Response: Nihil sub Sole Novum.

Author:Cole, Michael
 
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In the field of Renaissance art history, we can usually assign makers' names to works, and so we do: we avail ourselves of biographical information of a sort that would, for earlier periods, be unimaginable, and we insert the objects we study into stories of their makers' lives. Our field also provides an unusually rich documentation about how things were made; its wealth of writings about everything from the techniques and technologies of the workshop to the principles of design and composition tempt us to think back from works to their production, to see the object as the result of a vividly knowable operation. We can even aspire to drawing the very words we bring to art from a vintage language of making, one devoted already in the period to the manners and modes of visual expression: the Renaissance was the first moment to see concepts like "hand" and "school," even "style," applied to visual works, the first period to fashion artists themselves by mythologizing their real or imagined activities. For these reasons and others, it can seem almost natural to approach Renaissance artifacts with what Nagel and Wood call a "performative" theory of origin. And precisely because the material itself seems to invite this, we too seldom reflect on the art historical habits that Nagel and Wood acutely characterize.

The fact that Nagel and Wood must resurrect Erwin Panofsky to find a worthy interlocutor suggests that what they present is not just a new theory but an almost forgotten question. If we agree, moreover, that historians of Renaissance art, despite Panofsky's example, seldom question the basis of the periodization that defines their field, it will come as little surprise that in seeking comparanda for their own model, Nagel and Wood look especially to areas of study that, in part out of necessity, cast their own objects in a different light. More specifically, what Nagel and Wood at least sometimes seem to advocate is that we look at our materials as a medievalist might. This comes through in their recommendations for further reading (Richard Krautheimer, Mary Carruthers, Cyril Mango). It also echoes in a number of their sharpest formulations. Reading that "the dominant metaphor" in the substitution model "is that of the impress or the cast," for example, I could not help but think of Gerhard Wolf's recent book, Schleier und Spiegel, which explores the way that Renaissance conceptions of the picture depended on but also departed from medieval ideas about the image of Christ--especially the vera icon, or "true image," the face left on the veil that Saint Veronica laid against it. One of the things that intrigues Wolf is how in the years leading up to the Renaissance, the notion of the "original" that the vera icon exemplified began to change: continued reverence for and copying of the sudarium notwithstanding, artists gradually began to move their own work, composed in the head or in the heart, into the position of the Urbild, or prototype. (1) Wolf's book, in turn, is most pointedly in dialogue with Hans Belting's Bild und Kult (translated into English as Likeness and Presence), a survey that describes itself as "a history of the image before the era of art." The scope of Belting's study is somewhat broader than Wolf's, but here, too, the manufactured object is frequently counterposed to the replica--the idea, as Nagel and Wood elegantly put it, of "types associated with mythical, dimly perceived origin and enforcing general structural or categorical continuity across sequences of tokens." Consider how Belting taxonomizes the earliest prints: on the one hand, there was the mass-produced devotional image, "a substitute or derivative that spoke not with its own voice but with the voice of its model"; on the other, the sheet that explored new compositions, above all, the engraving, which "soon became an opportunity to demonstrate technical virtuosity and thematic inventiveness." (2) Or again, here in more dialectical fashion, witness the way Belting thinks about Netherlandish panel painting: "It is not an invention," he writes of a Madonna and Child in Kansas City often attributed to Hayne of Brussels, "but repeats the very type on which its cult value depended. At the same time, however, it is a product by the hand of an eminent painter, whose technique and style determined its artistic value." (3) One gets the impression that for Belting...

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