Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 28, 2012
Marcia B. Hall The Sacred Image in the Age of Art: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, Caravaggio New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 352 pp.; 200 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300169676)

Marcia Hall has written a brave book that is even more sweeping in scope than the list of names in the subtitle suggests. Indeed, the first half of the book discusses the Council of Trent, fifteenth-century Florentine religious painting, the Venetian use of oil paint, the Reformation, Leonardo, Giorgione, Correggio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Mannerism, and Roman painting at the end of the century. The Sacred Image in the Age of Art, however, is not a survey, but a lucid argument, focusing on a few examples over this broad swathe of Renaissance art in order to explore a question of signal importance, namely, the status of the sacred image in relation to naturalism and to the increasingly self-conscious artistry of the Renaissance. Because of the broad scope, Hall’s book does not present newly discovered documentary evidence, but an original synthesis of issues that had been previously discussed separately, combined with a thoughtful close reading of the images, technical evidence about their execution, and written sources.

Hall begins with two events in 1563, the decrees of the Council of Trent and the foundation of the Accademia del Disegno, in order to encapsulate neatly the problem, before turning back to the early fifteenth century. She builds upon this framework in the second half of the book in order to give a new account of art in Italy during the early Counter Reformation, focusing polemically not on the reactionary painters that worked in Rome generally associated with the Counter Reformation, such as Scipione Pulzone, but on Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, and Caravaggio. Some previous scholars have seen these luminaries as rebels, heretics who refused to conform to the increasingly rigid proscriptions of the Council of Trent. Hall instead explores the signal success of these painters in responding to the new need for affective religious painting. This success is described largely in terms of style, in particular colorito, coloring and paint application. The book is in this sense a culmination of Hall’s earlier work on color and her studies of art and the early Counter Reformation. The lavish illustrations offer vivid visual evidence for Hall’s arguments about color, though images from technical examination of the paintings (x-ray, infrared reflectography, and cross-sections) could have helped to illuminate the discussions of technique.

One of Hall’s central contentions is that these Counter Reformation artists asserted their status as “interpreters” of sacred images, making artwork that involved the emotions and held the attention of viewers, because it in some way was not naturalistic, and because the artist’s hand was readily visible, a process that Hall terms “making strange” (8–15). She contrasts the five painters that are the focus of the book to the mannerists and Michelangelo, whose work she calls cerebral and without “sensuous appeal,” not effective devotional art that inspires an emotional response (113). Hall instead emphasizes the painterly style of Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, and El Greco as a form of “making strange” and a way of involving the viewer by exhibiting a patently personal, emotional interpretation of sacred subjects. Caravaggio is the odd figure in this list, as his works, as Hall acknowledges, are not painterly in the same sense (267). She does point to his quick, improvised method of painting, and to the analogies between his tenebrism and Tintoretto’s dark palette, but notes that Caravaggio does not display his brushwork in order to make his personal mediation clear, as the other artists do.

The inclusion of Caravaggio is particularly marked, given that Hall chose not to focus on Paolo Veronese or Caravaggio’s contemporary, Annibale Carracci. Veronese was a painterly painter who was Titian’s follower and Tintoretto’s rival, and whose works were highly successful and much imitated during the Counter Reformation. (The famous Inquisition trial over his Last Supper (1573) followed from a charge that was probably the result of personal animus, and Veronese’s tone in the proceedings and the lack of any penalty or subsequent alterations to the painting, beyond the title, demonstrate the painter’s confidence, rather than the reverse.) Hall acknowledges the omission, stating that Veronese’s paintings are “theatrical,” not emotional, and that her book is meant to be “suggestive,” not “comprehensive” (195). Likewise, she states that the works of Carracci, a more painterly painter than Caravaggio who was acutely aware of the works of Titian in particular, were more of “an inspired revival” than a new invention, that Caravaggio’s paintings are, in contrast a “radical innovation” and “look forward to the modern age” (251). Hall’s selection of painters on the vanguard of the Counter Reformation is thus explicitly and unapologetically based upon a personal and particular notion of which works are innovative and affective.

