Essays

“Ut Pictura Poesis”: Ekphrasis in the Seventeenth Century

Nuria Rodríguez Ortega

Pietro Mellini’s rhyming inventory is a textual construct based on the relationship between a poetic elaboration and a visual depiction. The idea of the existence of a close connection between literature and the visual arts has been a recurring theme in cultural circles since the early Renaissance. This is the well-known theory of “ut pictura poesis.”1

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the relationship between poetry and painting was expressed in three main ways:

  • application of the concepts of the art of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) to the art of painting;

  • an understanding of the art of painting as a visual, figurative translation of a story or literary theme; and

  • literary descriptions of visual works—an interpretation of the rhetorical figure of ekphrasis in the most traditional sense of the term—that is, the intermediation of literature for an understanding of images, in connection with hypotyposis2 and energia.3

Pietro Mellini’s poem can be interpreted as a product of his epoch, perfectly contextualized within the thinking of his time. In fact, several works could have been sources or models that Pietro had in mind. Perhaps the most obvious is the Galeria, published in 1620 by the noted poet Giambattista Marino.4 It is not possible to establish a direct relationship between Pietro's humble effort and Marino’s poem, which was a classic in its own time. There are notable differences between the two works not only in the quality of the poetry but also in the conceptual approaches of Marino and Mellini.5 The practice of describing collections of paintings in literary form was fairly widespread, as shown by the poetic description of the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese written in 1613 by Scipione Francucci and published in Arezzo in 1647, to cite just one example.6

In the tradition of the art of rhetoric, ekphrasis is a didactic strategy that seeks to “reveal” an image to the reader or viewer, making it more legible and comprehensible. As indicated in the essay “Comparison between the 1680 and 1681 Mellini Inventories,”7 the descriptions that Pietro crafted for his poem are vivid re-creations of the pictorial images that emphasize the emotional and visual aspects of the paintings in his family’s collection; images are seen as aesthetic objects capable of causing astonishment or amazement in the reader/viewer. Thus the poem functions as a catalyst for this feeling of amazement in the reader by means of the dramatic nature of the words, since the image itself is absent. The meaning and impact of the paintings that Pietro describes are based here on his dramatic, emotional approach.

At the same time, in keeping with the tradition of ekphrasis, Pietro’s poem also has an appellative character: it is expressly addressed to his brother, Savo, who is the virtual reader and intended recipient of the descriptions of the family’s collection. Pietro addresses his brother directly at the beginning and end of each of the two sections of the poem, rhetorically entreating his benevolence and requesting that he take action of some kind. But with all this, Savo is not only a rhetorical figure, a character required by Pietro’s attempt at ekphrasis; the appellative nature of the text has a very real function as well: to call Savo’s attention to the family’s patrimony in the form of the paintings collected by their ancestors.8

It is from this perspective that Pietro’s exercise in ekphrasis can be understood as a discursive strategy—that is, the dramatic, highly emotional language of Pietro’s poem would have been a much more effective way to attract Savo’s attention than the cold, analytical descriptions contained in the conventional inventory drawn up just a year earlier.

Pragmatism, socio-nobiliary ideology, artistic thought, the symbolism of collecting practices, literary culture, and social aspirations all come together in Pietro Mellini’s poem, causing it to rise above the pretentious, clumsy verses of the poem itself to provide a revealing behind-the-scenes glimpse of Roman society in the late seventeenth century.

Footnotes

  • 1. “As is painting, so is poetry.” This is a famous leitmotif from the Roman poet Horace’s Ars Poetica of the first century BCE.
  • 2. Hypotyposis is a rhetorical figure consisting of the re-creation of visual works in the imagination of the reader, based on the expressive power of words.
  • 3. Energia is a rhetorical figure consisting of the intensification of a particular effect in order to render the re-creation of images more vivid, powerful, and dramatic.
  • 4. Giambattista Marino (1569–1625), a Neapolitan poet who spent the greater part of his career in Paris, was most famous for his epic poem L’Adone (Adonis), first published in 1623. La galeria del cavalier Marino, Distinta in pitture, & sculture (The Gallery of the Cavalier Marino, Divided into Paintings, & Sculptures), first published in Milan in 1620 and reprinted numerous times during the following decades, is a poetic description of a “virtual gallery” of real and imagined paintings and sculptures. A full digital facsimile is available at http://archive.org/details/lagaleriadelcav00marigoog.
  • 5. See the essay “Comparison between the 1680 and 1681 Mellini Inventories.”
  • 6. Scipione Francucci, La Galleria dell’Illustrissimo e Reverendissimo Signor Scipione Cardinale Borghese cantata da S. Francucci, Di Roma il dì XVI luglio 1613. Fondo Borghese, Serie IV, 102. Archivio Segreto Vaticano.
  • 7. See the essay "Comparison between the 1680 and 1681 Mellini Inventories."
  • 8. See the essay “What Do We Know about the Fame of the Mellini Family’s Art Collection.”