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Alexander Nagel’s The Controversy of Renaissance Art is nothing if not ambitious. Winner of the College Art Association’s 2012 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, it proposes no less than a reconfiguration of how we study the art of Italy from the first half of the sixteenth century. Italian High Renaissance art has certainly not been neglected in the discipline of art history, but Nagel opens his book with the observation that contesting “the centrality of the Renaissance in the history of art used to be a call arms. Now the battle is largely over” (1). Instead of seeking to recenter the Renaissance, Nagel works toward an account of “the new picture of early sixteenth-century art that is coming into view,” a “nontriumphant Renaissance,” born not of genius artist-heroes but from the period’s own intense, incessant debates about the proper use of images (4, 1). Thus, Nagel rejects the assertion that John Shearman, his Doktorvater (full disclosure: one of mine as well), made in the landmark 1967 book Mannerism (New York: Penguin): “The sixteenth-century viewpoint of works of art was admirably relaxed” (15). Shearman’s understanding of the period, unlike the one Nagel articulates in his book, was stylistic: Mannerism was “the stylish style”—which “does exist, with the same kind of reality (and no more) as other style periods that are commonly acknowledged”—and artistic creation was protected from social crisis or personal tragedy “as a child is protected in the womb” (15, 40). In contrast, Nagel “disregards the High Renaissance/Mannerism distinction, presenting instead the first half of the sixteenth century as an experimental period in the spheres both of art and of religion . . . a period of controversy” (2). The persistent questioning about the proper ways of making art and practicing religion becomes, for Nagel, the signal feature of the early sixteenth century.
Nagel’s study is part of a scholarly vanguard invested in exploring the tensions in early modern Italy between a fully aestheticized “work of art” and a religious icon defined by cult value, a theme Marcia B. Hall’s 2011 The Sacred Image in the Age of Art: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, Caravaggio (New Haven: Yale University Press) (click here for review) investigated in depth. Unlike Hall’s book, which is structured around five late sixteenth-century artists’ use of light, shadow, and color to produce highly affective devotional paintings, Nagel’s text is organized by theme rather than artist. There are three interrelated parts: “Excavations in Christian Art,” “Christ as Idol,” and “Soft Iconoclasm.” Each is composed of three or four chapters intended to be readable on its own; together they offer a rich overview of early sixteenth-century works produced in central and northern Italy in many media, including drawing, printmaking, tapestry, and inlaid marble.
Nonetheless, painting, sculpture, and architecture are emphasized, with each of the book’s three parts largely devoted to one of these thoroughly studied media. “Excavations in Christian Art” proposes painting as an exquisitely “labile” medium in which technical, formal, and compositional innovations such as the use of oil as a pigment binder, the dissolution of narrative specificity, or the development of deep perspective—as well as self-consciously anachronistic altarpieces that embraced the flatness of Byzantine icons—were carried out by painters from Giovanni Bellini to Giorgione, Fra Bartolommeo to Raphael, Andrea del Sarto to Rosso Fiorentino. Nagel’s readings of paintings do not tend toward exhaustive, monographic completeness: for example, he is not substantially interested in the specificities of a work’s intended or eventual setting. He often focuses instead on provocative and productive ellipses. For instance, Leonardo’s oil-on-panel sketch of a female head (ca. 1500), now in Parma, or Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate (ca. 1475), pictured with eyes downcast and sans Gabriele, now in Palermo, are discussed as much for what they omit as for what they include. For Nagel, the “indeterminate subject and uncertain finish” of the Leonardo stretches “the panel painting as a category” (43). The Virgin Annunciate represents in Nagel’s “strong reading . . . that threshold [between the secular and the sacred],” only becoming a religious image if and when the viewer invests it with the biblical narrative: “She is about to conceive, but only if we conceive” (48). In this way Nagel brings the incompleteness of the excavated fragment, usually studied through the Renaissance propensity to unearth the classical past, to bear on religious painting made around the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The second part of the book, “Christ as Idol,” continues the valorization of painting. Filippino Lippi’s fresco Miracle of Saint Philip (1493–95) in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, which depicts the saint challenging with upraised right arm (a relic of which was kept in the Florence Baptistery) a fully colored figure of Mars ensconced amid grisaille sculpture on a painted triumphal arch, is used to demonstrate how painting provides an “arena” in which “well-matched heroes and cult objects, pagan and Christian, are made to face off against one another. . . . Painting, here, is a metamedium capable of describing multiple realities . . . painting functions as a vehicle of displacement: it never simply provides a cult image but rather encompasses and comments on various cult objects, setting them in relation to one another across a series of fictive levels” (119–21). Neither the idea of multiple “levels of unreality” (Sven Sandström’s book with that same title was published in 1963 [Levels of Unreality: Studies in Structure and Construction in Italian Mural Painting during the Renaissance, Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell]), nor the term “metapainting” (used by Victor Stoichita in his groundbreaking 1996 study, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting, New York: Cambridge University Press), nor discussions of the paragone between media are new, but Nagel brings these longstanding concerns into focus by emphasizing the period’s need to balance anxiety about idolatry with a desire to recapture a sense of early Christian purity through the use of classicizing form.
