Arion Riding on a Dolphin and Baxandall

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Francesco Bianchi, Arion Riding on a Dolphin, c. 1500

I see whimsical, I see creepy, I see a naked kid playing a lute on a fish. However, according to Michael Baxandall, author of The Painting and Experience of Fifteenth-Century Italy, to fully understand the art the viewer must see through the eyes of the time, or in other words, a period eye.

With that in mind, I see Arion, the poet of Greek myth being saved by a dolphin from pirates. In addition, I see the influence of Greek and Roman art on Renaissance artists inspiring the humanism movement. This is not just a naked kid on a fish, but a tribute to the ancient Greek arts. The unique choice by an Italian artist to paint a Greek myth, reveals the extent Greek antiquity and humanism had on artists willing to conflict with the orthodox. Thus Arion Riding on a Dolphin reflects the story that would otherwise be lost if the viewer failed to look at this painting through Baxandall's period eye.

The importance of period eye may reflect the historical, social, and political background of the piece, however this is completely led by the painter's intent. Similar to a piece of writing, there are many more ways to view and understand any piece of art. The author's intent should not matter in the formation of opinions, and neither should the artists. Their job is to create, leaving interpretation to the viewer. Although I agree period eye is important, the present reception and the effect each stroke has on the viewer at least balances the scale of significance.

So yes, this is Arion the Greek poet being rescued by a dolphin, but, the whimsical charm of the soft strokes, and seemingly shiny surface gives the subject a cartoonish happy feel only able to understand through viewing.


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