Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists
By Margot and Rudolf Wittkower
New York Review Books, $18.95
“Painting…was first invented, saith Patricius, ex amoris beneficio, for love’s sake,” writes Robert Burton in his 17th-century bestseller, that massive headrush of contradictions known as The Anatomy of Melancholy. “For when the daughter of Dibutades the Sicyonian was to take leave of her sweetheart now going to wars, ut desiderio ejus minus tabesceret, to comfort herself in his absence, she took his picture with coal upon a wall, as the candle gave the shadow, which her father admiring perfected afterwards, and it was the first picture by report that ever was made.”
The passage appears in the Anatomy’s final section, “Love-Melancholy,” and it’s a pithy template for the emotional component of the creative drive. Burton ransacks a library’s worth of classical reading for his treatise on the malady, though few painters appear in his pages. Nevertheless, his conception of melancholy, as well as his example-studded narrative technique, inform Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn.
First published in 1963 and currently reappearing thanks to New York Review Books, the Wittkowers’ micro-informed study entertainingly dissects the pervasive image of the moody, alienated artist. Cautious and provocative, presuming to balance theory and anecdote but happily indulging the latter, Born Under Saturn reads like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists rewritten as an appendix to Burton—a colorful tour of eccentricity and genius, populated by all manner of rogues, gentlemen, penny-pinchers, hypochondriacs, and enduring masters. Every page has a diverting tale, and the cumulative effect is to set the reader’s mind reeling.
The stereotype of the artist as an emotional outsider—brooding or batty or what we would now call bipolar—was cemented in the Renaissance, as the profession detached itself from the sphere of craftsmen. But the book’s title (astrologically, Saturn was thought to preside over the birth of homo melancholicus) is a misnomer. For every account of a Piero di Cosimo boiling 50 eggs at a time while simultaneously heating his glue for practicality’s sake, or a Silvio Cosini, wearing a jerkin of human skin, the Wittkowers process all the available data to show that, in fact, artists were likely no more saturnine—or bizzaro—than anyone else. Burton implicated everything from solitariness to onions as a cause of melancholy, to the maniacal degree that it became a metaphor for the human condition. Similarly, Born Under Saturn, for all its lurid scenes, ultimately points to commonality, showing that artists behave as well or as badly as their noncreative counterparts.
Wittkowerian analysis can be thrilling. Elucidating how a famous line from Seneca (“there never has been great talent without some touch of madness”) has been misinterpreted by everyone from Dryden to Schopenhauer, the Wittkowers reveal how its meaning warped to suggest general insanity rather than the more limited Platonic furore of artistic inspiration. Nevertheless, as the authors write at the book’s close, “Misinterpretation is one of the great stimuli for keeping the past alive.” Though convincingly debunking the “mad artist” ideal, they recognize that “the notion…is a historical reality and by brushing it aside as mistaken, one denies the existence of a generic and deeply significant symbol.”
According to Joseph Connors’s introduction, Margot Wittkower wrote Saturn’s first draft, and Rudolf crucially “pulled it to pieces and put it back together again.” When he urged her to publish the book under her name alone, she reasoned that his stamp (he had been at the Warburg Institute and was a Columbia professor) would increase its stature. Nearly all the artists anatomized here are men, but per Burton, the origin of painting—a collaboration between the sexes—began with a woman’s sketch. It’s doubly fitting, then, that this new edition reverses the book’s bylines to give its primary writer her place in the sun.
Feb. (?) 2007, Modern Painters