The Dutchman Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526-1609) is generally acknowledged as the ‘father of architectural painting’ or the progenitor of the art of perspective, a designer who utilized the tradition of Vitruvius and Serlio as raw material for architectural and ornamental inventions. The theme of this fascinating and experimental artistic biography is to capture more fully Vredeman’s own opinion on the nature and worth of his art. Heuer does not limit his inquiries to the life and works of the artist, but questions Vredeman’s project through the wisdom of the great cultural philosophers of the twentieth century: Benjamin, Adorno, Riegl, Panofsky, and others who thought deeply about art in the age of reproducible images and image-averse societies. But primacy is given to revealing statements by the artist, culled from such disparate sources as verses written for a Chamber of Rhetoric, self-referential statements in the front-matter of his print albums, autobiographical overtones in Karel van Mander’s biography, and, finally, the archival notice of his failed bit for a professorship at the University of Leiden – an event in 1604 that opens the book.
Long dismissed as a deviser of ornament, a growing consensus (tempered somewhat by Heuer, p. 213) sees the designer-painter, whose career also included engineering and urban planning, as a uomo universale, well versed in both the liberal and mechanical arts. The art of perspective was Vredeman’s expertise. But his genius lay in invention, the talent to turn architectural elements into a stream of visual novelties, and to use perspective for the creation of bunsettling images, which Heuer concludes ‘do not model architectural projects: they are the projects’ (p. 212).
Vredeman left posterity 27 illustrated volumes, containing 483 prints after his designs, as well as a not-yet-fully-catalogued oeuvre of easel paintings with architectural scenes. None of his large-scale works, including large trompe l’oeil paintings, has survived. His prints of the five architectural orders and his exercises in curling strapwork, angular interlaces, and slanted obelisks diffused the Vredeman de Vries style to cities and buildings from Tallinn to Peru. Heuer successfully replaces the name Vredeman as a mere label for an ornamental style with the personality of an artist coping with the contradictions of his era, as his application to the professorship in Leiden reveals. Likely the university was looking for someone to advance the theory and practice of perspective, not for someone who used perspective as a form of recombinant art (a favorite term in this book). Out of touch with new scientific developments, Vredeman’s distinctive synthesis between the pictorial and the mechanical was becoming out-of-date.
He was much better understood by Karel van Mander, whose biography in the Schilder-boeck was probably based on a letter written by the subject himself. Early in his career this artist interiorized his Vitruvius by copying Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s publication of an illustrated Serlio, just as Pieter Bruegel is said to have swallowed up the panoramic views of the Alps to fashion his Large Landscapes (1555-56). Thus the landscape artist (Bruegel) and the Vitruvianist (Vredeman) discovered safe (value-free) subjects, landscape and perspective, at a crucial moment in the artistic history of the Low Countries. Vredeman’s publishers were seeking a decorative vocabulary of Vitruvian forms to project the virtue of civil society without advertising the contested doctrines of faith or state.
Heuer divides his book into two parts. Part One, ‘Performances of Order,’ considers what pictures of empty architecture were supposed to mean. Performance creates a semiotic link with Scenographia (1560), a book of stage designs that exemplifies Vredeman’s vision of ‘unbuilt architecture in the world of things.’ Order refers to the five classical orders that structure Vitruvian forms. Part Two, ‘Perspective and Exile,’ focuses on the artist’s career, as he zigzagged in and out of the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire. It probes a relationship between strategies of self-effacement (in an age where dissimulation was a matter of survival) and the properties of perspective, which propel a carefully constructed view towards an annihilating vanishing point. This nexus between propelling sight and nullification may justify the hypothesis, not pursued by the author, that these architectural exercises are rhetorically related to spiritual exercises.
Many topics and themes are touched upon in the chapters within the two parts. Chapter One, ‘Unbuilt architecture in the world of things,’ moves from a ‘rhetorics of choice,’ manifest in a picture of Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha, to the role of perspective and the aperçu that its science is useful in representing standing buildings and imagined architectural scenery but is not part of architectural practice. Chapter Two, ‘Antwerp the City Rehearsed,’ presents textual proof of Vredeman’s oratory as a member of the Peony Chamber in Mechelen and later of the Violieren in Antwerp. Heuer uses the sham architecture in rederijker cultural practice as a prism for Vredeman’s empty stages and unbuilt cities. Heuer even relates the thoroughfares of the Scenographia to the equally deserted country roads in the Small Landscapes prints (1555), images emptied of doctrine that put sight itself on stage.
The next chapter, ‘Guidebook to Chaos’ (invoking Gombrich’s The Sense of Order), turns to Vredeman’s grotesques and treats them as limitless fruits born from Vitruvian roots. Particularly flamboyant among Vredeman’s motifs, his strapwork lacked ancient antecedents and appeared supremely modern. Heuer concludes Part One with a reiteration of the term parergon, central to Gombrich’s discussion of pictorial genres, particularly landscape, to denote a classical term of categories remote from the core, including presumably Vredeman’s reduction of architecture to its basic elements.
‘Vanishing Self’ (Chapter Four) initiates the biographical theme of Part Two. Using the concept of ‘Confessional Travel,’ Heuer speculates on Vredeman’s nicodemism and whether he was a member of the Family of Love, the secretive sect that fostered confessional concealment among the humanists of Antwerp. Many scholars have faltered on the importance of the Family of Love in the lives of Antwerpians, and I concur with Perez Zagorin who suggests a looser circle rather than a movement of radical dissidence (Neo-Stoicism as a unifying discourse in late Renaissance culture is absent in Heuer’s text). Many Netherlanders in the later sixteenth century were non-aligned practitioners of Christian perfection who adhered to the principle of conformity in matters of state, but to spiritual autonomy without confessionalism.
Heuer finishes Chapter Four with the suggestion that Van Mander’s biography of Vredeman was a near-autobiography, based on an exchange of letters. The text contains a veritable catalogue of trompe l’oeil paintings, called ‘perspects,’ a word not otherwise known in Van Mander’s lexicon and presumably coined by the painter himself. Heuer concludes by positing one-point perspective as a figure for autobiographical self-effacement: the reticence of the artist whose art conceals art.
‘Hidden Terrors,’ Chapter Five, focuses on Vredeman’s final work, The Book of Perspective of 1604. Popular because of the illustrations, but useless as instruction, these perspectives suggest to Heuer a ‘pictorial anxiety,’ especially in plate 29 (the cover image), which aligns a one-point perspective with a recumbent human figure in brutal foreshortening. Vredeman’s fictional worlds of the book’s title ‘revel in troubling alternatives to the notion of art as history’ (p. 213).
The City Rehearsed is intellectually ambitious and embedded in contemporary discourse on the ambiguous power of images. There are some shortcomings, including the absence of a list of illustrations. Its allusive titles make it difficult to assess the contents of its six chapters and curb navigation of the text. The text is littered with a host of misspellings and faulty transcriptions of the sources.. This book courageously blends biography, historiography, modern theory, a close reading of images and their sources to create an exciting new model for the life and works of artists of the past.