Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2000
Leonard Barkan Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture Yale University Press, 2000. 512 pp.; 206 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0300076770)
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Sometime in the year 1512, the remains of a fallen obelisk were discovered by a barber digging a latrine near the church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome. Thanks to a detailed account in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, the monument was almost immediately recognized as the obelisk raised by the Emperor Augustus as the gnomon of a gigantic sundial in the Campus Martius. The Bellunese humanist Laelius Podager confirmed the identification by reading the Augustan inscription on the obelisk’s base. Applications were made to Pope Julius II to excavate the monument and erect it in its former place, but the pope, Laelius reports, was “too distracted by his wars,” and the barber, running out of patience, had this “miracle of antiquity” buried again (until its second resurrection in 1748).

In contrast to the pope’s (apparent) disinterest in the obelisk, consider the clamorous reception that greeted the discovery of the famous Laocoön group, unearthed on the presumed site of the “Baths of Titus” on January 14, 1506. News of the discovery swept across the city to Pope Julius II, who sent the architect and antiquities expert Giuliano da Sangallo to evaluate the find, accompanied by his son Francesco and their dinner guest, Michelangelo Buonarroti. After an examination of the partly buried sculpture, Giuliano declared it was none other than the “Laocoön, of which Pliny speaks!” The group was almost immediately purchased by the pope, who installed it in the Vatican Belvedere by June of that year. Jacopo Sadoleto lauded the discovery as a sign of the resurrection of Rome’s past glory “from heaped-up mound of earth and the heart of mighty ruins” to “see the stronghold of Rome’s second life.”

Two monuments rescued from the Roman earth, both identified as celebrated works described by Pliny. One was fated to be ignored and reburied (for a time), while the other was triumphantly rescued, restored, and displayed in the palace of the popes. Variations on these fates were re-enacted countless times in the Rome of the Renaissance. The response to a specific category of these monuments, ancient sculpture, is the subject of Leonard Barkan’s important new book. Barkan, Professor of English and Fine Arts at New York University, has published an important study of the “afterlife” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, Yale University Press, 1987), a theme appropriate to the transformations and shifts of identity that inform the present work, which marks a decisive move into the field of visual culture.

The scope of Barkan’s investigation is determinedly “classical,” by which I mean that he focuses exclusively on the early modern response to sculptural works in the classical (Greek and Roman) tradition. My example of the “reburied” obelisk, therefore, plays no role in his account, nor do any of the numerous specimens of Egyptian sculpture in Rome. Barkan’s decision to favor the classical contributes to the clarity of his presentation, but tends to obscure the fact that the Renaissance conception of “antiquity” was, in many respects, more “multi-cultural” than his book would suggest.

Barkan opens (as is virtually required nowadays) with an introductory discussion of the scope of the work and his methodology and influences, from Warburg to Foucault. His approach is anything but dogmatic, and may be said to invite and embrace the multivalence and complexity inherent in his subject. Chapter 1 begins with the emblematic discovery of the Laocoön, which Barkan recognizes as both exemplary of “rediscovery” and anomalous in both its celebrity and forest of documentation. The author observes that while hundreds of ancient pieces were rising from the earth of the ancient city, this phenomenon did not “give rise” to the “professional enterprise of archaeology as such,” which had to wait “another two centuries” to be born (18-19). Admitting (but characteristically evading) the possibility of social explanations, Barkan concludes that, for the Renaissance, “discoveries of ancient statues had to be accidental, because the objects would lose something of their authenticity if they were procured as the result of aggressive and individualistic industry” (19). This is an intriguing notion, but I would note that the theme of “accidental discovery” is hardly unique to this period. From children’s discoveries of Paleolithic cave paintings to the “accidental” revelation of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the “chance” find has remained a cornerstone of the “romance” of archaeology at least since the Renaissance (and probably before). Indeed, one suspects that some “accidental” discoveries of the Renaissance were in fact the product of well informed and deliberate operations by stonecutters and other “professionals” who knew where the goods could be found.

