Abstract: ITA | ENG

L’articolo propone un confronto tra The Sight of Death (2006), di T. J. Clark, e Roof Life (2013), di Svetlana Alpers. Scritti da celebri storici dell’arte, entrambi i libri si presentano come oggetti ibridi, opere non finzionali che si pongono intenzionalmente al confine tra critica d’arte, diario e autobiografia, riflettendo sul valore e sui limiti del «guardare» e del «descrivere» come pratiche critiche e come esperienze. L’autrice riconosce l’estrema consapevolezza che Clark e Alpers dimostrano come scrittori e la conseguente necessità di affrontare la loro scrittura innanzitutto in quanto scrittura, attraverso l’analisi di strutture, motivi, figure e riproduzioni fotografiche. Il contributo più significativo che i due libri portano al dibattito critico sull’ekphrasis, sul ruolo della descrizione nella storia dell’arte e, più in generale, sulla cultura visuale, sembra derivare proprio dall’aspetto che più ha diviso i loro lettori. In particolare, secondo l’autrice, l’insolito rilievo conferito alla propria voce e persona sia da Clark che da Alpers è ciò che ha permesso loro di investigare nel modo più efficace i limiti del vedere e del descrivere, accettando senza riserve la non neutralità di qualunque tentativo di tradurre le immagini in parole. Nel rivendicare l’importanza del «guardare» e del «pensiero» articolato attraverso mezzi puramente visivi, entrambi i libri paradossalmente riaffermano lo specifico potenziale euristico della scrittura. 

This article proposes a comparative reading of T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death (2006) and Svetlana Alpers’s Roof Life (2013). Written by renowned art historians, both books are strange, hybrid objects – non-fictional works that consciously blur the line between art criticism, diary, and autobiography, while reflecting on the worth and limits of «looking» and «describing» as critical practices and human experiences. The author acknowledges Clark’s and Alpers’s extreme self-awareness as writers and the consequent need to address their writing as writing in the first place, by analysing their use of structures, returning motifs, tropes, and photographic reproductions. Their most valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on ekphrasis, on the role of description in art history, and on visual culture more generally, seems to stem precisely from what has proven more divisive in their reception. In particular, the author argues that the unusual prominence given by both Clark and Alpers to their own voice and persona is what allowed them to explore most effectively the limits of sight and description, fully embracing the non-neutrality of any possible attempt at translating pictures into words. While advocating the importance of «looking» and the amount of «thought» that happens through purely visual means, both books paradoxically restate the heuristic potential of writing.

In several respects, two books could not be more different than T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death (2006) and Svetlana Alpers’s Roof Life (2013).[1] Despite their stylistic and ideological distance, they both resonate with fundamental concerns that are rooted in the experience of every art historian, or at least of those art historians who do not consider the essential – and ultimately inevitable – critical practices of looking at works of art and describing them as neutral, unproblematic activities. Although it is on this deep level that the two books spark a worthwhile comparison, a number of more superficial similarities should not be overlooked. Both books were published by Yale University Press, as clearly reflected in their careful graphic set up, which especially in the case of Clark is strikingly balanced and thought through.[2] Both Clark and Alpers are renowned art historians, who spent most of their academic careers at Berkeley and whose work has been acclaimed, but also heavily criticised. While being credited with fundamental critical acquisitions, their books have often been divisive in terms of their reception.[3] If it is probably simplistic to locate their work in the area of the so-called ‘New Art History’, it is reasonable to see them as constantly committed to innovating their discipline and pointing out the flaws and limits of traditional approaches.

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From January to June 2016, Federica Pich enjoyed sabbatical from her lectureship at the University of Leeds to take up a visiting position at the Courtauld Institute of Art. While resident in London, Federica taught an interdisciplinary MA course on the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance (in collaboration with Scott Nethersole). During that time, she also came across the writings of Michael Squire, who works on the interface between Graeco-Roman visual and literary cultures – and who happened to be based next door on the Strand, in the Department of Classics at King’s College London… As a scholar of the same generation, but trained in different disciplinary, institutional and national frameworks, Michael stood out to Federica as an interesting interlocutor for a conversation on ekphrasis and intermediality. There followed a series of art historical and literary exchanges, parts of which are recorded (in lightly re-worked form) in the present essay. The dialogue came about while Federica was thinking about intermediality and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and while Michael was working with Courtauld colleagues to organize the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of Art Historians (co-hosted by the Courtauld and King’s). No less importantly, the conversation took shape against the bitter nadir of the British European referendum debate – that is, at exactly the time when Britain was raising its isolationist drawbridge and turning its back on European friends. If nothing else, we hope that the following dialogue captures the spirit of a more engaged, outward-looking and pluralist perspective…


Federica Pich: I’d like to start our conversation with a quote from Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention (1985: 4): «Past tense and cerebration: what a description will tend to represent best is thought after seeing a picture». I suspect a literary scholar would have been unable to capture the essence of verbal description – the shift that is implied in any attempt to represent a picture into words – as poignantly as this particular art historian does here. It is a question of perspective, of positive displacement – of being able to see more when we step outside the realm of our own discipline. My experience here at the Courtauld has been quite unique in this respect. Besides rekindling my interest in intermediality, conversations with students and colleagues have changed the way I look at pictures and, perhaps more surprisingly, the way I read texts.

It was that same search for new perspectives – facilitated by the chance to spend more time in London’s libraries over the last few months – that first led me to your work, Michael. When I read your article on the epigrams on Myron’s cow (Squire 2010a), for example, and your chapter on ekphrasis for the Oxford Handbooks Online in Classical Studies (Squire 2015b), they both stood out to me as much more intellectually refreshing and helpful than many theoretical contributions I had come across during my own research on ekphrastic poetry in the Italian Renaissance. I felt that your view of the subject could speak effectively to someone with a different expertise – precisely because your thoughts were moving from specific objects and texts, which you analyzed in great depth, while never losing sight of wider issues. This made me wonder how you first got interested in themes of image and text. Was it your interest in individual authors or texts that led you to themes such as ekphrasis and visual poetry, or was it rather the interest in these themes that guided your selection of texts? For that matter, what took you to classical materials in the first place?

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