Crossing the Picture: Theories and Genealogies of Environmental Images

Donate to CA

The free access to this article was made possible by support from readers like you. Please consider donating any amount to help defray the cost of our operation.

Crossing the Picture: Theories and Genealogies of Environmental Images


Antonio Lorenzo Sartori

Summary of At the Threshold of the Image: From Narcissus to Virtual Reality by Andrea Pinotti

Andrea Pinotti, All Soglia Dell’Immagine. Da Narciso all Realtà Virtuale (Einaudi, Turin, 2021), 256 pp., in Italian. ISBN 978-8806244422


The day is beautiful. The thick branches of the trees filter a ray of sun that refracts on the gravel next to your feet. There is a light wind, you inhale and – despite the clear sky – you perceive the sweetly childish taste of rain in the air: perhaps it rained last night. In the distance, you catch a glimpse of a cat and begin to emit strange sounds to attract it. It is a sphinx. You decide to take the steps of the mountain and go towards Muhammad – who does not even look at you now, intent on cleaning himself. You are advancing, and suddenly you realize that you are hallucinating: the world begins to fade; its image is now covered by strange lines and gradually slips away, leaving behind only a black-and-white video of your living room – the one you thought you had left a moment ago – where your partner looks at you strangely due to the sounds you emitted a few moments before. You take off the blazing Meta Quest 2, the VR headset you are wearing, and realize that it is really raining outside and the air you felt came from there. Everything else was just an image.

But can we really say that all of this was just an image? Normally, images are believed to be looked at, but is this always the case? Is it possible that sometimes, rather than being an object located within the world, images make a world of their own, becoming passable places where you can enter and exit at will? These are the questions that the project of an eco-iconology – a science of environmental images – should answer.

An eco-iconology is ideally composed of a theoretical part and a more historical or archaeological one. Pinotti, following the works produced within the framework of the ERC Advanced Grant “AN-ICON. An-Iconology: History, Theory and Practices of Environmental Images,” aims to follow both directions. The short but rich prologue lays the theoretical foundations of the research undertaken throughout the volume, which are then deepened over the course of the seven chapters that make up the book. Within these, the investigation is more directed towards a historical reconstruction of the practices and concepts that make up the scope of what the author calls an-icons, a term already introduced in previous articles.[1]

Before addressing what an an-icon is, it is appropriate to first define what icons are, or at least what makes them differ from an-icons. The question is quickly stated, right from the first line of the volume: if an image is canonically defined in Alberti’s De Pictura (1435), as a) a mimesis’ product, b) a result of a massive work of mediation, and c) something strictly framed, then an an-icon will be the exact opposite of all this: an image that is directly present or actual (not representative), immediate (not mediated), and unframed.

An-icon images are those that become a world, or at least try to. They try to present themselves as actual, to offer a world within which they give affordances and possibilities of action (presence) – and they do so by trying to deny their own nature as images, as objects resulting from massive theoretical work (immediacy). They also try to deny the possibility of conceiving an off-frame, by overflowing the image into the world until it coincides with it, thereby depriving the spectator, or the prosumer, of the whole world of the off-image.

Of course, an-icons live only in the failure of their integral dream: an-icons cannot make a world of themselves precisely because, despite everything, they are icons. In fact, they are still always framed, even if the frame hides outside our field of vision, as in VR helmets, and heavily mediated. The an-iconological aspect of any possible image, therefore, has nothing to do with the ontological status of the aforementioned image, but rather with its phenomenological characteristics: they are images; however, they phenomenologically deny themselves as such.

However, what does it mean that an-icons are images but do not show themselves as such? Does this showing have to do with the ontological status of the an-icon or is it only produced by the intentional act of the subject? And, in this second case, which seems to me to represent the answer closest to the meaning of the text, could it not then be said that potentially every image is an an-icon, if intentioned by the subject as immediate, present, and unframed (similarly to what Freedberg, at certain points in The Power of Images, seems to assume)? Perhaps an-icons are just privileged territories for such an intentional act to arise? And finally, what kind of intentional act would we be talking about? These questions remain open.

Nevertheless, the fact that these questions are not answered perhaps is not such a big issue. In fact, Alla Soglia dell’Immagine is more a genealogical book than a purely theoretical one. It is possible that soon new books on the theme, focusing more on the theoretical aspects, will be published; until then, there are at least two reasons why the notion of an-icon is already important. The first one is because it unitarily describes a class of images that before has been looked at only by separate approaches, such as the ones of Bildwissenschaft and Visual Culture, and of Cinema Studies or even Critical Theory. One can think of Freedberg’s powerful images and Bredepkamp’s looking images, but also of Ejzenstejn Stereokino, Barjavel’s Cinema Total, or Baudrillard and Stoichita’s Simulacra.

The second reason is that understanding an-icons as environmental images, as mentioned before, allows to expand the territory of Immersive Images Studies, tracing a genealogy that dates back to the origin of Western culture and maybe even earlier. In fact, Pinotti divides his work into seven chapters, each dedicated to researching the origins of an-icons according to specific approaches. The underlying idea is that the topoi of immersiveness and environmentalization of the image, which have dominated the aesthetic scene in many forms for decades, from performative art to video art and even virtual reality art, are deeply rooted at least in Western culture and perhaps even in the dimension of the human being in a broader sense. Consider the history of art – for instance, think of the Camera dei Giganti at Palazzo Te or the Mise-en-Abyme technique – and the myths that speak of art and artists, from Narcissus, as a proto-immersive figure, to Galatea in the Pygmalion’s studio, or the painting competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius and  the ancient Chinese stories of painters that resurfaced in Europe between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Following this thesis, Pinotti delves deeply into Western culture, bringing to light an ample casuistry and pushing himself towards the exciting question, destined to remain such, until the end of the pages of the text in question, about a “possible evolutionary usefulness and adaptive function ascribable to this lingering on the threshold between image and reality.”

“Alla Soglia dell’Immagine” is a dense and articulate work, but entirely clear in the themes it presents, and thus proves to be a perfect book for anyone academically involved in the history and philosophy of images, and also for anyone curious to investigate the different hidden genealogies underlying immersive images – images that Pinotti demonstrates to be much more than a recent phenomenon.


Antonio Lorenzo Sartori

Antonio Lorenzo Sartori is a Master’s student in philosophical sciences at Milan State University (Università degli Studi di Milano).

Published on June 20, 2023.

Cite this article: Antonio Lorenzo Sartori, “Crossing the Picture: Theories and Genealogies of Environmental Images,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Namely, “Self-Negating Images: Towards An-Iconology,” Proceedings 1 (9), 2017: 856 and “Towards An-Iconology: Images as Environment,” Screen 61 (4), 2020: 594-603.