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The Life of Things, the Love of Things$

Remo Bodei

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780823264421

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823264421.001.0001

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Living Nature

Living Nature

(p.91) 3 Living Nature
The Life of Things, the Love of Things

Remo Bodei

, Murtha Baca
Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In still-life painting, particularly in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art, mimetic and illusionistic realism is extreme and refined, but it does not exhaust the meaning of the painting. Beneath their material covering of canvas, wood panel, images, and colors, the things depicted in these paintings conceal precise and encoded symbolic values—and, by their very nature, symbols connect what is visibly represented to what is invisibly absent; thus grapes allude to the blood of Christ or oysters to sexual pleasure. The vegetables, fruits, cut flowers, game, fish, and shellfish in these pictures are all things painted for the pleasure and enjoyment of people. They appear suspended between their ephemeral or recently extinguished life and their death, between their solid visible form and the evanescent perspective of their imminent dissipation or decomposition. They testify at one and the same time to the pleasures of life and the desire to take advantage of those pleasures before it is too late, to the fulfillment of all five senses and their progressive weakening, to happy moments and their passing, and to the usefulness and beauty of everyday goods and their transitory nature.

Keywords:   Baroque, Calvinism, Economy, Eternity, Flowers, Netherlands, Pleasure, Rembrandt, Still-life painting

To Love Things

An excellent example of how art not only maintains the secondary qualities of objects but also transforms them into things is found in still-life painting,1 particularly in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art.2

In the art of the seventeenth-century Netherlandish masters, mimetic and illusionistic realism is extreme and refined, but it does not exhaust the meaning of the painting. Beneath their material covering of canvas, wood panel, images, and colors, the things depicted in these paintings conceal precise and encoded symbolic values—and, by their very nature, symbols connect what is visibly represented to what is invisibly absent; thus grapes allude to the blood of Christ or oysters to sexual plea sure.

The vegetables, fruits and cut flowers, game, fish, and shell-fish in these pictures are all things painted for the plea sure and enjoyment of people. They appear suspended between their ephemeral or recently extinguished life and their death, between their solid visible form and the evanescent perspective of their (p.92) imminent dissipation or decomposition. They testify at one and the same time to the pleasures of life and the desire to take advantage of those pleasures before it is too late, to the fulfillment of all five senses and their progressive weakening, to happy moments and their passing, and to the usefulness and beauty of everyday goods and their transitory nature. Baroque painting often emphasizes the transitory nature of things with the presence of objects such as a skull or a soap bubble, the emblem of the homo bulla (the metaphor of man as a bubble), or with the depiction of short-lived insects or small animals such as flies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, or millipedes.

The term stilleven originated in Holland and appeared for the first time in inventories drawn up around 1650. In 1675, the German artist and art historian Joachim von Sandrart used the expression stillstehende Sachen—things that are still or mute.3 Initially this genre of paintings was called “rhopography,” from the Greek word rhopros, meaning trifles or trivial things, a term translated by Vasari as “little things,”4 but these things could also be described—borrowing the words of the librettists Illica and Giocosa of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly—as “humble, silent little things.”5

The earliest examples of this genre date back to the third century bce; Roman wall paintings and mosaics offer abundant illustrations—see, for example, the Bowl of Fruit from Boscoreale, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the modern age, the revival of still-life painting is attributed to two panel paintings by the German painter Ludger Tom Ring the Younger, Bowls of Flowers. In Italy, still-life painting became popular first in Lombardy, particularly with Caravaggio and Arcimboldo.6 From Italy, this genre of painting began to spread throughout Europe; it flourished in the Netherlands soon after 1600, the date that separates its history from its so-called prehistory. It has been noted (p.93) that the Netherlandish painters rendered the innovations and the ideas of the Italians “in a more directly, more sensually realistic manner.”7 Since then, still-life painting has known a lasting popularity that continues to the present day. Among the painters of still lifes of the twentieth century it is enough to think of Matisse, Picasso, De Chirico, Morandi, Warhol, or Lichtenstein.

Stilleven literally means immobile (or silent) nature, and it depicts a group of things selected and taken as themes by a painter, who separates them from contexts that originally included the presence of human beings—typical objects are those that traditionally appeared in paintings depicting Saint Jerome or Saint Augustine. The object thus becomes the subject or protagonist of the painting and comes to be admired for itself, it becomes autonomous, it turns into something that we care about; it is no longer what is in front of us as an obstacle to be overcome or an otherness to be incorporated. We no longer need to subjugate the object, precisely because art itself has removed it from immediate consumption and the struggle to obtain it. Objects, transformed into things, obviously do not have any language as such; they do not respond to our questions with words. They initially appear inert and do not seem to reciprocate our ideal, symbolic, and emotional investments. But if we observe them carefully, forsaking our ignorance of them, they make us speak on their behalf and lead us toward their progressive self-revelation—or to use, in a different context, the title of a book by René Girard—objects make us pay attention to the “unheard voice of reality.”8

Using the French preposition entre—which has a double meaning (“within” and “between”) that is lacking in Italian or English—we could say that whoever looks at a painting is projected “within” or “inside” the work while simultaneously maintaining the distance “between” himself and the work. The viewer contemplates the painting in its stillness, its silent speech, and its (p.94) disturbingly exclusive self-reference, which, nevertheless, still demands the viewer’s involvement. The sight of what is represented in the painting is, in a Kantian sense, “disinterested,” but in reference to the Latin inter-esse, “being in between,” it establishes a relationship of reciprocal implication. In this regard, we are deeply “interested” in what sets us free either from the habit of dealing with objects as conceptually, symbolically, and emotionally insignificant or from the prejudice that detached contemplation, deprived of any involvement, is the supreme degree of knowledge.

