It was a beautiful weekend for the Baltimore Book Festival. My parents were in town, enjoying the bookstalls. The great weather meant huge crowds at the food trucks, though, so we ducked into the Walters Café for lunch. While my father enjoyed his books and a sugar-free mango soda, a Walters specialty, my mother and I headed to Renaissance Hall to visit a painting.
The Ideal City sits apart, its light shades and imposing landscape contrasting with the richly hued Madonnas and portraits of saints that share the gallery. LPR Contributing Editor for Art Michael Salcman had proposed this painting for our Winter 2013 Doubt cover a few months ago.
I found the idea a compelling one for our Doubt issue. Can an ideal ever be achieved? Is this city, with its streets nearly empty of life, really the image of perfection? So I asked Michael to tell me more about why he made this selection. Here’s what he had to say:
I always thought it somehow unfair to place the work of an established contemporary master on the cover of an issue devoted to the theme of doubt. Most significant visual art is created with a great deal of certainty as to purpose and method, even more so when an element of chance is involved in its production. Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman spent months adjusting individual lines until they were satisfied; others such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko destroyed or over-painted numerous less than perfect canvases before they could ever leave the studio.
As writers we often find ourselves filled with doubt, especially in the face of an ideal, a standard, even if much loved and admired (such as the poetry of Shakespeare or Yeats), one that is impossible to live up to. This kind of doubt is closer to insecurity, a psychological state brought on by fear of failure.
Philosophical doubt is something deeper, an intellectual questioning of a system or style put forth as ideal; as Laura said to me “once an ideal has been set, doubt must set in.” In response, I proposed we place The Ideal City from the collection of The Walters Art Museum on the cover of LPR, a magnificent painting by an unknown artist who wished to reconcile competing civic virtues in a mathematically perfect depiction of an ideal urban environment. We hoped to typify, and perhaps even inspire, doubt through the use of its opposite, that philosophic certainty implied by the artist’s ideal city plan; we little imagined the degree to which the painting itself was a response to uncertainty and how much the force of its response had been unnecessarily compromised by its unknown authorship.
The situation in regard to the Baltimore painting is further complicated by the existence of at least two other variants, each by an unknown hand and each decidedly inferior to the painting resident at the Walters. The other two are in municipal collections in Urbino and Berlin. It is thought that all three were painted in Urbino, at the court of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, in which court Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), a significant poet and architect, and the great Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492), were distinguished guests.
The one on our cover (c. 1480-1484) represents a visual reconciliation of classical and religious principles; this is just what we would expect in a Renaissance subject. In this masterpiece by an unknown hand, intellectual certainty, the opposite of doubt, has been enshrined by the perfect proportions of a mathematically designed city and the atmospheric clarity of the scene. In the Renaissance, the graphic depiction of an ideal city plan was a kind of trope or metaphor for other philosophical concerns.
In the near distance one can see a rounded building based on the Roman Coliseum, a Roman three-part arch erected in military victory and an octagonal building based on the Florence Baptistery. The three central structures symbolize three civic virtues found in a well-regulated city: recreation, security, and religion, respectively, and reprise the value of Roman ideals in urban planning. In the foreground two private dwellings partially enclose a public square in which four columns and a central fountain form a perfect pentagram.
The statues on the columns and the open side of the square nearest the viewer recall features of St. Mark’s in Venice. It is possible to imagine Venetian waters behind us. The view contains the same number of buildings as the five polyhedra of Plato and the columns are Roman. Perspective is used here as an ideal expression of artistic thought and the harmony of mathematics and architecture summarize the ideal city as a type of utopia. Good design makes for good citizenship. But the few visible citizens are probably later additions.
The three paintings share the use of a perfected linear perspective, originally invented one hundred years before by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the first modern engineer, a painter and architect, who designed Il Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence. Alberti and Piero, both resident in Urbino, perfected Brunelleschi’s work into the single-point perspective of the Renaissance; Piero was perhaps the finest amateur mathematician in the history of painting. At one time the Baltimore Ideal City was ascribed to him.
There is a progressive reduction in open space and airiness of the atmosphere from Baltimore to Urbino to Berlin, the order in which the overall quality of the three paintings can be ranked. There is also a reduction in the complexity of the symbolism and the variety of architectural examples. A pair of minor artists and architects, Luciano Laurana (c. 1420-1479) and Fra Carnevale (c. 1420-1425-1484), who lived all their lives in Urbino, have been proposed as the authors of either the Baltimore painting, the Urbino painting or both. The Berlin painting has been credited to Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502), a painter from Siena better known as an architect. In the full essay in LPR’s Doubt issue I plan to discuss, purely on iconographic and historical grounds, why no single artist could have painted all three versions and why the Baltimore painting requires an artist of significant stature.
And if we never discover the true author of the Baltimore painting, what difference does it really make? Will the satisfaction of our doubt in regard to this historical problem change in any way our appreciation of the mysterious masterpiece he left behind? Does it matter in regard to Homer? To Shakespeare?
We know this artist attempted to square Roman civitas, religious faith and the dawn of Renaissance science into a harmonious whole. We know that he combined a close study of classic architecture with the more modern tool of mathematical perspective. We feel certain about his knowledge of the greatest painters of the age but remain at sea about why he and the authors of all three variants remain anonymous figures in an age of burgeoning humanism. Perhaps he and they wished to remain secret movers in an age of philosophical doubt, men so conflicted they didn’t wish to risk their true identities on the pyre of a pure belief in modernity. We know he had doubts. That’s why we chose this painting.
I hope you will stop by to visit The Ideal City. I was surprised by its size and grandeur, the calming effect of its orderly lines. As I headed back out to Mount Vernon with my parents, I realized that The Ideal City is nothing like lively Baltimore on Book Festival weekend. Of course, I don’t doubt in which of the two cities I’d prefer to spend my time.
We thank the Walters for allowing Little Patuxent Review to reprint this masterpiece.
Online Editor’s Note:
For another perspective, you might want to consult Caspar Pearson’s Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City. Pearson argues that Alberti’s urbanism was far more complex than previously thought. Instead of proposing the ideal city, he presented a variety of possible cities, each different from the other.
Also, you might want to read about an exhibition on the ideal city that sought to bring together the three variants described above that was held in Urbino this past summer.