Theories of Comparative Aesthetics (a), and (b)

Shigeo SUZUKI Professor

Department: Graduate School of Languages and Cultures

Class Time: 2011 Spring & Fall Friday (Spring) Friday (Fall)
Recommended for: Graduate School of Languages and Cultures, Department of Multicultural Studies students

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Course Overview

[First Semester: Theories of Comparative Aesthetics (a) — The Birth of Printing and Cultural Change]

The Internet now offers us opportunities to work together with other people across countries, regardless of restrictions in terms of where we live. It also provides us with chances to share information freely, make new friends, and strengthen close ties. It is not, however, for the first time within human history that we are able to communicate more freely thanks to new technology. Soon after the invention of printing in the late 15th century, people in Western Europe changed their ways of thinking and habits of reading. Printing technology replaced the manuscripts, which scribes had assiduously produced with pen and ink for many centuries with printed copies of books. This invention liberated literate people from the difficulties of visiting libraries in monasteries and universities. People could buy books printed at low cost, store them at home, and read any of them whenever they liked. This new convenience brought forth a wide range of people who conceived and shared similar ideas or tastes, forming associations across borders.

Studying this first change in an important communication mode as a reference point for looking at the current second revolution in communication technology will help us better understand what is happening around us. We will use Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change as a textbook, and discuss some issues surrounding the cultural changes affecting our lives.

[Second Semester: Theories of Comparative Aesthetics (b) — Culture of the Unknown and the Wondrous in 16th-17th Century Europe]

Aristotle's remark that the marvelous triggers thought tells us that surprising experiences set us off from the world of usual ideas where everything is taken for granted. The marvelous almost always implicates strangeness, miraculousness, and curiousness, all of which often work as catalysts to tear us away from our usual relationship with the world, paving a way for seeing things from different perspectives.

We will "read" some of the symbols hidden in several well-known paintings of the 16th and 17th century in order to understand the messages these symbols convey to us. Deciphering each symbol using little-known primary sources will give you an impression of how blind we are to the symbols which artists embedded in their works. In this way, we will encounter the marvelous as Europeans in the 16th-17th century might have done.

Key Features

"Ach Erlebnis," a technical psychological term, refers to the sudden recognition of a fact, which one has not noticed before in familiar things. I had this type of enlightening experience when I deciphered a Latin inscription on a small piece of paper attached to a wall in Domenico Ghirlandaio's portrait of a young woman. The scroll reads, "Art, if only you could portray [her] habits and spirit, no picture on earth would be more beautiful than this." (Ars utinam mores animumque effigere posses pulchrior in terris nulla tabella foret).


This epigram, particularly its latter half, suggests that the painter should be confident of his skills in depicting the sitter. While I was searching for classical sources of love emblem books in the seventeenth century, I noticed that the inscription is mainly based upon a passage from a poem of Martial, a Roman poet in the first century AD.

There the lyrical poet was discussing, in a brief, witty epigram, a portrait of his friend, which was drawn many years before. While contemplating the youth reflected in the face of his portrayed friend, he expressed a wish that his friend would remain as young as the one depicted there. He continued, saying that if the skill of the painter could provide for his aged friend the youthfulness conveyed in the picture it should give honor to the picture as the most beautiful one ever drawn in this world.

Ghirlandaio's adaptation of Martial's poem is more than meets the eye. The young lady in the portrait was already deceased when he was asked to draw this painting. Her youth as depicted here remains unchanged, at least in the minds of those people who knew her. In this way the painter is successful in fulfilling the wish, which the Roman poet yearned for in the portrait of his friend. Moreover, two brooches with pearls and a ruby, one on her bosom and the other on the shelf behind her, show her penchant for noble elegance. A book of hours on the same shelf and a string of coral beads hanging from another shelf allude to piousness in her character. Thus Ghirlandaio also answered the wish of the poet to portray the "habits and spirit" of the person depicted.

Painters used to be considered to belong to a class of manual laborers in the middle ages in Europe, but that rather contemptuous view came to be combined with respect for their creative genius in fourteenth-century Italy. Ghirlandaio, as an acclaimed painter of that age, seemed to make an effort to ensure that painters would be more honored than was customary, since they were able to create the most beautiful works of art on earth. Thus the brief note in the painting may reveal many issues hidden at first glance.

I have had this type of "Ach Erlebnis" with many other pictures, other fine art, and literary works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I always consider sharing and reliving this experience with my students in my class as part of my task as a teacher. I am hoping you will find joy in the experience and also find your own way of discovering hidden things through which to experience "Ach Erlebnis" for yourself on many occasions.

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Course Objective / Aims

"We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror" is a pithy aphorism which Marshal McLuhan gave to people faced with a totally new situation. It even applies in ordinary circumstances, since everything is constantly changing in this world and we are always destined to encounter something new. To understand the meaning of what is happening around us, we need to grasp what happened in the past and view the present in relation to that past. Without a diachronic perspective we will be easily overwhelmed by what is imminently pressing upon us, and lose our capacity to deal with things effectively.

We will study some major changes in the worldviews caused by the Printing Revolution and their impact upon 16th-17th European culture. We will also study the earnest interest of the Europeans in the marvelous or the wondrous, which emerged in the late 15th century and later developed throughout the 17th century.

Course Requirements

It is desirable that this course be taken throughout the two consecutive semesters.

Lesson Methods and Program

This is a lecture course, but your active participation is extremely important, since you will be asked to think over several key questions I propose and then express your own ideas or opinions on these matters in class. You are required to take during the semester three quizzes to ascertain how far you have understood the content of the lectures and the textbook. You are also required to submit two short essays (2000 words) on the themes I will give during the semester.

The following is the title of each lecture for this semester.

[First Semester (a)]

  1. The Under-Appreciated Cultural Revolution
  2. Two Stages of Renaissance
  3. The Printing Revolution and the Religious Revolution in Biblical Exegesis
  4. The Book of Nature within Printed Books and the Birth of a Knowledge Community
  5. No Copernican Revolution without the Printing Revolution
  6. The Bible and Nature Changed by Printing Technology

[Second Semester (b)]

  1. The Birth of the Marvelous and Freudian Psychology
  2. Artificial Wonders at the Court of Maximilian I
  3. The Marvelous from the Late Antiquities
  4. Art and Nature Opposed
  5. Wonder and Curiosity Allied


Class Participation (35%), Quizzes (35%), and Essays (30%)

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Page last updated December 6, 2011

The class contents were most recently updated on the date indicated. Please be aware that there may be some changes between the most recent year and the current page.

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