Painting goes beyond the pure reproduction of objects; it simultaneously represents something more and something less than their physical nature. By transfiguring the object, art achieves a paradoxical enhancement of reality. It recreates reality while depriving it of its solid consistency. It enables us to enter another dimension, removed from the picture frame, the “door to the world,” inventing enclaves of extraterritoriality and extratemporality embedded in ordinary time and space. Stilleven slowly defeats the prejudice that once considered it to be a “minor genre,” far removed from history, mythology, and sacred images. Still-life painting excludes men, who boast of superior dignity, and depicts not only ordinary “small things” but also luxury goods such as porcelain, crystal vases, or elaborate saltcellars. But it is the images of humble objects that help us rediscover the wonders of everyday life.

It is like a meditation on the words of Plotinus: “We wonder at the novelty, but we should wonder at the customary and at our everyday experiences;”9 it is like remembering Heraclitus’s dictum that “there are gods even in the kitchen;”10 it is as if Nietzsche’s invitation to “become good neighbors of the nearest things”11 had been accepted in advance; it is like making an effort to look at ordinary things from unusual points of view;12 or, finally, alluding to the title of a now famous book, it is as if alongside the (p.95) gods of great things, “the gods of small things” were also taken into account.13 Stilleven, “intended for private enjoyment,”14 moved paintings from solemn settings such as churches, courts, or palaces into the homes of merchants, bankers, ship owners, jurists, or doctors, whose portraits simultaneously reveal both the trials and the joys of life.15 One of the reasons for this dislocation is that, in the Calvinist Netherlands, artists could no longer engage in painting sacred subjects to be displayed in churches, which were now bare and had no ornaments beyond music and singing and commentary upon verses from the Bible. In the Netherlands at that time, there was a shift from triumphalist paintings that publicly celebrated the glories of religion or politics to a style of painting with fewer pretentions, collected and hung in the intimacy of private homes.

The domestic dimension and the expression of attachment to the things of the world and its comforts—which was not a sin for the hard-working Calvinists but rather an indirect sign of divine benevolence—was associated with the praise of prosperity and the apotheosis of abundance. During its golden age, with fewer than two million inhabitants, the Netherlands was the wealthiest country in Eu rope.16

A great variety of goods arrived at the ports of the Netherlands from the most remote corners of the world thanks to a sui generis form of globalization, created by the East India Company and the West India Company, which formed a wide network of commerce covering half the planet—from Indonesia to the Ca rib be an, from Formosa to Brazil, from Tasmania to Novaya Zemlya, from the present-day Ghana to Suriname—and based on financial investments that involved a significant portion of the population, ready to risk their own money in commerce and navigation.

Therefore the things depicted in stilleven can be seen as symbols of the goods and the commerce that brought the world to the (p.96) Netherlands and the Netherlands to the world. The variety and quality of merchandise resulted from the import of products such as grains, citrus fruits, wine, iron, copper, furs, rugs, tobacco, tea, pepper, and other spices, and from the export of butter, cheese, herring, porcelain, and books.17 Flowers—which had been particularly appreciated during the previous pictorial tradition—took on an important economic role in the Low Countries, as highlighted by the speculation on tulips that between 1634 and 1637 gave rise to the phenomenon of “tulipomania.”

Although sometimes these paintings go hand in hand with a symbolic exhortation to moderation and frugality, they usually depict images of abundance and auspices of future prosperity. In the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, the allegory of opulence—in the form of the satisfaction of basic needs for food and drink, with the implicit praise of the victory over hunger and thirst—was frequently portrayed in images of markets, kitchens, and butcher shops, where quartered oxen and swine, poultry and game, fish and shellfish, fruits, jugs, and glasses of wine or beer make a beautiful display. Here the poverty of the peasant Simulus in Virgil’s Moretum, which I quoted at the beginning of this book, is openly defeated; it is exorcised by the abundance and assortment of good things to eat and drink.

Stilleven in the golden age of the Netherlands was expressed in diverse typologies and subclasses—in the case of food, all linked to daily life and the rhythm of fairs and festivities: the simple breakfast (ontbijtije), the ordinary midday meal (middageten), the banket or public feast, the snack, the more or less abundant light meal, or the sumptuously decked table. The most frequently represented style was the ornate pronkstilleven or “luxury still life,” distinguished by its complex compositions and splendid colors. As an allusion to other pleasures and other senses besides taste, there are depictions of floral compositions, pipes and (p.97) smoking equipment, musical instruments, and books. Finally, there are representations of stilleven paintings themselves in the form of pictures hung on the walls of homes, such as in the Interior with Jacket on a Chair by Cornelis Bisschop, now at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, where a still-life painting depicting a huge lobster and some wine glasses on a table hangs on the wall.