Barkan’s vivid account of the discovery of the “miraculously” preserved body of a Roman girl on the Via Appia in 1485, and her subsequent display on the Campidoglio (57-63), exemplifies the fascination of discovery and impulse to identify rediscovered antiquities that are the author’s principal theme. That the body was not itself a sculpture, but a marvelously lifelike corpse, neatly underlines the cultural importance of the body (whole and in parts) as the primary subject of classical sculpture, while contemporary attempts to identify the girl as a specific historical person (such as Cicero’s daughter) echo Renaissance efforts to establish the identity (artist, subject, etc.) of ancient statues.

In the second chapter, Barkan explores the impact of Pliny the Elder’s “authoritative” text on Renaissance attitudes and identifications of what were, for the most part, anonymous and fragmentary works of ancient art. The “testimony” of Pliny was invoked by writers from Ghiberti to Vasari as a certification of authenticity and quality, even in cases where the connection was elusive, at best. Conversely, Barkan points to cases where Pliny’s information was ignored when it might have had something helpful to contribute (105-16). The author’s consideration of the broader hermeneutic problem of the fragment (Chapter 3) guides the reader through a maze of interpretive and visual ambiguities that climax with a thoughtful interpretation of Michelangelo’s nonfinito as a “real expression” of early modern culture’s receptiveness to the “open” forms of fragmentary works (and ruins) that “admit the historical imagination as a genuinely collaborative force” (205-7).

Barkan’s discussion of the fragment leads logically to the subject of “reconstructions” (Chapter 4). Here the emblematic figure is the fragmentary sculpture-group known as Pasquino. Each year, on the feast day of St. Mark (April 25), this truncated fragment was dressed up (in a sense, “restored”) as a different mythological figure. But Pasquino was even more famous for the satirical verses (aimed at the papal court and other Roman authorities) that were attached to his base by anonymous authors who spoke with Pasquino’s “voice” (as is still done today, sometimes with crudely applied spray-paint). Barkan is especially brilliant in his treatment of the shifting identities of Pasquino and the other “speaking” sculptures, including, on the “upper end” of the cultural-political scale, the Belvedere Cleopatra. This colossal reclining figure, whose multiple personae (as sleeping nymph and defeated but “triumphal” queen) are subjected to a dazzling investigation of interweaving literary and visual sources and/or responses that “illustrate a range of discursive systems for weaving the past into the present” (xxxi).

The final chapter considers the impact of the antique on the Renaissance artist, and on the art and “professional identity” of one artist in particular, Baccio Bandinelli. Bandinelli is characterized (once again) as the unequal rival of Michelangelo and Cellini, an anxious figure whose appeals to the authority of the antique cast him into a kind of professional purgatory of imitation and competition with ancient and contemporary models. There is much to admire in Barkan’s close and (at times) sympathetic investigation of Bandinelli’s self-fashioning as a master of antiquity at a moment when the authority of these models had come under attack (from religious reformers and critics hostile to Medicean authority).

Barkan’s study is a welcome addition to a recent trend in Renaissance studies, exemplified by the work of Ingrid Rowland, Philip Jacks, Anthony Grafton, and others, that considers the early modern “revival of antiquity” from a variety of new vantage points. Given its learning, originality, and intellectual generosity, it may seem unfair to carp at what Barkan does not consider in this monumental work. One theme that seems to be underdeveloped is the function of possession or ownership in the “cultural life” of these objects. Barkan acknowledges the authority granted to the famous statues in the papal collection at the Belvedere, and recognizes the “momentous shift” in meaning that accompanied Sixtus IV’s transfer of the Lateran bronzes to the Campidoglio and the “Roman people” in 1471 (53). But the broader implications of ownership and the attendant associations with patronage and “cultural capital” are neglected. The distinction that even the most fleeting association with these works might grant to a wealthy, if otherwise “ordinary” citizen is illustrated by the case of Felice de Fredis, owner of the vigna where the Laocoön was discovered, a distinction commemorated on his burial tablet in S. Maria in Aracoeli. For the great, the near great, and even the humblest denizen of Rome, the encounter with antiquity was (and remains) a simultaneously commonplace and transformative experience. Leonard Barkan’s fine study captures the essence of this experience, and in the process, enhances our understanding of this fascinating aspect of Renaissance (and contemporary) culture.

Brian A. Curran
Department of Art History, Pennsylvania State University

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