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Thinkers in a Landscape

Thinkers in a Landscape

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Published by Pino Blasone
A philosophical anecdotage, in the literary tradition and the artistic iconography, with peculiar reference to the apologue of Thales in the well, and to the parable of St. Augustine and Child on the seashore: respectively, they hint at the beginning of the history of philosophy and at the transition from antiquity to Middle Ages.
A philosophical anecdotage, in the literary tradition and the artistic iconography, with peculiar reference to the apologue of Thales in the well, and to the parable of St. Augustine and Child on the seashore: respectively, they hint at the beginning of the history of philosophy and at the transition from antiquity to Middle Ages.

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Published by: Pino Blasone on Jun 15, 2009
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02/26/2013

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Pino Blasone 
Thinkers in a Landscape A Philosophical Anecdotage
 1 – Filippo Lippi, Vision of St. Augustine;The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg 
Augustine on the Shore
 In the history of Western art, the theme of the thinker in a landscape is nearly aniconographic sub-genre. What a philosophy, it may be suggested by a landscape or aninterior, or even by which landscape. For example, let us think of the paintings
The Three Philosophers
by Giorgione (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; ca. 1508), or 
 Democritusin Meditation
by Salvator Rosa (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; 1650), or else
 A Philosopher by Lamplight 
by Joseph Wright (Derby Art Gallery; 1769). Here we like better to focus on those pictures or tales, peculiarly dealing with philosophical anecdotes. Let us begin
in medias res
. George Dennis was a British traveller, archaeologist and diplomat.Together with his friend Samuel James Ainsley, a draftsman and landscapist, he explored the
 
coast of Tuscany, the ancient Etruria. First issued at London in 1848, the account of this journey is titled
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria
. There, we may read this annotation:“The lonely Tower of Bertaldo, at the mouth of the Mignone, probably marks the siteof Rapinium, another station on this coast, half-way between Centum Cellae (CivitaVecchia) and Graviscae. It is more commonly called Sant Agostino, from a legend of thatsaint. The holy man, as he once strayed along this shore, was pondering on the mysteries of the Trinity, and doubts, suggested by the evil powers whose attacks he deplores in his
Confessions
, were arising in his mind, when, on reaching this spot, he beheld a child busiedin filling with water a small hole in the sand. Augustine asked what he was about. ‘Trying to put the sea into this hole,’ replied the
criatura
. ‘Impossible,’ cried the saint, laughing at the boy’s simplicity. ‘Most easy this,’ said the other, who now stood confessed an angel, ‘thanfor thee to comprehend those sublime mysteries thou art vainly seeking to penetrate’”.Unfortunately, today of the medieval Tower of Bertaldo, else called of St. Augustine,there are only ruins. But the site described by Dennis is still recognizable. Its naturalsolitude remains almost intact. On a marble plaque in the near church of 
Sant’Agostino alla Fontanella
, the anecdote reported by the British traveller is resumed in Latin. Yet the small building dates to the 17
th
century. The plaque might date back to the 15
th
century, at most.Which is the origin of that apologue, so many painters were pleased to illustrate all over Europe? Who is, or what does he represent, the
criatura
nicely evoked by Dennis? In someversions of the legend, he is an angel. Other times, he is understood as Child Jesus himself.Indeed, an indecision or indeterminacy like that may easily occur, while dealing withan unconscious archetype. Undoubtedly, in this case the most suitable one is that of theeternal-miraculous child (
 puer aeternus
), such as in the depth psychology of Carl G. Jungand James Hillman. Nay, the vision reflected in the tale looks typical of a relation betweencontrasting but complementary archetypes, as the
 puer 
and the
 senex
: that is an old wiseman, though all his knowledge cannot equal the innate wisdom of the
 puer 
. By the way,Jung told to have inherited the term “archetype” from Augustine as a philosopher. And awell known study by Hillman is titled
Senex and Puer 
. No wonder, most artists representedAugustine as an aged bearded man, clad with the robes of a monk or else of an archbishop. 
2
 
 2 – The Pinturicchio, Mystery of the Trinity;Galleria Nazionale Umbra, Perugia This is a formal anachronism, even if the symbolism of legends does not require astrict concordance with different life times. In fact, the historical Augustine became bishopwhen back to native North-Africa, after a long stay in Italy. We know, he started his treatise
On the Trinity
in Italy, but completed it far later. Thus, we can also suppose the shore, onwhich the episode is set, was a North-African one instead of the seaside of the Tuscia, whichis the current name of the zone between Tuscany and Latium. Yet the sense and the moral of the story do not change a lot. Nor did change the kind of landscape, where painters used toset it, mostly an imaginary albeit Mediterranean one. As to the origin of the narrative, anearly version can be found in an annotation by William Caxton, to his English paraphrase of 
The Golden Legend 
by Jacobus de Voragine. In 1483, Caxton had written:“I will set herein one miracle, which I have seen painted on an altar of St. Austin atthe black friars at Antwerp, howbeit I find it not in the legend. […] On a time as he went bythe sea-side in Africa, studying on the Trinity, he found by the sea-side a little child whichhad made a little pit in the sand, and in his hand a little spoon. And with the spoon he took out water of the large sea and poured it into the pit. And when St. Augustin beheld him hemarvelled, and demanded him what he did. And he answered and said: ‘I will lade out and bring all this water of the sea into this pit.’ ‘What?’ said he, ‘it is impossible, how may it be
3

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