"Parer Vivo" An Epistemology of the Semblance of Life in Renaissance Perspective
Carlo Severi is Directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Directeur de recherche at the CNRS, in Paris. He has been twice a Getty Scholar at the Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles (in 1994-95 and 2017), a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin (2002-2003), and a Visiting Fellow at the King’s College of the University of Cambridge (2012-2013). In 2018, he received a Richard Lehman Visiting Professorship at Villa I Tatti. Among his books: The Chimera Principle – An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination, and Capturing Imagination: A Proposal for an Anthropology of Thought, both published by Hau Books at University of Chicago Press.
It is a general human fact that we tend to attribute, in many social contexts, a status of living beings to inanimate objects. In situations like play or ritual, objects may be endowed with a range of human characteristics, such as perception, thought, action or speech. The notion of a living work of art is an ancient and persistent theme in the history of western art. Leon Battista Alberti wrote in the De Pictura that all painting using the method of perspective must exhibit “parer vivo,” the appearance or the “semblance of life” in the image. If the artist achieves this goal, the figures will show not only an accurate image of reality but also the “movements of the soul” that confirm the presence of life. Deeply rooted in the notion of perspective, “parer vivo” is distinct from the geometric rules for composing the image, decoding depth, and interpreting the movement implicit in the figures. For Alberti, as well as for Gombrich and Kuhn in our time, perspective is above all a science that applies the laws of Optics and Geometry to the representation of space. It thus creates what could be called a visual truth and belongs to the same epistemological ideal as modern science. By contrast, “parer vivo”—the principle of appearing to be alive—is a specific type of illusion created by perspective. During his stay at I Tatti, Carlo Severi will try to outline, from an anthropological point of view, the epistemology of this illusion.