Friday, April 25, 2008

The Three Philosophers

The life and writings of Denis Cosgrove (1948-2008) are celebrated in some recent obituaries: The Telegraph, The Times and David Lowenthal’s in The Independent. Lowenthal was Cosgrove’s external thesis examiner back in 1976 and “had the privilege of upgrading this remarkable synthesis of architectural enterprise, land management and regional history from a BLitt to a PhD. He refined and amplified it in The Palladian Landscape: geographical change and its cultural representations in sixteenth-century Italy (1993).” The Times obit says: “If today it is much more common to find questions of geography - place, landscape, experience and imagination - treated within the arts and humanities, it needs to be recalled just how exotic this appeared in the academic world of the 1970s, when it was geography's utilitarian promise as a tool of planning or development that held sway. One of Cosgrove's principal achievements as a scholar was to provide a coherent rationale for geography as a humanities discipline, concerned as much with the emotional texture of places as with their spatial structure, with the worlds of the imagination as well as lived experience.”

Giorgione, The Three Philosophers, c1500
Source: CFGA

I see I referred to one of Cosgrove’s essays in an earlier post in the context of mapping and landscape art. The full title of the essay I quoted is ‘The geometry of landscape: practical and speculative arts in sixteenth-century Venetian land territories.’ His starting point is classic human geography: the fortification, irrigation, and agricultural development of Venice’s terraferma. He then describes the importance of practical geometry in surveying and mapping this territory. It is possible to link this with the Venetian vision of landscape, in the art of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, in the architecture of Palladio, and in the pastoral poetry of Bembo and Tasso. However, to provide a fuller connection, Cosgrove goes further and describes the concurrent interest in ‘speculative geometry’, which along with number theory underlay the esoteric culture, mystic symbolism and cosmology popular with Venetian humanists. It was therefore the combination of ‘practical chorography and a speculative philosophy’ which influenced the iconography of landscape in Venice and its territories. Cosgrove ends the essay by describing Giorgione’s The Three Philosophers, which seems to portray the different seasons in one landscape, along with the setting sun, magi and a quadrant, ‘the archetypal geometrical instrument.’ It combines the obscure intellectual poetry of Venetian culture with ‘the practical world of survey and mapping then spreading a new rational order across the fields of the terraferma.’ Denis Cosgrove’s work similarly bridged ideas of landscape as art and landscape as terrain, an approach that has created such a fruitful field of enquiry in cultural geography.

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