Alberti and Narcissus

The Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti is well-known for his treatise On Painting.1 It is in this three-book treatise that Alberti wrote his seminal discussion on composition and perspective, discussing how a (framed) painting should be treated as a window on the world.2 (See where I got the title for my blog?) According to Alberti, painting was intended to be illusionistic, realistic, and mimetic.

Alberti wrote a lot of ground-breaking information about painting in his treatise. I recently became aware that Alberti also took some interesting liberties in his treatise, particularly his creation of a new myth that Narcissus was the father of painting.3 At the beginning of Book II, Alberti writes, “Consequently I used to tell my friends that the inventor of painting, according to poets, was Narcissus, who was turned into a flower; for, as painting is the flower of all arts, so the tale of Narcissus fits our purpose perfectly. What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of a pool?”

Cristelle L. Baskins points out that Alberti doesn’t actually recount a “tale” of Narcissus, but allegorizes the account instead. She writes, “Alberti conflates two aspects of Narcissus’ transformation; the flower and the reflection in the pool both seem to signify the mimetic surface of painting.”4 She goes on to explain, “The canonical interpretation of the Narcissus trope in Alberti takes the reflection of the pool to be analagous to the imitation of surface appearance, stripped of narrative components and concentrating on the physical property of water to reflect an image in the real world, Narcissus’ reflection corroborates our understanding of the naturalistic, illusionistic goals of early Renaissance painting.”5

I would recommend reading Baskin’s article “Echoing Narcissus in Alberti’s ‘Della Pittura.'” I’m still thinking about some references she made to the gaze of Narcissus. She mentioned how Narcissus’ reflection is only available to his own gaze, whereas Narcissus-as-a-flower can only receive the gaze of another person.6

It is interesting to think about these gazes in conjunction with what Lacan has said about narcissism and the mirror phase. I don’t know if one can superimpose Lacanian theory over Alberti’s allegory without difficulty, but if it were possible, what would that mean? Can the ego or self be recognized when one looks at a painting? Are paintings mimetic reflections of the ego? Hmm.

1 There are two early versions of this treatise. De pictura was written in Latin in 1435, and the vernacular Della pittura was written in 1436.

2 Alberti writes, “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.” (De pictura, 1.19).

3 Narcissus was a vain, ego-centric figure from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. You can read a little about the Narcissus mythology here. Caravaggio’s Narcissus (c. 1597-99) is shown above.

4 Cristelle L. Baskins, “Echoing Narcissus in Alberti’s ‘Della Pittura,” Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993): 25.

5 Ibid., 26.

6 Ibid., 25.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.