In stilleven things are represented at their toppunt, a Dutch expression that means the point of perfect maturity, when things fully display their qualities—when they are at their zenith, before their inevitable corruption. Things participate in the common destiny of everything that is born and dies; however, painting gives them durability—it secures them in their mute persistence. Their temporary nature is redeemed, and their enjoyment—promised by their immediate consumption in the form of food, drink, smoking, music, or reading—becomes practically endless for the eyes of any possible future consumer. Things are exalted, or “blessed” as Ortega y Gasset said, referring to the paintings of Rembrandt, where they shine in their ordinariness with an almost supernatural light:

It often happens in the pictures of Rembrandt that a humble white or grey cloth, a coarse house hold utensil, is found wrapped in a luminous and radiant atmosphere, with which other painters surround only the heads of saints. It is as if he said to us in gentle admonition: Blessed be things! Love them, love them.18

To bless things means—not only in Rembrandt—to defy the contemptus mundi (contempt for the world) that casts them into caducity and insignificance, liberating them, symbolically, from the curse of the ephemeral. This is how art, compared to science, “saves phenomena” in their individuality, reintroduces meaning and secondary qualities, making every fleeting moment fulfilling (p.98) by removing it from the relentless succession of time and, as far as possible, from the cycle of generation and corruption. In this way, the primacy of the philosophy of respice finem (“look to the outcome”), the tendency mournfully to project the present into a future of annihilation, is negated. Instead, the present is captured in its full splendor, in the plenitude of its own manifestation.

In pictorial representations—and later in photography and film—things are transposed to another space, suspended in time, and protected from oblivion, decay, and death. Furthermore, in portraits, the gaze of the subject depicted is linked to ours, drawing us beyond the painted surface. An explicit and moving example of this is a 1646 portrait in the Civic Museum of Cremona by the painter Luigi Miradori, known as Il Genovesino, which memorializes a dead child. The little boy, Sigismondo Ponzone, is shown standing; with his right hand he holds a large dog by the collar, and with his left hand he indicates to the viewer a scroll bearing the inscription:

  • Father, you who
  • participated in my creation
  • take me now
  • newly transformed
  • by art.19

Between the Eternal and the Impermanent

In the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, there was a tacit effort to adapt men and women to the increased instability of social life and to the acceleration of historical time, but this effort took a different direction there than it did in the Baroque culture of Catholic countries such as Spain or Italy. In the Netherlands, there was no shortage of anxiety, given the uncertain political and (p.99) military situation facing the country. Its citizens were exposed to an extraordinary series of challenges. Inside the country, tensions erupted between the partisans of the Stadtholder William of Orange and those of the Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt—both Johan and his brother Cornelis de Witt became victims of this internecine strife; they were assassinated and dismembered by the enraged mob in the ramjaar, “the disaster year” of 1672. In the international arena, in under a century the country endured the so-called Eighty Years’ War, the Dutch war of independence against Spain that began in 1568 and officially ended in 1652; the war with England for the control of maritime traffic, between 1652 and 1672; and finally the war with France that began in June 1672 and ended with the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678. That conflict had begun with a deliberate flooding of a large section of the country in order to halt the troops of Louis XIV of France.

These conflicts were not generally reflected in mournful images of death; instead, the anxiety of the Dutch population transformed itself into mute acceptance of danger and caducity. Precisely because these feelings were shared, they appeared less threatening to a country that had proudly carved out its lands from the sea. The enjoyment of worldly things not only came from the fact that Dutch Calvinism interpreted wealth as a sign of divine benevolence toward the saved—a benevolence that, in contrast with the Catholic perspective, was indepen dent of good deeds and repentance—nor was it only connected to the wealth generated by the citizens in guilds and in different branches of the economy, but it was also connected to the general ethos, which opposed life to death and toppunt to vanitas.

For a variety of reasons, in Catholic Baroque art the function of instability and caducity was felt with more drama than in the Netherlands. For one thing, from the philosophical point of view, the notion of ontology—a term coined ironically in 1613—began (p.100) to break up during this period. The notions of substance and essence began, in other words, to disintegrate, and, conversely, “modes” and “accidents,” relationships and manners, became more relevant than the presumably immutable and intelligible core of entities.20 That which was secondary, accessory, and contingent—which was not strictly necessary, since it could be or not be—now became a priority. At the same time, the symbolic aspect outstripped the material aspect of things; the way that people and things presented themselves imposed itself upon their intimate—and by this time presumed—“substance.” And time manifested itself in its most insatiable voracity, in the act of consuming its barely elapsed phases rather than in its capacity for self-regeneration, for constantly being reborn anew.

The kind of work of art referred to as vanitas does not view objects sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”) but rather in their transitory nature. In stilleven painting, on the contrary, things become “miniatures of eternity”—to borrow an expression from Jeanne Hersch; they open a “gap in time” toward the absolute, which is touched fleetingly at the point of contact between becoming and eternity, thus hinting at what remains in that which passes away.21 Attaining immobility and impassivity through art and detaching itself from the domain of becoming in which objects are necessarily destined to disappear, the ephemeral tends to become eternal in painting. The work of art helps resolve the apparent contradiction inherent in the expression “the life of things,” because “life”—which refers to what is born and dies—remains in the things that are captured at a single moment in time in still-life paintings.

