Some features of the aesthetic experience encountering a Signorelli
I’m walking around in my room, holding a book in my hands. I walk and I read. Moving helps my concentration and my study, and what I study is philosophy. I’m reading The Idea of Phenomenology, a collection of a series of lectures given by Edmund Husserl. His language is complex and requires attention. In fact, a great deal of attention. Sentences, signposted by commas, are spread over a number of lines. The meaning of a sentence might be simple, but arriving to the point takes several steps. I pause, rereading the sentence. I proceed logically, through one sequential thought after another. I have no thought of abandoning the text. It is an act of reading that demands the reader hold continuous vigil in order to welcome the event of understanding, an event in which feelings are involved, but only through the gateway to meticulous thought. Yet I’d now like to turn my attention to something else.
I interrupt my reading to pick up a different book. I love literature. I’ll continue by taking an example from Swann’s Way, the first book of Proust’s colossal In Search of Lost Time. Memory is such that it unfolds, step by step, to become comprehensible only to the one who has reached its conclusion. The narrator evokes the time that the story’s protagonist spent in Combray together with his parents and family. The protagonist is remembered sipping a cup of tea and nibbling at a biscuit. These are simple gestures, yet powerful enough to evoke an intense experience. The protagonist sipping his tea is presented as a trip down memory lane, an inner journey of remembrance at first confused, then increasingly clear, until the memory of those moments is fairly precise.
I slowly read through Swann’s Way, and I find something different happening within me. The dimension of abandonment is constantly present in Swann’s Way. Or, rather than abandonment, we could say it is letting go of oneself in order to read differently. Proust’s sentences are intertwined and built around metaphors and word games. There’s an attention to language that speaks to me of beauty. The drama of form and content enrapture me, and something of my soul vibrates and awakens. Something dormant breathes again, a part of my humanity different to the one awakened by philosophy. This is not to say that these experiences have no affinities, but I would here like to underline the difference. Art brings life to an area of humanity, in part elusive, in part unpredictable, which would otherwise be left aside. It is an experience that presents itself in the company of joy.
In order to better explain and clarify what has been written so far, I would like to take a few moments to narrate a work by the painter Luca Signorelli, a contemporary of Raphael, the Madonna and Child with Saints. It would appear that Signorelli has been overshadowed by the fame of Raphael. Some consider Signorelli to have only recently been rediscovered.
The protagonists of the work appear to be four saints, two angels, the Madonna and the Son. Mary’s body dominates the centre of the painting; the Child is seated in her arms; four saints surround them, Bernardo, Stefano, Pietro, Paolo; two angels crown Mary. In the background is a bare, naked, essential landscape: a few mountains, some trees, the blue sky. The blue sky could be considered an irrelevant detail, yet it seems to me that it renders possible the depiction of the protagonists in the foreground. It also appears to extend towards me.
The blue sky becomes a metaphor for the aesthetic experience. This begins with my encounter with the work, taking hold both of myself and the painting, bringing them together in a single experience, a single moment of truth. I therefore believe that the main protagonist is the blue background: the eyes are immediately filled. It is the luminosity of the background that places six figures in the foreground.
The blue intertwines with the physiognomies and other colours that here and there make the work come alive. It is a composition that welcomes: one feels welcomed by the beauty of the painting, capable of moving feelings deeply. In this painting, we find beauty to be welcoming. It is beauty that draws humanity to breathe and vibrate, as has been shown in the classics of literature. An aesthetic liberation occurs. And here is the truth to which I had referred. I’m not talking about a definition, but to feeling the earth of my humanity speaking of openness and heights. I feel human, open to welcoming others whose presence has not been decided by me. I am surprised. Prior to my personal encounter with this work of art, I could not even imagine what I have just described.
I exit the museum asking a question: was it simply a pleasant experience? Did my visit to the museum leave anything in me? Does it have a meaning that goes beyond the moment of experience?
The conclusion of Schiller’s Twentyfirst letter could help formulate an answer:
It is therefore not only a poetical license, but also philosophically correct, when beauty is named our second creator. Nor is this inconsistent with the fact the she only makes it possible for us to attain and realise humanity, leaving this to our free will. For in this she acts in common with our original creator, nature, which has imparted to us nothing further than this capacity for humanity
Art is tasked with bringing me back to the fullness of my humanity, of re-presenting my total humanity to me in order to take conscious decisions that take this humanity into account. Art gives me back to myself so that it can be ever more fully human. By saying this, I don’t want to indicate an ultimate definition of the aesthetic experience, but an open path, an address towards which it is possible to travel to fulfill the task of being a human person.