The pronounced investment in the theme of folly exhibited by the visual culture of early modern northern Europe forms the subject of Yona Pinson’s new volume. Though the object of considerable attention from scholars of literature, drama, and cultural history, this topic – as Pinson rightly notes – has yet to receive a thorough monographic treatment within art history. In seeking to satisfy this pretermission, the author offers a series of nine linked essays, each exploring a facet of foolishness or folly in particular visual representations produced during the northern Renaissance.
Pinson’s introduction outlines her critical and methodological armature. Unsurprisingly, much of her attention is paid to the contributions of Sebastian Brant’s satiric poem, Das Narrenschiff, to the burgeoning discourse on folly at the turn of the sixteenth century. Pinson seizes upon the trope of the fool’s journey that animates Brandt’s narrative as a conceit modeled upon the theme of Christian pilgrimage. Brant’s metaphorical voyage is thus read as explicitly antipodal, a parodic inversion of the virtuous human passage on earth that should be linked to broader notions of the reversal of order and the world upside-down. Pinson also relates the figure of the fool to that of Death, arguing that both are harnessed to representational strategies that motivated particular modes of human behavior within the context of late medieval and early modern society. In effect, the two are held to stand in dialectical relation to one another, and a consideration of their conjunction supplies the principal focus of the book’s final chapter.
Pinson’s introductory remarks also set forth a series of assertions that profoundly shape her subsequent analyses. In particular, the author proceeds from an unambiguous investment in iconography wherein images stand for ideas. Pictures are explicitly equated with language, and this equivalence is introduced as a means to establish what Pinson describes as the emergence of an “autonomous visual language” that is codified through the elaboration of the theme of folly in the visual arts. In her discussion of Brant, then, Pinson identifies a gap between the verbal presentation of the text and the visual illustration of it, arguing that discrepancies between the two signal the exercise of a thoroughly independent, innovative creative agency on the part of the image-maker. Liberated from its fixed relationship to written text, this newly-wrought visual language of folly and the cultural conditions from which it arose constitute the central thrust of Pinson’s interest.
The body of Pinson’s text might usefully be grouped into thirds. The first three chapters comprise an extended examination of the novel visual and textual representations of folly introduced through the publication of Brant’s poem in 1494. These studies patiently elaborate her analysis of the trope of the fool’s journey as a deliberate anti-type for Christian pilgrimage, and forcefully assert both the autonomy of visual language in The Ship of Fools from the text itself as well as the agency of its artists (the author’s recourse to the term “painter-engraver” is significant here) in defining this new visual rhetoric. These chapters also serve as a means through which the author characterizes the mentalities that motivated the popularization of folly in the early modern period. For Pinson, the representation of fools and folly is serious business; humor, comedy, and play – much debated elsewhere – have little place on this journey. Indeed, the poor fools on Brant’s ship are identified as passengers aboard a one-way trip to hell, condemned by the fact of their embarkation and without choice or chance of redemption.
The three chapters at the center of The Fool’s Journey explore folly through the Power of Women topos, a well-researched topic that Pinson investigates with particular sensitivity to the issue of reception. Following the author, because text and image were largely interchangeable for much of the sixteenth-century audience in northern Europe, form betokens meaning: the social status of the intended audience can be determined by the language of the text (Latin or vernacular), or by the relative complexity of the visual “language.”
The concluding chapters of Pinson’s book interrogate two works by Hieronymus Bosch and offer an extensive analysis of a pen drawing by Albrecht Dürer, The Pleasures of the World (c. 1496). Exemplifying the address of folly to an elite audience, the author charts complex relationships between multiple individual details in the images which, collectively, reveal the emerging proscriptive sensibilities that would dominate sixteenth-century moralizing imagery.
A project so ambitious in scope and written from such a particular perspective is bound to invite any number of rejoinders. To start with a quibble: the project consolidates a range of the author’s previously published scholarship, which is of course not an uncommon practice. However, The Fool’s Journey would have benefitted greatly from more careful editorial intervention. The book demonstrates consistent and considerable repetition of language and argument, such that it reads as a series of largely independent studies, rather hastily sutured. On a more substantive note, it struck this reviewer as curious that in a comprehensive study of the theme of folly, no mention was made of the representation of the court fool, nor of the historical and cultural relationship between that figure and his counterpart within the context of urban corporate institutions such as civic militias, chambers of rhetoric, and craft guilds.
It might also be noted that the text as a whole demonstrated a general lack of sensitivity to the roles played by medium in the shaping of reception: a drawing by Dürer, a panel by Bosch, a broadsheet by Schön, and the woodcut illustrations of Brant’s book are discussed with little attention to the signifying status of their physical support or scale. Ultimately, in seeking to assert notional connections between objects produced in such varied media and across the span of nearly two centuries, Pinson’s arguments raise profound questions about the stability of mentalities spanning such varied cultural geographies.