Dutch painting inherited—how consciously, I cannot tell—the traditional philosophical meaning of the term “eternity.” We have forgotten this particular meaning, as we are used to think of eternity in the function of time and therefore to conceive of it as a (p.101) very long, in fact infinite, time. However, neither the Greek word aion nor the Latin aeternitas has any relationship with the notion of duration (aidiotes). These words refer, first and foremost, to life and its fluids—such as seminal fluid, tears, or even the marrow of the spinal cord;22 then, they refer to the duration of the life given to men by the gods; after that, to the very life of the gods;23 and, finally, to the fullness of life in general. This last meaning appears in Plotinus, who defines aion as zoe or, more precisely, zoe en stasei, “life in a state of rest.”24

Plotinus’s definition was revised and clarified by Boethius, who called eternity plenitudo vitae (the fullness of life),25 and it was further reformulated—in a variation that Borges was fond of evoking—by the nineteenth-century Lutheran bishop Hans Lassen Martensen: Aeternitas est merum hodie, est immediata et lucida fruitio rerum infinitarum (Eternity is merely today; it is the immediate and lucid fruition of an infinite number of things). Talking about eternity, Borges himself added:

True, it is unconceivable, but then so is the humble successive time. To deny eternity, to suppose the vast annihilation of the years freighted with cities, rivers and jubilations, is not less incredible than to imagine their complete salvation. …26 Life is too poor not to be immortal.27

Nevertheless, the conception of eternity given by Plotinus remains fundamental as the point without extension from which all life emanates: “total life, all together and full, absolutely unextended, that is inherent to the essence of Being.”28 It is the inexhaustible fountain that nourishes and preserves life, that gives and expands while remaining always identical to itself; it is the unitary energy that produces multiplicity (hen-polla, in opposition to the One, hen-hen). Indeed, the human soul is the nexus that unites time and eternity: it is able to rise toward the (p.102) “unity-multiplicity” articulated in itself and to merge with the One, or to decay, to descend, to disperse in the contingent and the ephemeral. One might say that, in the metaphysics of Plotinus, the life of things represents the flow of multiplicity from the aion, which enjoys stability but is not stability per se:

Eternity, therefore—while not the Substratum [not the essential foundation of the Divine Principle, the One, hen]—may be considered as the radiation of this Substratum: it exists as the announcement of the Identity in the Divine, of that state—of being thus and not otherwise—which characterizes what has no futurity but eternally is.29

In contrast, time is the moment of the generation and corruption of beings, their “paying the penalty”—in the words of Anaximander—by being removed from eternity, from the fullness of life, while trying to imitate it. Time is therefore a hemorrhage of life, a loss. Time is poverty (egestas, as Boethius would say), need, a useless race toward the unattainable fullness that is barely glimpsed.

Therefore, what is this zoe en stasei, this fullness of life in its toppunt, if not a still life removed from the transitory, impoverished dimension of time?

All the Faces of Rembrandt

It has been pointed out that seventeenth-century Netherlandish painting paid particular attention to individuality and to things captured in their unrepeatable nature—an idea that has been suggested in discussing a possible affinity between the paintings of Vermeer and the philosophy of Spinoza.30 But early on, Georg Simmel had already argued vigorously for the primacy of individuality in Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits. (Rembrandt (p.103) rarely ventured into the genre of still life, but his Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, circa 1639, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one exemplar.)

According to the most recent research, during his lifetime Rembrandt completed more than a hundred self-portraits, recording, in a sort of illustrated diary, the progressive changes in his own appearance. For more than forty years—from the first image in which he portrayed himself, the Stoning of Saint Steven from 1625, to his last painting in 1669, the year of his death—Rembrandt depicted himself in a variety of expressions and costumes. One of the most representative of these self-portraits is an oil painting of 1629, preserved in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, in which the young Rembrandt’s face has almost to be guessed at under an enormous mop of artfully ruffled hair—arranged in huge curling bangs covering his eyes, which are nearly reduced to slits. There are also three etchings from 1630, at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, where the painter appears with a glowering expression, eyes wide open, and an arrogant demeanor. And, finally, there are all the drawings, etchings, and paintings that depict Rembrandt dressed as a soldier, a beggar, a saint, an Asian, a nobleman with a gold chain and a fur coat or an embroidered shirt, or otherwise adorned with the most diverse types of headgear. Among the self-portraits from the time of Rembrandt’s old age, between 1660 and 1669—a period marked by grief, poverty, and the pitiless ravages that time and the experience of sorrow wreaked on his face—the Self-Portrait with Palette and Brushes of 1662 at the Kenwood House in London and the Self-Portrait with Hands Clasped of 1669 at the National Gallery in London stand out.31

All of these paintings and etchings reveal a layering of different periods: a progressive accumulation of the past, setting the pace of existence for a man who knows he is doomed to the gradual corrosion of time and the ultimate triumph of death. With the (p.104) intensity of his gaze in these works, Rembrandt puts the past back into play; he reveals its successive layers, and, at intervals, he exposes its presence. Giving spatial form to time, he transforms a sequential process into simultaneity, and extracting light, color, and the cycles of time from the darkest depths, he lets them fall in delicate waves on the shores of the visible.

No other painter has devoted so much time to the study of himself, particularly the changes that his face underwent. Everything in Rembrandt’s face is significant, down to the smallest detail: from a wrinkle on the forehead to a thinning of the lips, from a contraction in the pupil to the blush of the cheeks. By its very nature, the human face has a depth that manifests itself on its own surface. Time and space coexist there: the furrows or the wrinkles that age, habits, and events have deposited there contain and tell a story. They constitute the precipitate of events and states of mind that have been transformed into character and facial features. In the face, the passing of time is crystallized in the space of compresence. In Rembrandt’s self-portraits, the act of becoming is transformed into a motionless res extensa that nonetheless retains secondary qualities and symbolic values.

