Response: historia and anachronism in Renaissance art.

Author:Dempsey, Charles

Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood have presented what is clearly the prolegomenon to a much larger study in which they attempt to retheorize phenomena that have, in fact, in one way or another, received a great deal of attention from art historians at least since Aby Warburg pointed out that in the fifteenth century "the antique as a source of poised and measured beauty--the hallmark of its influence as we have known it since Winckelmann--still counted for comparatively little" and asked his famous question of what then was it about antiquity that "interested" artists of the period. (1) The question of itself acknowledges historical self-awareness by Renaissance artists vis-a-vis antiquity. Many historians (well before Erwin Panofsky) had agreed that a sense of historical distance from the classical past seems first to have appeared with Petrarch, who in 1341 wrote in his celebrated letter to Fra Giovanni Colonna (quoted by Patricia Fortini Brown as the prologue to her book Venice and Antiquity, significantly subtitled The Venetian Sense of the Past),

Our conversation was concerned largely with history, which we seem to have divided among us, I being more expert, it seemed, in the ancient, by which we meant the time before the Roman rulers celebrated and venerated the name of Christ, and you in recent times, by which we mean the time from then to the present. (2) Petrarch's notion of historical periods is broadly defined, to be sure, and he formulated it when the new age of the recovery of ancient texts was just beginning, which necessitated the humanist invention of the techniques of philology, or the study of language founded in historical principles. Absent such consciousness of history, Giorgio Vasari's conceptualization and periodization of the development of the arts in early modern Italy into three distinct periods succeeding a fourth, the maniera greca, would not have been possible. Like Lorenzo Ghiberti's before him, Vasari's ultimate point of departure was Pliny's account of the historical development, or progress, of ancient art. In this respect Nagel and Wood's polemic with Panofsky, the theme of the second half of their essay, seems too narrowly focused. So far as the arts are concerned, the roots of their complaint lie with Ghiberti, who had proudly made the setting for the ancient gemstone he thought to be the sigillum Neronis, and who in his Commentarii distinguished ancient achievement in the arts from the maniera greca that succeeded it, and further distinguished this from the modern era that commenced with Giotto and his followers. Above all, their quarrel is with Vasari.

What did the humanists actually see in their minds' eyes when reading the ancient authors? And what did artists look for when studying the ancient models? The classical prototype for Antonio Pisanello's famous drawing of dancing maenads is all but unrecognizable in the ill-proportioned and ungainly women he drew; the style of Bertoldo di Giovanni's bronze battle relief is far closer to Ghiberti's than to the marble sarcophagus on which it is actually modeled; and the young man in Benozzo Gozzoli's drawing of one of the Quirinal horse tamers evokes not Johann Joachim Winckelmann's noble simplicity and quiet grandeur so much as a teenage shop assistant, neither unhandsome nor out of the ordinary, who has shed his clothes in order to pose. For Warburg the answer to such questions was to be sought not only in art but also in contemporary art theory (Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo), literature (Politian and Luigi Pulci), and such vernacular expressions of popular culture as the celebration of civic rituals (the Festa di San Giovanni and Calendimaggio). In such contexts the figures of the past appeared "not as plaster casts but in person, as figures full of life and color,... the embodiment of antiquity as the early Renaissance saw it." (3) He offered as a prime example Baccio Baldini's engraving of Bacchus and Ariadne, in which the deities appear just as Florentines had actually witnessed them being enacted in the carnival festivities of 1490, for which Lorenzo de' Medici himself composed the immortal canto di carro, entitled the Canzona di Bacco, "Quant' e bella giovinezza." (4)

Warburg's argument has been often taken up, resisted by some and adapted by others, and in the past twenty years has been the subject of vividly renewed interest in Europe, resulting in a rapidly burgeoning bibliography by German, French, and Italian scholars. (5) I have myself tried to develop certain of his perceptions in case studies devoted to Sandro Botticelli's Primavera and Mars and Venus, among others, advancing the argument that in the Renaissance a literal "rebirth" of antiquity (and certainly not in the Winckelmannian sense) was never the central issue. (6) Save for a few humanist die-hards who insisted that vernacular expression was unworthy of comparison to the ancients, the far more complex ambition entailed a renovatio, a remaking of living culture by assimilating into it the more perfect forms of Greek and Roman civilizations, in art as well as in literature. In this way the living forms of the vernacular (which are the expressions of actual experience) might come to equal the achievements of the Greeks and Romans (which were, among other things, the expressions of history), or even to surpass them, as Vasari in fact believed Michelangelo had done.

Hans Belting's Likeness and Presence is a powerful recent contribution to the problems addressed by Nagel and Wood, and it is especially pertinent in that the material discussed is for the most part religious. Belting's point of departure is Walter Benjamin's celebrated formulation that two polarities in particular determine the reception of a work of art: its cult value, on the one hand (a notion adumbrated by Warburg's pioneering interest in art and ritual), and its value as an object for exhibition, on the other. (7) Belting posits a medieval concept of the image (Bild), which has its own history that develops and changes over time but which on another level paradoxically remains always the same. He suggests that the age of the cult image, or icon, was gradually superseded by the era of art (Kunst), originating in the Renaissance and lasting down to the present day, when "art took on a different meaning and became acknowledged for its own sake--art as invented by a famous artist and defined by a proper theory." (8) Belting's concept of Kunst encompasses what Nagel and Wood call the performative principle, not really by analogy with J. L. Austin's notion of a speech act, but according to which each work of art is understood to be the creation of an auctor, and what they call "the product of a singular historical performance." Equally, Belting's concept of Bild, by which he means a holy image (or icon), embraces what our authors call the principle of substitution, defined by them as sequential "reinstantiation," or the making of "modern copies of painted icons ... understood as effective surrogates for lost originals...."

Nagel and Wood's substitution principle would seem to me better exemplified by tracing the historical fortunes of two images in particular, the vera icon and the Man of Sorrows. (9) Both were extremely popular, often repeated in art over a long period of time. Belting (followed in this respect by Joseph Koerner in his absorbing discussion of Albrecht Durer's Self-Portrait in Munich (10)) took them as prime exemplars of an evolving theory, preceding and continuing into the era of art, of an image that could simultaneously be understood as a cult object and as embodying an aesthetic of its own. Each takes its origin from a heavily indulgenced icon preserved in one of the pilgrimage churches in Rome, the former the sudarium of Veronica in St. Peter's and the latter a Byzantine icon in S. Croce in Gerusalemme that was said to record a vision of Christ granted to Saint Gregory the Great. All later depictions of the two themes explicitly refer to these two cult prototypes, for which they effectively stand as substitutes, even as it can be said (as per Nagel and Wood's argument) that most also exemplify the "performative principle." Durer's Sudarium Held by Two Angels and Domenico Fetti's Sudarium of Veronica in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, are both exquisite singular performances by an auctor. So, too, are depictions of the Man of Sorrows by artists as diverse as Lorenzo...

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