo San Sepolcro.

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  • Natura Simia, engraving by Theodore de Bry, Frontispiece, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Historia Tractatus Secundus De Naturae Simia Sue Technica Macrocosmi Historia, Frankfurt 1624.

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  • Imitatio Sapiens, engraving by Charles Errard, in Pietro Bellori, Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, Rome, 1672.

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