More than any other painter, Rembrandt showed in his self-portraits how the human face concentrates the maximum of time in the minimum of space to produce images that testify to its gradual deterioration. From one self-portrait to the next, he progressively accentuates the signs of the desecrating distance that the passage of time brings to the face. From this perspective, Rembrandt’s paintings and prints can be considered documents of the manifold ways that an individual appears over time and also as surfaces where certain thoughts and passions can be interpreted in their manifestation or concealment. We are used to the cartography of the face because from childhood we have learned to decipher its features. But have we become similarly capable of (p.105) reading the signs of time, the imperceptible variations that the passage of light, color, and form leave on things? Have we sufficiently experienced, for example at sunrise, the tiny mutations that light emerging from darkness confers upon things? Have we carefully observed the imperceptible or sudden change of color, or the rearrangement of images and shadows at different times of the day, as Monet did when he painted his famous series of haystacks? Have we captured the continuous variation in tone that the color of things undergoes by shifting our observation point in space? Have we ever been amazed and moved by these small metamorphoses, by the daily miracle of things becoming presences?

Simmel saw in the work of Rembrandt the reflection of a “Germanic” conception of “becoming”—though not in a racist sense, as in the popular book on Rembrandt from Simmel’s time by Julius Langbehn32—in clear contrast to the classic Greek and Latin tradition, fully present in Italian Renaissance portraiture and based, according to him, on a static metaphysics of “being.” If—as Simmel claimed, quoting Goethe—“life can only be thought of insofar as it flows,”33 then its flow should not be trapped in rigid structures. According to a conventional and overly simplistic idea of the Italian Renaissance, the marmoreal solidity of Italian portraits seems to shatter only because of external causes. For Simmel, in many such portraits,

One gets the impression that death would come to these people in the form of a dagger thrust. With Rembrandt portraits it is as if death were the steady further development of this flowing totality of life—like the current with which it flows into the sea, and not through violation by some new factor but only following its natural course from the beginning.34

By contrast, in the portraits from the Italian Renaissance the flow of becoming is frozen in timeless form, codified according (p.106) to ideal types; individuality is lost, and facial features are emphasized rather than softened, precisely because the reference to universal models is solid.35 The “factors of becoming are excluded. Like the steps of a calculation where only the result is of interest, they are of no concern.” Rembrandt, instead, “transposes into the fixed uniqueness of the gaze all the movements of life that led up to it: the formal rhythm, mood, and coloring of fate, as it were, of the vital process.”36

But Rembrandt’s self-portraits not only depict an accumulation of the past; they also seem to be looking toward an unspecified and obscure future. In a letter to his brother Theo, dated October 1885, Vincent van Gogh noted, in reference to Rembrandt, that “il faut être mort plusieurs fois pour peindre ainsi” (“one must have died several times in order to be able to paint like that”).37 Especially during the last phase of his artistic production, Rembrandt expressed in his self-portraits the increasing weight of caducity, the ineluctable encounter that everyone will have with death—a path on which he had been preceded by younger people who were dearest to him, such as his first wife Saskia, his second wife Hendrickje, and his son Titus. In this respect, his late works diverge from the ethos embodied in toppunt and stilleven.

Rembrandt understood that death resides in life from birth, that it grows and matures with it and takes its nourishment from it. Perhaps it was from this awareness that his predilection for what is marked by the harsh impact of time and the world arose:

From the beginning, he was powerfully drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection. He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin which gave the human countenance a mottled richness.38

(p.107) According to Simmel’s interpretation, Rembrandt intuitively applied to what he painted the model of the individuelles Gesetz, “individual law.” Reversing an established philosophical tradition, Simmel claimed that form is not connected to the universal but rather to the individual: “Equipped with this metaphysical uniqueness, form impresses on its bit of matter an individual shape … and gives it a meaning of its own.”39

It is worth noting that from the privilege of individual form there arose that typically Simmelian method—often maliciously defined as “impressionistic”—that is the product of a generic and evanescent “philosophy of life” but is totally coherent with rigorous theoretical issues. This style of thinking has its own “outrageous” strength precisely where it seems the weakest: in the analysis of elements that are resistant to any generalization, irreducible as much to the pure interiority of individual psychology as to the exteriority of social relations.

It does not seem, however, that Simmel was aware of the fact—already discussed by the medieval scholastics and further reinforced by Hegel—that what is individual is ineffable: as soon as it is spoken or thought of, every single “here” and every single “now” loses its specificity and becomes universally valid for every “here” and every “now.”40 The individual law of Simmel seems guaranteed by the notion, in truth not very well explained, that general concepts provide a framework in which to insert individuality.

In his self-portraits, however, Rembrandt’s adherence to the law of individuality appears full and free of residue, because individuality carries with it the contingency of life:

Rembrandt has been accused of “lacking form” because one perfectly naturally equates form with general form. … The form, as worked through by Rembrandt, corresponds exactly and exclusively to the life of the respective individual. It lives (p.108) and dies with him—in a solidarity that does not permit a general validity or tolerate a different specialization beyond that individual.41

“Res Singulares”

At the level of perception via the senses, the preservation of persons and things takes place through art, but at the conceptual level it takes place through philosophy. For Spinoza it was the gaze of the mind—which he considered sub specie aeternitatis—that changes and reorients their meaning; it transforms them into things to love and “bless” thanks to their singularity, to their being specific nodes of cognitive and affective relationships. Everything is stripped of its isolation and connected to God (to all of nature) through amor intellectualis, which embraces, loves, and preserves individual things, res singulares, in their own being.

