Rubens, Justus Lipsius and the significance of books
This morning I was to be found in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The purpose was primarily to take in the exhibition ‘Il Sogno nel Rinascimento, one of three important Renaissance-related mostre presently on in the city this summer. ‘Il Sogno’ is intellectually ambitious, musing on the potential associations of dreams with art by considering how painters depicted sleep and its impact on the mind. Perhaps inevitably, the show falls short of the aspirations its originators must have had for it.
But visiting the exhibition also allowed an opportunity to re-visit the riches of the Palazzo’s permanent display. And so, walking through the elegant rooms with their oversupply of paintings, I came face to face with Justus Lipsius:
I cannot claim to have acheived neo-stoic calm in my life, or to be an aficionado of Rubens, yet the painting held my attention today, not because of the artist’s self-portrait or the bust of Seneca above Lipsius, but for the books, specifically those at the front of the table — so close to the front, indeed, that they look as if they should topple off it. That, though, was not what struck me first; rather, it was the combination of books on display. You can clearly see that the bottom one is in a white leather binding, the sort of limp cover we often find today on early modern books. The volume above it is rather different, with brown leather wrapped over thick wooden boards, with the corners finished with pieces of metal. It also has two prominent straps and, less distinctly, a lunette in which the book’s title would have been provided. Incidentally, the arrangement is curious: usually, a lunette sits at the top centre of the lower board, and the straps or clasps also attach to that, rather than the front, but the layout suggested in this picture mean that the board on view must be the upper one. Now, that is not unheard-of in this period — indeed, in Florence itself, many of the Medici volumes in the Laurenziana have such an arrangement — but it is not the norm.
Whatever the implications of that, the main point that caught my eye was the contrast between these two books. Rubens depicts this in the pages of each volume: the lower one has a uniform edge, suggesting efficient cropping, but the pages of the book above are depicted in some detail as being uneven, with some corners curling. What this all suggested to me was that Rubens may not have been portraying just two books but two volumes of markedly different age, one recently printed, the other older and probably a manuscript. If that were his intention it would fit with the composition of the piece and, indeed, enhance its message: notice how the rug placed on the table at front left creates a diagonal line: if you extrapolate that line across the canvas it moves upwards and backwards through the manuscript and on through Lipsius himself ending with the bust of Seneca that sits behind him. The three elements are united in symbolising venerable learning.
But perhaps as well as enhancing the message, it gives it in a more critical edge. I mentioned how the books sit at the very edge of the table, the lower, modern volume jutting out precariously: is the message that old learning when placed on top of new knowledge has uncertain foundations? And, if so, is the unusual arrangement of the binding’s furniture itself a verbal clue to the viewer to think more deeply about the painting’s implications? We can at least be sure that a message that is not fully spoken and which is not uncritical of modern living would not be out of place at the table with neo-stoicism’s founder.