The Cosmos, Artfully Captured: ‘Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance’

Most of us are familiar with the frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, even in a general sort of way. There’s a memorable panel of God creating the sun and the moon. We see Michelangelo’s vision of God, that familiar, muscular, stern white-bearded figure, pointing to a golden circular orb with his right hand while simultaneously indicating to a glistening silvery-white orb with his left. Painted around 1508, it’s a striking image to keep in one’s mind in terms of how artists and thinkers during the Italian Renaissance responded to the idea of the cosmos.

Mary Quinlan-McGrath’s new book, Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance, is a thoroughly incisive, penetrating look into scientific inquiry and spirituality in 15th and 16th century Italy. Over the course of eight in-depth chapters, she focuses on subjects ranging from the legacy of classical texts from Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, and Macrobius among others, the influence of Arab scholars like al-Kindi, the remarkable achievements of Italian Renaissance scientists and astrologers like Marsilio Ficino and Guido Bonatti, to the presence and impact of astrology in the arts, particularly in the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Sandro Botticelli and Baldassare Peruzzi.

Astrology was a significant part of civic life during the Renaissance. We’ve encountered this enough from Shakespeare plays, where various characters have seen their doom or fortune spelled out in their “stars”. Nearly every avenue of power, from the Papacy to the princely courts of Italy, relied on astrologers for predictions on crucial decisions—whether to form a marriage alliance, launch a battle, or whether a political adversary will die fortuitously at jousting one day.

Quinlan-McGrath, a professor of art history at Northern Illinois University, gives us a book that is comprehensive in its examination into how astrology and art operated in precise systems of patronage, and how that in turn affected a work of art’s mediation during the High Renaissance. Her writing, critical, sharp, and utterly devoid of jargon, is reminiscent in a way of her teacher, the famous art historian Ernst Gombrich who, like few others, integrated science into the study of art history in an unprecedented way.

Quinlan-McGrath’s book, published in February of 2013, came out at about the same time as another academic title on astrology during the Italian Renaissance, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan written by Monica Azzolini, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Both books offer a fascinating look into the influence of astrology in Renaissance court culture, though Quinlan-McGrath’s book, in terms of its subject, takes a more expansive approach to the major cities: Rome, Florence, and Venice.

One of the striking shifts in thinking about astronomy during Italian Renaissance is the movement from conceptualizing planetary bodies in terms of spiritual matter towards a more objective, scientific approach to matter itself. There’s a memorable moment in The Divine Comedy when Beatrice compares the brightness of the moon to the variation in the glow of the stars. These variations in luminosity, in accordance with the theories of the late Middle Ages, had to do with the celestial object’s intrinsic nature rather than how concentrated or large the object was. This approach to thinking began to change after Galileo’s discoveries in the late 16th century. With Galileo’s observations of the moon through a telescope one December night, with its craters and craggy surface, its consistency of light, the moon was no longer the slivery orb of a fantasy but a concrete, physical, geological object.

Chapter eight , “Look, Reflect, Be Changed: The Great Astrological Vaults of the Italian Renaissance” is exceptional in its analysis of how astrology and the symbolism of the stars and the zodiac was meaningful to wealthy patrons in their artistic choices. What’s particularly compelling is Quinlan-McGrath’s discussion of the frescos of the Vault of the Sala della Cosmografia in the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, about 50 km northwest of Rome. Commissioned for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III, and painted around 1573 in a classic Mannerist style, the fresco depicts the god Jupiter, Phaeton and his chariot of white horses, and various animals of the zodiac all floating in a blue ceiling of stars.

“If we think of this, not as a zodiacal frieze, but rather as four separate compositions that focus the viewer on a large central image flanked by appropriate zodiacal fillers, the zone makes an astrological point. Comparing the Farnese history and horoscopes was especially important to the family fortunes.

Today, astronomical images are typically thought of as gemstones carved with small sigla. Those could never have held the eyes of visitors in the ways in which the great vault images do. Things that are beautiful hold the eyes longer. Things that are strange do likewise. Centuries later, we are still looking, wondering, and reflecting, snared by these visually radiating images, just as their patrons intended.”

Through the symbolism of astrology, a patron could convey power and status in specific ways. In this manner, art was a bridge between earthly aspirations and the desire for spiritual fulfillment in the afterlife.

As thorough as Quinlan-McGrath’s incisive book is, there were moments where I wish she had brought up certain subjects that were left out—though I assume that for the parameters of the book these topics were perhaps extraneous. No mention is made of the the 11th century Arab astronomer and philosopher Alhazen, whose influential Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manazir), written around 1011, broke ground in its description of the eye responds to color and light, mathematically and anatomically, was an important resource to late Renaissance artists and philosophers in the 14th century, particularly to Lorenzo Ghiberti. Quinlan-McGrath effectively discusses the work of Marsilio Ficino at length. Though she does cover the 13th century astrologer Guido Bonnatti, I would have liked to read Quinlan-McGrath discuss Dante’s memorable mention of Bonnatti in his Divine Comedy. The poor astrologer is placed in eighth circle of Hell as punishment for his blasphemous gift at predicting the future and is forced to wear his head backwards on his body, doomed to gaze at the past.

Influences is a meticulously well-researched, thoughtfully laid out book — an invaluable guide for students, teachers, and enthusiasts alike. The book contains about 14 glossy color reproductions of significant artworks at its center that include paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli, as well as necessary and helpful black and white illustrations of horoscope charts, drawings, and diagrams scattered throughout.

The pop culture interest in the Italian Renaissance is only growing stronger. Beyond the usual Dan Brown adaptations, there’s Showtime’s period soap opera, The Borgias and Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons. I think it’s important for those who want a more accurate understanding of the time to read books like Influences. As someone who studied art history at the graduate level, I can tell you that Quinlan-McGrath’s book accomplishes what successful art historical books set out to do: it clarifies a great deal of complex information in an engaging, accessible way as it enhances our understanding of the art and history of the Italian Renaissance.

RATING 8 / 10