Although he was reproducing the ideas of a marginal heretical sect from the time of the Reformation, the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller showed in Ursula, one of his Zu rich Novellas, how everything is connected in an analogous way to the life of the Whole—in this case to the Christian God, pantheistically interpreted:

He is in the dust of this floor and in the salt of the sea. He melts from the roof with the snow, we hear him dripping, and he gleams as filth in the street. He switches his tail with the fish in the depths of the water, and looks afar with the eye of the hawk that flies high in the air.42

Taking an apple and holding it up before him, the peasant “prophet” of the novella says:

“Hallo, you funny little Lord God; you’ve fled hither, are sitting in this apple and thinking I won’t find you? … Look, (p.109) brethren and sisters, how the apple begins to shine with inward light, see how it swells on my hands and becomes a world?”43

From another point of view, things also speak to those who know how to question them poetically, as in the case of stones and herbs in the only story written by the poet Paul Celan, “Gespräch im Gebirge” (“Conversation in the Mountains”44). Nevertheless, for Spinoza it was the thing itself that spoke, according to a strict concatenation of ideas, more geometrico. The res singulares, on the other hand, must be understood in the context of the totality of nature, which also includes us: “singular things cannot be conceived without God”45 and “the more we understand particular things, the more we understand God.”46

To express this last proposition in a plainer way, the more we know and love every individual thing, the more we know and love the world. Once it has reached the highest level of amor Dei intellectualis, where intelligence coalesces with feelings (affectus), the mind can conceive things sub specie aeternitatis; it can see in each thing a node of infinite relationships with the whole of nature. Almost as a collateral benefit, whoever contemplates things in this light feels an increase in joy, an expansion of his own being, because he becomes aware of the fact that things are not dead and that we are part of the nature of which they (and we) are an integral part. Man is not an autonomous “empire within an empire,”47 and everyone, based on his own “power of existing” (vis existendi), participates, to some extent, in the vicissitudes of all of reality.

In the case of still-life painting in particular and of works of art in general, it is as if things were telling us (to paraphrase Horace’s Carpe diem!): Carpe aeternitatem in momento!—Seize life at its best, enjoy things at the right time, feel the fullness of your (p.110) existence in the world before it declines and slips away. The memento mori is not forgotten here, but, as Thomas Merton would say, there are two opposite ways to confront caducity: life slips away between our fingers, but it can slip like sand or like seeds. As a seed it is, indeed, harvested in art, in philosophy, and in any other successful transformation of objects into things.

Faced with the revelation of aeternitas, the life of things triumphs, along with our own and that of other men. Everything that involves us through the affective knowledge of the res singulares releases us from the extortion of those institutions that turn caducity and the fear of death into a political and religious instrument of control. In this sense, “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation, not on death, but on life.” (“Homo liber de nulla re minus, quam de morte cogitat, et ejus sapientia non mortis, sed vitae meditatio est.”)48

We are struck by this feeling of plenitudo vitae when the opaque veil of daily experience is torn away, suddenly and momentarily. At that moment, “sentimus, experimurque, nos aeternos esse” (“we sense and experience that we are eternal”); we feel in ourselves and in the world, without being able to prove it, the presence of a fullness outside time: “nor can eternity be defined by time, or have any relation to time. Nevertheless, we feel and know that we are eternal.”49 Perhaps for us such fullness exists only in the logic of desire, but that does not mean that it cannot serve as a yardstick to judge the inadequacy and the banality of what, though proffered, does not satisfy us.

In the age of the “sex appeal of the inorganic,” of mass production and the greatest waste of intelligence and life, is it still meaningful to appeal to the philosophy of Spinoza and to make an effort to look at things sub specie aeternitatis? And can the Dutch stilleven, with its pathos for toppunt, set an example for us, (p.111) who live among objects that seem to have lost their ability to last and have taken on the appearance of evanescent simulacra?

Making Things Speak

The answer to these and other questions depends on our willingness to reorient ourselves within the horizon of contemporaneity, reworking an art of existence analogous to the techne tou biou (“craft of life”) of the ancients but capable of including the life of things. The Classic diakosmesis (the process of introducing order and giving sense and beauty to the world, thereby giving sense and beauty to ourselves) thus receives supplementary energy capable of breaking the perverse connection between the “sex appeal of the inorganic” and its correlate, man as a “sentient thing.”

Reinterpreted outside their original context—thanks to the surplus of meaning that characterizes both great philosophy and great art—the teachings of Spinoza and the example of stilleven become effective antidotes to the rapid, fleeting consumption of goods without “love,” and they serve as theoretical bridges and ideal models to restore the transit, for long impervious or interrupted, between people and objects.

Independently of Spinoza or stilleven, through things we become aware of the fact that not everything is solved within the confines of our inner selves, in a subjective freedom without the constraints of dependency. In their refusal to be devoured and absorbed by the subject, things force us to give up the mistaken belief that individual identity is a monad or a self-awareness that bites its own tail. Things urge us to listen to reality, to let it in through the window of the psyche, so as to ventilate an otherwise asphyxiated interiority—which, nonetheless, without knowing it, contains both others and the “external world,” albeit in the crude (p.112) form of shadowy presences or banal stereotypes. Paradoxically, things tell more about us—about what makes us ourselves—the more we let them express themselves in their own language: the language of the pragma, the res, or Sache, and, at times, with a more authoritative voice, the language of the auto to pragma and Sache selbst.

