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The Passionate Triangle

Triangles abounded in the intellectual culture of early modern Europe—the Christian Trinity was often mapped as a triangle, for instance, and perspective, a characteristic artistic technique, is based on a triangular theory of vision. Renaissance artists, for their part, often used shapes and lines to arrange figures into a triangle on the surface of a painting—a practice modern scholars call triangular composition. But is there secret meaning in the triangular arrangements artists used, or just a pleasing symmetry? What do triangles really tell us about the European Renaissance and its most beguiling works of art?

In this book, Rebecca Zorach takes us on a lively hunt for the triangle’s embedded significance. From the leisure pursuits of Egyptian priests to Jacopo Tintoretto’s love triangles, Zorach explores how the visual and mathematical properties of triangles allowed them to express new ideas and to inspire surprisingly intense passions. Examining prints and paintings as well as literary, scientific, and philosophical texts, The Passionate Triangle opens up an array of new ideas, presenting unexpected stories of the irrational, passionate, melancholic, and often erotic potential of mathematical thinking before the Scientific Revolution.

280 pages | 8 color plates, 86 halftones | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | © 2011

Art: European Art

History: History of Ideas

Religion: Christianity


“Rebecca Zorach’s erudite study of a symbolic form is neither a structuralist undertaking nor a treatise in philosophical idealism. Rather, it is an inspired intellectual and cultural history of a pictorial idea. As she demonstrates, the many manifestations of that idea widely inflect our understanding of late medieval and Renaissance thought.”

Peter Parshall, National Gallery of Art

“We think we know the Renaissance triangle, the basic form of High Renaissance composition—or so we’ve been told—an expression of the order that reigned supreme in the art of the period. The Passionate Triangle quite literally turns this familiar figure on its head. Zorach reveals the political and social forces that found ideal expression in the triangle and the agency embodied in abstract form and suggests that our understanding of Renaissance subjectivity is not triangular enough. The Passionate Triangle is ambitious, and it is exciting. At stake here is nothing less than a new model for the writing of art history itself.”

Anne Dunlop, Tulane University

The Passionate Triangle goes beyond stylistic analysis, social history, and the hermeneutics of self-referentiality to provide a powerful and original model of the relation of images, their makers, and their beholders in the Renaissance. While poststructuralist accounts of perspective have understood the geometrical mapping of vision in terms of subject-object relations, Zorach lays out a daring analysis of how the geometric formations of perspective vision can be understood as triangulations of rivalry and desire involving artist, spectator, and the object itself. Her work radically remaps the geographical, methodological, and disciplinary contours of the history of Renaissance art and sets the agenda for what a reinvigorated Renaissance studies might look like in the (hopefully near) future.”

Stephen Campbell, Johns Hopkins University

“What is so pleasing about The Passionate Triangle is the way that the geometry of looking is convincingly linked to all sorts of social, psychological, and theological configurations. The triangle is an unexpected subject for a book on Renaissance art, and a key part of the text’s value is its originality of approach. Zorach transforms what seems early on to be a large collection of triangles plotted onto Renaissance imagery into a thought-provoking reevaluation of the relationship between subjectivity and image-making. It’s great to see a book that asks such large questions and uses images so suggestively.”

Jill Burke, University of Edinburgh

 “While Zorach writes in a flowing and at times almost conversational style, her work grapples with complex, erudite, and challenging ideas. . . . Both informative and thought-provoking. The Passionate Triangle has important implications for how we understand subjectivity as well as painting during the Renaissance. For students and scholars of Italian Renaissance art, The Passionate Triangle is not to be missed.”


 “Insofar as Zorach causes us to rethink a central aspect of Renaissance art, the book must be considered a real achievement.”

Oxford Art Journal

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Chapter 1         The Passionate Triangle
Chapter 2         The Triangles of Perspective
Chapter 3         The Triangle and the Trinity
Chapter 4         Equality, Hierarchy, and the Birth of Triangular Composition
Chapter 5         A Flood of Tears
Chapter 6         The Third Place and the World
Chapter 7         Jealous Geometries
Epilogue in the Female Eye

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