Since the publication of this book I've encountered occasional resistance to the idea of emulation from some in "traditionalist" circles, who see it as egoism, and therefore "modernist." But it is undeniable that the notion of emulation is as old as the classical tradition itself, and operated even in those 'Middle Ages' that traditionalists tend to romanticize (think of campanilismo). To engage with a tradition is to engage with history, in all its complexity.
an excerpt from The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture:
Between Imitation and Invention
The last two centuries of artistic and architectural polemics have been underpinned by an opposition between partisans of imitation and invention, with the latter certainly the dominant position for more than half a century. These seemingly irreconcilable differences are not, however, inevitable; as opposing positions, they have a fairly precise historical genesis, and they are related. If hidebound imitation was a consequence of eighteenth-century neoclassicism, when replicas of classical buildings and sculpture began to populate English country houses and systems of classical architecture were codified at what would become the École des Beaux Arts, it was also partly responsible for sponsoring its inverse, an unfulfillable desire for novel invention, which was first manifest in both Romanticism and Realism in the arts, and the picturesque and eclecticism in architecture. That polarization presumed two exclusive extremes, between copying and creating. In the early twentieth century creativity was progressively becoming unmoored from the past, and it eventually pilloried mere imitation as bankrupt and false, or worse, kitsch.
This apparent impasse was not always the case. In the Roman world, replicas and novelties existed comfortably side by side, and a culture of emulation sponsored centuries of artistic ambition and achievement around the Mediterranean; we are now slowly beginning to recognize the nuances of the Roman approach to their Greek models, which was both deferential and assertive. We had lost much of that understanding precisely because neoclassical proponents, beginning with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, saw all Roman sculpture as mere copies of Greek originals (which, it happens, they were not), and that opinion dominated Western scholarship for two centuries. Between late antiquity and the high Middle Ages, a combination of cultural fracture and progressive detachment from ancient models generated the slow transformation of classical into medieval art, with imprecise replicas of Early Christian churches being built in Rome simultaneously with adventurous Gothic cathedrals in northern Europe. Whether medieval builders and patrons fully recognized either their conservative or progressive tendencies is a matter of conjecture, but reading Abbot Suger’s discourse on his work at St. Denis, arguably the first Gothic church, one senses he saw himself fully in the Vitruvian, Roman tradition, despite the building’s evidence to the contrary.
But if in each case we lack enough writing from the period to tell us precisely how these those artists, architects, and patrons saw themselves vis-à-vis the past, after the late Middle Ages and until the eighteenth century, early modern Europe sustained a well-articulated ideal of art based on a system of training that took an artist on a clear path from imitation, through emulation, to invention; this training, anchored by emulation, depended on an ambitious competition between modern and ancient rivals, which acknowledged both the pedagogical value of imitation and the artistic value of invention. The system was derived from ancient rhetorical theory, a characteristic Renaissance importation of one kind of knowledge into another discipline. Since it was part of a pedagogy, that sequence was associated with a progress from novice to master. Whether in an artist’s studio or an architect’s atelier, strict imitation was perceived as an essential aspect of apprenticeship, but not a legitimate tactic of making masterpieces; while conversely invention, in the sense of producing a true novelty, was rather rare even among masters, although highly prized (when it turned out well). Instead, the most common mode of artistic production in this, one of the greatest periods of human creativity, was emulation, during both apprenticeship and full mastery. Emulation staked out a complex relationship to the problems of continuity with tradition, on the one hand, and inventive novelty on the other, participating in a way with each and yet uniquely poised between them.
Emulation, to be sure, does not explain all the art of the Renaissance and Baroque, in part because not every artist aspired to rivalry; much of the art of the period that fills churches and palaces was solid, competent stuff produced by reasonably accomplished, if unambitious, provincial journeymen artists. But their work depended on, and developed over time, under the sway of, those artists in the forefront who strove to outdo their peers and predecessors. As Edgar Wind wrote in his seminal Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, “[I]t seems to be a lesson of history that the commonplace may be understood as a reduction of the exceptional, but that the exceptional cannot be understood by amplifying the commonplace.” I would argue that emulation is the key to understanding what the most adventurous artists and architects were mostly doing in the Renaissance and Baroque. Knowing how emulation operated then unlocks the possibility of recovering that culture today.
It is a challenging concept for us to grasp today, since it doesn’t fit the more familiar concepts of imitation (or copying), on the one hand, and invention (or what we might more commonly call creativity) on the other. Today, one is likely to have the word emulation turn up in a web search attached to software engineering, where it means a kind of operating system or software application that imitates another. And in many other cases, even scholarly publications, the word emulation is often used interchangeably with imitation. Historically, it was the slow ebbing of a coherent understanding of emulation that fostered the fissuring of artistic production in the later eighteenth century, into those devoted to copying the past versus those interested in continual novelty: a situation solidified and amplified over the course of the nineteenth century to the point that it is mostly taken for granted today.
Emulation was, in classical rhetoric, was understood to be an advanced form of imitation. Imitation in that world was composed of three phases: translatio, imitiatio proper, and æmulatio....
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