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Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures
Leonard Barkan

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

Hardcover | 2012 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691141831
208 pp. | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 40 halftones.
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Leonard Barkan on camera

Why do painters sometimes wish they were poets--and why do poets sometimes wish they were painters? What happens when Rembrandt spells out Hebrew in the sky or Poussin spells out Latin on a tombstone? What happens when Virgil, Ovid, or Shakespeare suspend their plots to describe a fictitious painting? In Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures, Leonard Barkan explores such questions as he examines the deliciously ambiguous history of the relationship between words and pictures, focusing on the period from antiquity to the Renaissance but offering insights that also have much to say about modern art and literature.

The idea that a poem is like a picture has been a commonplace since at least ancient Greece, and writers and artists have frequently discussed poetry by discussing painting, and vice versa, but their efforts raise more questions than they answer. From Plutarch ("painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture") to Horace ("as a picture, so a poem"), apparent clarity quickly leads to confusion about, for example, what qualities of pictures are being urged upon poets or how pictorial properties can be converted into poetical ones.

The history of comparing and contrasting painting and poetry turns out to be partly a story of attempts to promote one medium at the expense of the other. At the same time, analogies between word and image have enabled writers and painters to think about and practice their craft. Ultimately, Barkan argues, this dialogue is an expression of desire: the painter longs for the rich signification of language while the poet yearns for the direct sensuousness of painting.


"Barkan (Michelangelo: A Life on Paper) fruitfully illustrates that 'word and image, poetry and painting, language and visuality are the oppositions upon which artistic theory and practice have been stretched.' Barkan's splendid meditations take us from Plutarch, who believed that 'painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture,' through Horace, examining to the art and poetry of early modern Europe. . . . In his rich and detailed musings on this ongoing debate in the history of ideas, Barkan concludes, as Shakespeare does, that 'even when we insist that poetry and painting lie separately, it turns out they lie together.'"--Publishers Weekly

"[E]rudite and wide-ranging."--Michael Dirda, Washington Post

"This deeply learned essay by Barkan, one of the great contemporary American scholars of the Renaissance, deserves to become a standard work on the relations of word, image, and poetry and painting in pre-modern culture. Over the course of four chapters, Barkan offers lucid, often humorous expositions of the key concept of mimesis and the practice of ekphrasis as meditations on them evolved over centuries from Plato and Pliney to Albertia and Vasari."--Choice

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction xi
One: Visible and Invisible 1
Two: Apples and Oranges 27
Three: Desire and Loss 75
Four: The Theater as a Visual Art 127
Afterword 161
On Sources and Further Readings 163
Primary Sources: Works Consulted and Works Cited 169
Further Readings in Words and Images 175
Index 189


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