Tuesday, February 4, 2014


680 large-format double-column pages printed on glossy, coated paper produce a book too heavy for carrying around casually. A New History of Italian Renaissance Art from Thames & Hudson has stayed in one place  on my desk at home  for the past several weeks and will surely be there for the next several. This allows me to read it in small chunks at every sedentary opportunity.

This is one early attempt at a comprehensive retelling of the traditional Renaissance art-story – a story that was in fact popularized mainly by the Victorians. They were the ones to set the shape of art history as a progressive succession of independent genius-artists. Stephen J. Campbell and Michael W. Cole have managed to produce a single volume that knocks that viewpoint aside  Rather than emphasizing artists’ biographies, this new account concentrates on the works, discussing the means of production; the places for which images were made; the concerns of patrons; and the expectations and responses of the works’ first viewers. 

Chapter 14, for example, starts out by demolishing the term Mannerism, still in general use when talking about 16th century Italian art (and a term I have casually used myself, both here and here)  

"A term that recurs in discussions of art from the 1520s onward is maniera. The word (the root of which is mano, or "hand") can be translated straightforwardly as "style." Viewers understood all of the major artists to have cultivated an individual maniera that other artists, especially those who were more junior or less gifted, could take up. Yet maniera also had another meaning: "stylishness" or "extreme refinement," which stood as one of the chief goals of art in Rome after the death of Raphael. Because of the preoccupation with maniera in both senses, some more recent writers have applied the term "Mannerism" to Italian artists who followed Raphael and Michelangelo. If we use this label today, we must do so with extreme caution: first, artists preoccupied with maniera did not employ a single style or set of characteristics, or even a common aesthetic attitude: we could associate the idea with painters as different as Jacopo Pontormo [above] and Giulio Romano [below]. Second, the term "Mannerist" originated as a pejorative label, intended to convey a negative judgment about this entire generation. The scholars who invented the category regarded art after Raphael as a decline into bad taste or the perversion of an original standard of perfection. The English word "mannerism" predominantly means "affectation," and to call a certain art "Mannerist" can simply mean that it looks "affected"  though this is to apply a historically inappropriate standard of judgment."