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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on early-modern design and its iconography

This exhibit is a companion piece to the articles on “design” and “designing” from Chambers’ Cyclopædia (e-text in the library, LIB. CAT. NO. CYCL1728a).

The emblem for Dissegno (“Designing”), as adapted from Cesare Ripa’s canonical Iconologia (1593; illustrated, 1603), depicts a youth “of a noble Aspect,” holding “Compasses in one Hand, and a Miroir in the other.”

The “noble Aspect” (and richly-clothed, comely figure) impart two important lessons about design: that

all things made by Art, are more or less handsom, according to the more or less designing

and that

Art is noble of it self.

The compasses show that

Designing consists in Measuring

while the mirror shows that

a good Imagination [is] requisite.

This symbolic breakdown of Dissegno into the triad nobility-compass-mirror calls into question our own characterizations of design practices and ideals during an early modern age before the “differentiation of science, morality and art,” as Habermas has called it.

For example, there are no hierarchies of rationality inscribed in the emblem for Dissegno; rather, designing, we are told, requires that we integrate acts of rationality with those of imagination.

Nor does the emblem suggest the sort of naïve theories of representation usually attributed to modern designers. The mirror (or “glass”) was not then an optic associated with the unmediated reflection of reality. Rather, mirroring was always described as an act of imagining in the emblem literature; e.g.:

The Glass, wherein we see no real Images, is a Resemblance of our Intellect; wherein we phancy many Ideas of Things that are not seen; but may be practis’d by Art, by the Help of material Instruments ....

The mirror was also used to symbolize the process of self-knowledge, and peering into its manifold depths (as with a crystal ball) was never conceived in terms of passive spectatorship. In another emblem in Ripa’s series, we are told that with her mirror, Apprehension

... imprints on herself, and makes all she hears and sees her own ....

as did Dürer with his Self-Portrait at Thirteen:

Here I have portrayed myself from a mirror in 1484, when I was still a child.

This GALLERY exhibit, which juxtaposes several emblems with portraits of the artfully designed individual (e.g., the child Dürer, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, and William Cavendish, marquis of Newcastle), recovers early modern notions of design as one of the character-building liberal arts, along with recommendations by such as Athanasius Kircher, John Evelyn, and the aristocrat-chemist Robert Boyle that

the Gentlemen of our Nation ... especially ... such as are addicted to the more Noble Mathematical Sciences

should receive training in design, in order that they

may draw, and engrave their Schemes with delight and assurance.

It was Thomas, earl of Arundel, who once told an approving John Evelyn

That one who could not Designe a little, would never make an honest man.

I believe it was this interlock of design with noble character that first transformed design into self-concealing artifice (what modern critics describe as design’s regrettable transparency). It was always part of the designed effect that nobility appear to be natural (a given at birth), and that the artifice and craft involved in designing the noble individual remain invisible to the public.

Through his manners the gentleman was supposed to proclaim his “natural” virtue and title to authority, but such manners were self-evidently the product of education, effort and artifice. Castiglione was engagingly frank in defining the courtier’s task as that of projecting a “natural” ease and grace through self-concealing artifice.... The great pitfall for the courtier was thus “affectation,” that is to say, contrived words or gestures which revealed themselves as artifice.

Yet the nobility’s aesthetic of the invisibility of art would outlast the political identity that produced it. While the artistic self-fashioning of the early modern aristocrat relied on the process of making itself invisible, in later centuries, it would be bourgeois “ideologies of problem-solving and direct communication” that would hold sway, with much the same result.

In both cases, audiences were to be unaware of how much design it takes to construct the beings and things of daily life that seem to us most transparent, natural and inevitable.

TOPICS:  canonical theories and problems of representation; the mirror as a cosmographical glass; reintegrating the philosopher’s gaze (“the external perspective of the observer”) with a participant’s gaze; design reconceptualized as a liberal art

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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