In each of the five chapters on a painter in the second part of the book Hall focuses on a handful of works, and so, for example, in her discussion of Titian contrasts what she describes as the cool and political Ecce Homo of 1543 with a small devotional painting of the suffering Christ made for Charles V in 1548, which she sees as exhibiting a new passionate emotion. This account of a new move toward passion in Titian’s art is arguable, as the Ecce Homo is hardly typical, and earlier Titian paintings show emotion, from the riotous joy of the Frari Assunta (1516–18) to the dark grief of the Louvre Entombment (1520–30). Hall’s text, however, does grapple with a real, though complex, shift in tone in Titian’s art, offering a thoughtful analysis of the way in which the sacred subject is conveyed through new materials and techniques, such as the use of slate as a support. Likewise, in other chapters Hall is highly selective, not seeking to be comprehensive.

In writing a book that in its scope could read like a familiar survey, Hall herself engages in the process of “making strange” by introducing modern theories, pop culture, and modern art in order to jar readers into new understandings of these often famous works. Hall refers repeatedly to the limitations of sixteenth-century discourse on art, noting the “maddeningly general terms” used in these repetitive texts (110). She focuses little attention on the few texts that do discuss the application of paint and coloring in this period, and so, for example, paraphrases but does not quote Giorgio Vasari and Marco Boschini’s famous accounts of Titian’s pittura di macchia, perhaps because these texts are so well-known and often analyzed. Instead, Hall calls upon modern theories of color and vision, such as the concept of surface or filmy color, the distinction between contrasting and assimilated color, and that between scanning and fixating. She strikingly contrasts Renaissance notions of ideality to the “‘Madonna’ of today, botoxed semiannually” (13) and likens Titian’s pittura di macchia to “a sticky website that with some novelty successfully holds the eye of the surfer” (15). Hall also discusses and illustrates modern works of art as analogies to Renaissance works, even going so far as to have the only specific work mentioned in her conclusion be a Magritte (272). These juxtapositions can be illuminating and contribute to the daring polemical tone of the book, but some risk distracting from the argument. For example, it is hard to understand why a print by Otto Dix is illustrated in relation to the paintings in Santo Stefano Rotondo (which are not illustrated), when Hall herself notes that Dix’s purpose was different (139–40). Hall also “makes strange” by insisting repeatedly on the extraordinary nature of Renaissance artists’ solutions, an unconventionality that can be obscured because many of these works became the foundations for the conventions of Western art.

Hall uses the terms of modern color theorists and adapts concepts from modern critical theory but steadfastly eschews jargon. Her eminently readable distinctive voice is both self-deprecatingly colloquial (including contractions and such expressions as “chock-full”) and authoritative. Hall does not shy away from giving judgments about the quality of works of art and their spiritual efficacy. She is particularly forthright in her disdain for the painters generally associated with the early Counter Reformation, and so, for example, quotes without distancing herself from Luigi Lanzi’s assessment of Federico Zuccaro as a ”champion of mediocrity” (132). Other works are praised as art, but deemed lacking as religious images. About Raphael’s Entombment (1507), for example, she states: “Though it is a work of great beauty, it is not a great success as an altarpiece” (72). The book is likewise not freighted with weighty discussions of historiography or terminology. Hall simply refers to “the painters collectively dubbed mannerists” (85) and uses the contested term Counter Reformation without any lengthy analysis. She does scrupulously acknowledge her debt to classic and more recent scholarship, but the style of the book does not allow for dense notation of the bulk of earlier publications or for an intense engagement with the historiography. Hall, for example, repeatedly and warmly cites Stuart Lingo’s recent work on Federico Barocci in her chapter on the painter (Stuart Lingo, Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), but since his book is precisely on this subject, it would not be possible to cite him enough.

Perhaps the thorniest problem is the relationship between the changes in religious art and the secular art produced by the same artists. Hall evokes this problem by citing (15) as her first example of the new painterly style Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559–62), which begs the question of whether the new style is related to the religious climate at all or a purely aesthetic development. Hall, who notes later that Titian first developed his looser manner in these secular poesie (157), is careful not to argue for a causal relationship between the shift in religious requirements and the change in style, stating instead that the changing times created the conditions for these painterly experiments to be appreciated by patrons of religious art. For Hall these stylistic innovations are inextricable from the expression of the subject, and thus she interweaves a discussion of innovative depictions of sacred drama with new types of grounds, supports, pigments, and forms of paint application. The Sacred Image in the Age of Art is thus both a polemical work and carefully nuanced in its claims. Given the centrality of the subject and the ambitious sweep of the narrative she constructs, scholars will surely debate some of Hall’s conclusions, but they will have to acknowledge this book’s importance in framing the crucial question of the sacred image in the Cinquecento.

Una D’Elia
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Queen’s University