Gradually releasing their own meaning without exhausting it, living their own life in their own way, things share a bond of antagonistic complicity with us: they are useful; they remain close and indispensable, but, challenging our greedy or lazy tendency to usurp them without leaving any trace, they retain their own substance. Only this relative elusiveness can bring us back to ourselves and allow us to breathe the aura, described by Benjamin, that connects proximity and distance, familiarity and strangeness: “Everything that has been made in this way, out of love and necessity, leads a life of its own, leads into a strange new territory and returns with us.”50

Things lead us, agonistically, to rise above the inconsistency and mediocrity into which we would fall if we did not invest in them—tacitly reciprocated—thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. They are things because we think about them; because we know them and we love them in their singularity; because, in contrast to objects, we do not claim that we use them only as instruments or to cancel out their otherness; and because, as happens in art, we remove them from their precarious condition in space and time, transforming them into “miniatures of eternity” that contain the complete fullness of existence.

Our relationship with things resembles, to a lesser degree, the love between people: to love someone, the other must be another me, equal to me, so that I can be in tune with him, but, at the same time, he must be different from me, so that we complement each (p.113) other. If the other were too similar to me, a kind of perfect copy, I would not need him; if he were too different, he would leave my orbit and would become unreachable. Shifting and swinging its mobile center of gravity, love accomplishes the miracle of enhancing freedom in the bond and the bond in freedom, of denying the possession of the other and maintaining, while its perfection lasts, a reciprocal autonomy between those who love.

To rescue objects from their insignificance or from their purely instrumental use means to understand better ourselves and the events in which we are engaged—since things establish synapses of meaning both between the different segments of the individual and collective story and between human civilizations and nature. Things live if we are able to develop and to render almost spontaneous a sort of semiotic system similar to the one used by physicians to interpret symptoms: to recognize in what is most important to us its history in relation to man and its origin in relation to nature.

Considered with sympathetic attention, any thing can yield different paths of curiosity (and here I am using the word “curiosity” in its noble, etymological sense: from the Latin cura, denoting zeal or desire to learn) and research: a rag doll or porcelain doll may lead us, with imagination and inquiry, to place it in a period preceding the invention of plastic, to situate it in the history of toys, to think about the differences in the ways that females and males are raised, or perhaps to recall episodes of family history. An old military uniform found in a junk shop can reveal—by the type of cloth, insignia, or ranks—the membership of the wearer to a particular armed force and period, and it can be mentally placed in the history of a nation or in the history of fashion. As noted by Max Weber, the buttons on the uniform worn by the king of Prussia during the Battle of Sadowa (also known as the (p.114) Battle of Königgrätz) seem irrelevant, but if the point of view of military history is replaced by that of the history of fashion, those buttons will be more important than the outcome of the battle.

If we overcome the tendency to remain centered on ourselves, without “reaching out” toward what might renew us, then the stories of things, with their cargo of symbols and stratifications, might appear so vast and rich that we could easily get lost. We must, therefore, take into account a warning similar to the one expressed by Nietzsche in the second part of Thoughts Out of Season: an excess of historical memory is likely to flatten out the past and paralyze our momentum toward the future; thus the desire to embrace and understand too many things, senselessly piling them up, is likely to encumber our capacity to love and understand any. Aristotle was right: “The man who has many friends has no friend.”51

To sum up, things live under certain conditions: if we let them exist alongside us, and together with us, without attempting to absorb them; if we juxtapose our lives to those of others; if, through things, we open ourselves to the world and let it flow into us; if we pour ourselves into the world to make it more meaningful and in harmony with ideals of general interest that we can discuss together—also thanks to our own diakosmesis; if we cultivate an attitude that can overcome the opposition between an interiority that is closed and self-referential and an exteriority that is inert and secondhand; if, conscious of the fact that we cannot take anything with us to the afterlife—because, as a German proverb says, “the last dress has no pockets”—we stop giving priority to relationships of exclusive possession, to accumulating and controlling objects; if, looking at the original meaning of eternity as the fullness of life, we give up living just for the moment; if we move away from the exhibitionism of the logo and the culture of waste to a simple, essential relationship with things; if we succeed (p.115) in recognizing in each thing the nature of the res singularis, invested as such with intelligence, symbols, and emotions; if we continuously broaden our mental and emotional horizons, we can avoid losing the awareness of the unfathomable depths of the world, of others, and of ourselves. What Heraclitus argued about the psyche (“One would never discover the limits of the soul, should one traverse every road—so deep a measure does it possess”)52 also applies to the things of the world, in their historical and personal significance, and in the as yet only partially explored complexity of the matter of the universe—of which our body and objects in the universe are composed and to which our subjectivity is inextricably joined.

The brevity of life and the causality of birth, which enclose everyone in a limited time and space, allow us to come into contact with only a limited number of things. The decision to know and to care for some things, without precluding the understanding of other things, implies not only an attitude of constant attention to the world and to people, a willingness to learn, and a desire to love; it also implies an ethos and even a political stance: that of contributing to making a respublica out of the society that fate has thrust upon us. (p.116)


(1.) Also called “static life” or “silent life” in other languages, but always involving the idea of something living and natural, not inert: stilleven, Stilleben, natura morta.

(p.130) (2.) See the exhibition catalogue by Alan Chong, Wouter Kloek, and Celeste Brusati, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550–1720 (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum; Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1999).

(3.) See Norbert Schneider, Still Life: Still Life Painting in the Early Modern Period, trans. Hugh Beyer (Cologne: Taschen, 2009), 7.

(4.) Charles Sterling, Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 27, where “rhopography” is defined as the depiction of insignificant objects; Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

(5.) From Act 1, “piccole cose umili e silenziose.

