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EM Report Summary

Project ID: 312306
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Netherlands

Final Report Summary - EM (Elevated Minds. The Sublime in the Public Arts in 17th-century Paris and Amsterdam)

For a long time, it has been assumed that Longinus and his idea of the sublime appeared on the stage of modern criticism only after Nicolas Boileau’s Le traité de sublime, ou du merveilleux dans le discours (Paris, 1674). Although Boileau certainly left a mark on the early modern interpretation of Longinus’ treatise and the development of the concept of the sublime, our ERC project gave a deeper understanding of how the early modern engagement with Longinus and the sublime already started much earlier. Early seventeenth-century scholars, such as Daniel Heinsius, Gerardus Vossius, Jean Chapelain, and Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac already reckoned that the sublime, besides its usage as the highest category (genus sublime) of the genera dicendi in rhetorical theory, could also be understood as an independent concept that pointed at the ravishing and transporting effects of discourse. Moreover, parts of Longinus’ treatise were read as an argument that sublimity might be reached by ignoring or transgressing poetical and rhetorical rules. Against the backdrop of the widespread neo-Aristotelian emphasis on rules for the creation of literature and art, Longinus appeared throughout the seventeenth century as a major reference point in defending the importance of natural talent.
Although Longinus and many of his commentators describe the sublime as an effect of discourse, the early modern use of the concept is not necessarily limited to the domain of literature or speech alone. Our research project has elucidated early modern applications of the sublime to the visual and performing arts. The terminology of the sublime for instance found its way in art theoretical works, such as Franciscus Junius’ De pictura veterum (1637), which influenced many contemporary and later theoreticians throughout Europe. On his turn, Claude François Ménestrier in his Des représentions en musique anciennes et modernes (1682) referred to Longinus in the discussion of the effects of spectacles. Our program even discerns sublime “sensitivities” in artistic practices such as in the paintings of Rembrandt or Allaert van Everdingen or in the construction of large public buildings such as the Amsterdam Town Hall or the colonnade of the Louvre.
Whether in early modern poetics, in the visual or the performing arts, or in architecture the sublime does not operate as a strictly codified concept, which exclusively derives its theoretical foundation from Longinus’ treatise Peri hupsous. In early modern thought, the sublime is rather a floating concept, which often operates within a wider network of other, “neighboring” concepts, such as the French idea of magnificence. In the early modern political and iconographical tradition, magnificence is increasingly associated with the elevated status and imposing quality of royalty. In a mid-seventeenth-century French translation of Longinus’ treatise, the term magnificence is used as a synonym for the sublime, giving the sublime a political undertone that suggests the enormous and overwhelming power of royal sovereignty. The inexplicable character of the sublime as the product of natural genius runs parallel with seventeenth-century discussions of le je ne sais quoi in French criticism, as for instance in Dominique Bouhours’ Les entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène (1671). The astonishing effect of the sublime tunes in with early modern discussions of le merveilleux in the arts and even the sciences. To understand the history of and the impact of the sublime in early modern thought, our research project fully acknowledged those varieties in the meanings and scope of the concept.

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