Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 1999
Ingrid Rowland The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 446 pp.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $74.95 (0521581451)

Ingrid Rowland’s new book is an ambitious attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of cultural developments in Rome in the years around 1500. Her principal focus is humanism—antiquarian scholarship and Latin rhetoric—but she is able to integrate this recondite material with a consideration of politics at the papal court, the world of finance, and the visual arts. All this is set, in turn, against the turbulent, colorful background of everyday life. Rowland combines impressively wide-ranging erudition with a lively prose style, and the result is wonderfully readable: the way in which high scholarship is seasoned with amusing anecdote is reminiscent of the work of Anthony Grafton.

The account is built around the author’s earlier work on the curial humanist Angelo Colocci, the textual tradition of Vitruvius, and the banker Agostino Chigi. To this armature is added a good deal of material drawn from the work of other scholars—John O’Malley’s on the theologian Egidius of Viterbo, John D’Amico’s on the humanist Paolo Cortesi, for instance—but there are also new tidbits sprinkled throughout and even the treatment of familiar subjects is usually enlivened by new insights. A remarkable cast of characters emerges from the crepuscular world of specialty literature: it includes the Classicist Pomponio Leto, who seems to have written nothing, yet managed to exert a strong influence on everyone around him; the great orator and ecclesiastical bureaucrat Tommaso Inghirami; and the dazzling but erratic minstrel Serafino Aquilano. Though Annius of Viterbo, best known for his archaeological forgeries, has received a good deal of attention in recent years, Rowland’s treatment of him is interestingly nuanced; there is a perceptive reading of that oft-cited, but little-understood text, the Hypnerotomachia Polifili, and her discussion of a rare verse pamphlet on ancient ruins is illuminated by the brilliant suggestion that its author is none other than Bramante.

Apart from the Vitruvius material, art historians are unlikely to be satisfied by her discussion of the things that most concern them. The section on the Borgia Apartments is largely derivative; its selectivity also makes it a little hard to follow, in part because there are only two illustrations—three if one includes the dust jacket. The treatment of the Sistine Ceiling is even sketchier, and culminates in an attenuated parallel between Michelangelo’s image of God creating the sun and moon and Colocci’s studies of ancient Roman units of measure. The treatment of Raphael is disappointing despite a couple of valuable observations: most irritating of all is the interpretation of the Vatican Logge, which is made to hinge on a single detail of the fictive architecture. Though art is not the primary subject of the book, it plays a more important role than such casual treatment supports.

The real achievement of the book is the case it makes for the importance of humanism. By contextualizing classical scholarship the way she does, Rowland is able to show how it actually operated in the cultural life of a specific historical moment, and that it was indeed a force in the world, an arena in which significant things occurred. With this particular perspective she is able to show how humanist values were practically assimilable to an idealistic, reform-oriented Catholicism; she also demonstrates how humanism engaged scientific as well as literary and historical interests. The relation between humanism and mercantilism is explored less systematically, but insightfully and suggestively nevertheless. These are not inconsiderable scholarly accomplishments.

Yet the focus on Rome and the emphasis on the period of Alexander VI and Julius II also works against the larger case for humanism. Some earlier developments are not given the attention they demand: Florentine Neoplatonism gets honorable mention, but Pico della Mirandola’s effort to reconcile all known philosophical systems is at least as ambitious and significant a cultural project as anything conceived under Julius. Alberti’s study of ancient ruins and his interest in mapping the ancient city are not discussed at all. If the book detaches the two decades around 1500 from what preceded them, however, it also overdraws the rupture that followed: the reign of Leo X is represented as an age of decadence, in which the high idealism of the preceding years suddenly gives way to a diffuse and superficial worldliness. Latin studies degenerate into a formulaic conformism under the influence of Pietro Bembo. The disturbing thing about this thesis is that it is so old-fashioned: the demonization of Bembo has been one of the recurrent motifs of Renaissance studies since at least the nineteenth century, when he was accused of having single-handedly killed Italian literature. Rowland takes elaborate pains to distinguish Bembo from his older counterpart Inghirami, yet no matter what one may think of the style of his sermons, Inghirami was a devout Ciceronian, and had much more in common with Bembo than not.

Rowland’s idealization of the period of Julius II rubs off on her discussion of art. Concluding her account of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, for instance, she claims that “such an outlay of ingenuity would never have happened had not the patron himself captured [Raphael’s] interest; Raphael could never bring himself to do anything nearly so complex for Leo X” (p. 239). She seems to have forgotten about the Sistine Chapel tapestry cartoons, an artistic achievement of the very highest order, in which the fusion of apostolic ideals with those of classical ethics is celebrated in a style that set new standards of purity, dignity, and magnificence—a style often compared to Bembo’s Latin.

Perhaps Rowland’s most interesting idea—or perhaps just the one with the most potential interest to art historians—is that the Roman High Renaissance was distinguished by a concern with modi e ordini, with ways and methods over and above particular ends. The study of the ancient world was never purely antiquarian, but ultimately motivated by a desire to find the best way of doing things, to mobilize the wisdom of the past in the creation of something new and universal. Yet this was not the project of Julian Rome alone, but of humanism as a whole; one might even argue that the perfection of modi e ordini was the specific competence of “art” as it came to be redefined in the course of the Renaissance. Yet when Rowland applies her insight to the discussion of art, the most she says is this:

Raphael’s own painting of the period not only shows his awareness that maniera was subject to individual variation but actively exploits the principle to expressive ends. Depending on context, he adopted a statuesque, marmorial style evocative of ancient sculpture or reverted to the more gentle lineaments of his Umbrian training. His Isaiah of 1512 bore the imprint of two further visual stimuli: the epic muscularity of Michelangelo’s newly unveiled Sistine Chapel ceiling and the soft, suggestive Venetian brushwork of Sebastiano del Piombo. As these various styles became more and more distinct in his art, they became as distinct as the “modes” of composition described by ancient rhetorical writers. (pp. 229-30)

Raphael was not the first artist to explore such stylistic range, nor was he the last. That his example became canonical, the model for all later academic practice, indicates that the pressures involved were not just specific to a particular moment, but far more profound: it argues against the nostalgic notion of an heroic period followed by an age of decadence. Much more could have been done—and needs to be done—with the modi e ordini idea, but it would require an approach more attentive to art and to the deeper relationship between art and humanism, as well as to the relation of representation in general to the other forces at work in early modern society.

Robert Williams
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara