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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008
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
The compasses show that
while the mirror shows that
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 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
as did Dürer with his Self-Portrait at Thirteen:
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
should receive training in design, in order that they
It was Thomas, earl of Arundel, who once told an approving John Evelyn
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.
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
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