(6.) Elisa Acanfora, “Le origini della natura morta,” in La natura morta italiana da Caravaggio al Settecento (Milan: Electa, 2003).

(8.) René Girard, La voix méconnue du réel: une théorie des mythes archaïques et modernes (Paris: Grasset & Fasquelles, 2002).

(9.) Plotinus, Enneads IV, 4, 37.

(10.) Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 222.

(11.) Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 199.

(12.) Vilém Flusser, Dinge und Undinge. Phänomenologische Skizzen (Munich: Hanser, 1993).

(13.) Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New York: Harper-Collins, 1998).

(14.) Lisa Bortolotti, La natura morta: storia, artisti, opera (Florence: Giunti, 2005).

(15.) Judikje Kiers and Fieke Tissink, The Golden Age of Dutch Art: Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 27–34.

(16.) Simon Shama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007).

(18.) José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote, trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 32.

(19.) Also, though from a very different perspective, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Le regard du portrait (Paris: Galileé, 2002), 50. For an analysis of this posthumous portrait in the context of art history, see Lia Bellingeri, Genovesino (Galatina, Lecce: Mario Congedo Editore, 2007), 20 and plate 20.

(20.) Elena Esposito, I paradossi della moda: originalità e transitorietà nella società moderna (Bologna: Baskerville, 2004).

(21.) Jeanne Hersch, L’étre et la forme (Neuchâtel: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1946); Jeanne Hersch, Textes (Fribourg: Le Feu de Nuict, 1985).

(22.) Homer, The Iliad, XIII–XXIV, trans. John Wesley (London: Macmillan, 1902); Homer, Odyssey, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 74.

(23.) Émile Benveniste, “Expression indo-européenne de l’éternité,” Bulletin de la Societé de linguistique française 38 (1937): 103–112; Richard Broxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 244; Enzo Degani, Aión da Omero ad Aristotele (Padua: Cedam, 1961); Éric Alliez, “Aion,” in Vocabulaire européen des philosophies (Paris: Seuil, 2004), 44–46.

(24.) Plotinus, Enneads III, 7, 11, 44.

(25.) Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joel C. Relihan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 145.

(26.) Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, trans. Esther Allen and Suzanne Jill Levine (New York: Viking, 1999), 1:136.

(27.) Borges, Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin: University of Texas, 1964), 180.

(28.) Plotinus, Enneads III, 7, 2.

(29.) Plotinus, Enneads III, 7, 3; see also Federica Montevecchi, Giorgio Colli: biografi a intellettuale (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2004).

(p.132) (30.) Roberto Diodato, Vermeer, Góngora, Spinoza: l’estetica come scienza intuitiva (Milan: Mondadori, 1997); on Spinoza’s cultural environment, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(31.) For a discussion of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, see Josua Bruyn et al., Stitching Foundation Rembrandt Research Project: A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 4: Self-Portraits, trans. D. Cook-Radmore (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005); H. Perry Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity (Prince ton, N.J.: Prince ton University Press, 1990); Flavio Caroli, L’anima e il volto: ritratto e fisiognomia da Leonardo a Bacon (Milan: Electa, 1998); Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: The Creation of a Myth,” in Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Art of Their Time: Recent Perspectives. Papers in Art History from the Pennsylvania State University, ed. Roland E. Fleisher and Susan C. Scott (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1997), 11:12–36; Francesco Bianco, “Pittura come autobiografia: il caso Rembrandt,” in Colloquium philosophicum: Annali del Dipartimento di Filosofi a dell’Università degli studi di Roma V–VI (1998–1999, 1999–2000): 43–63.

(32.) Julius Langbehn, Rembrandt als Erzieher (Weimar: A. Dunker, 1922).

(33.) Georg Simmel, Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art, ed. and trans. Alan Scott and Helmut Staubmann (New York: Routledge, 2005), 6.

(34.) Ibid., 74.

(35.) Regarding this antithesis between Italian and German art, a contraposition that Simmel took up in his debate with Burckhardt and that was later developed by Wölfflin, see Jacob Burckhardt, “Rembrandt,” in Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Munich-Basel: C.H. Beck-Schwabe & Co., 2003), 13:204–226; and Andrea Pinotti, Estetica della pittura, 110.

(37.) See also Franco Rella, Negli occhi di Vincent: l’io nello specchio del mondo (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1988), 52–67.

(38.) Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s Eyes (New York: Knopf, 1999), 13.

(p.133) (39.) Georg Simmel, The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays, trans. John A. Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 11–12.

(40.) G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (The Phenomenology of Mind), trans. J. B. Baillie (Lawrence, Kan.: Digireads.com, 2009), 49–50.

(42.) Gottfried Keller, Ursula, trans. Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Mondial, 2008), 18.

(43.) Ibid., 18.

(44.) Paul Celan, Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 149ff.

(45.) Benedictus de Spinoza, Complete Works, ed. Samuel Shirley and Michael Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 250.

(46.) Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), Part 5, Proposition 24.

(47.) Ibid., Part 3, Preface.

(48.) Ibid., Part 4, Proposition 67.

(49.) Ibid., Part 5, Proposition 23; for a different point of view, see Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: immortalité et éternité (Paris: Gallimard, 2002).

(50.) Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony A. Nassar (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000), 9.

(51.) Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, VI, 21 (London: H. G. Bohn, 1853), 189.

(52.) Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. and ed. T. M. Robinson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 33 (Fragment 45). (p.134)