What International Law can learn from the Renaissance

A very interesting discussion on treaty interpretation is ongoing at Opinio Juris, in particular, over textual vs contextual interpretation and the use of travaux preparatoires of treaties. The discussion has, so far, culminated in an intriguing post by Duncan Hollis, “Art and the Auto-Interpretation of Treaties”. (See http://opiniojuris.org/2009/03/03/art-and-auto-interpretation-of-treaties/)


He asks, “(s)imply put, I wonder what the artistic axiom — that beauty lies in the art of the beholder — does for our art of treaty interpretation.   What constitutes a “good” interpretation of a treaty may be as difficult to agree upon as what constitutes good “art.”  Indeed, I see the question of the continuing salience of Prof. McDougal’s work (or the concept of textuality raised by Professor van Damme) as essentially a debate over which treaty interpretation techniques we should celebrate and which we should disapprove.  We might analogize it to debates among various schools of art.  Do we consider photorealism (i.e., textualism) to be better than abstract art (i.e., the New Haven School)?  Or, is the answer somewhere in between a la impressionism (i.e., the VCLT rule)?”


This statement reminds me of something I once wondered about the Italian Renaissance. During that period, many scientific breakthroughs took place in the shadow of developments in art. Brunelleschi’s design of the Dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, at that time the largest self supporting brick dome in the world, was a scientific as well as an artistic marvel. Similarly, the work of Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelango speak volumes of the connection between artistic endeavor and scientific discovery. What can the “science” of treaty interpretation learn from the “art” of treaty interpretation? Or are they mutually exclusive enterprises?



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