These chapters also turn to sculpture, which Nagel casts as the preferred medium for “several backlashes against the perceived modernity of late medieval images” (132). From Isidore of Seville through Peter Abelard, Nagel traces the tendency to see any fully round figural sculpture as a potential pagan idol—an issue reignited by the Renaissance installation of all’antica sculpted figures on Christian altars. In the discussion of Carpaccio’s Vision of St. Augustine (1502–3) and the late fifteenth-century bronze Resurrected Christ now in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan pictured in the background of Carpaccio’s painting (rehearsed earlier in a 2005 essay coauthored with Christopher Wood that appeared in the “Interventions” feature of The Art Bulletin [Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, “Towards a New Model of Renaissance Anachronism,” The Art Bulletin 87 (2005): 403–32)—as well as the treatments of Michelangelo’s Christ (1516–20) in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome and of Andrea Riccio’s Paschal candelabra (1507–15) for Sant’Antonio in Padua—Nagel asserts that early sixteenth-century sculpture in the antique style “could not be simply ‘christened,’” expunging “the idolatrous associations of the form” (109). The necessary cultural work was more subversive, turning Moses or even Christ himself into an idol. Nagel describes Riccio’s Moses/Zeus Ammon (1513) for the Santa Giustina in Padua as “a work that offers sustained and complex reflections of the functions and history of religious art, and also some indications as to its limitations” (194).
In this way, Nagel reaches for his most potent conclusion: “Not that iconoclastic impulses did not exist in Italy but rather that they were strenuously, even conscientiously redirected back into art. To rectify religious art was to engage in a modulated and highly refined form of image breaking” (10). The third and final part of the book, “Soft Iconoclasm,” follows this idea largely through writings by Alfonso de Valdés (twin brother of the more famous Juan de Valdés), Tommaso de Vio Cajetan, Carlo Borromeo, and others; ecclesiastical architecture and furnishings characterized as “microarchitecture"; and the replacement of explicit pictorial representation through architectonic forms. After a deliberation on the parallels between the period’s officially sanctioned modes of having sex and its approved ways of making art (accomplished through a discussion of the pornographic engravings of I Modi (1514) as an “unmasking” of official art), the human body disappears from sight in this part of the book. For instance, the high-altar centerpiece of the Verona Cathedral, one of the renovations begun by Gian Matteo Giberti when he arrived as bishop in 1528, was neither a painted altarpiece nor a sculpted figure in the round but a marble, crystal, and bronze tabernacle for the sacrament completed by 1541. Other monuments made in the cathedral under Giberti’s tenure show a similar “image suppression” (247).
This search for architectonic alternatives to religious pictures reaches its culmination in what Nagel calls “the most abstract altarpiece of the Italian Renaissance”: Girolamo Pittoni and Giacomo da Porlezza’s high altar for Vicenza Cathedral (1534–41). Made during the same years that Michelangelo was obliterating architectural definition by painting The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, the sole figures of the Vicenza altarpiece are two angels flanking the tabernacle at its heart. Around this core, symmetrical patterns of colored semiprecious stones collected by the patron, Aurelio Dall’Acqua himself, form “a substantialist alternative to the semiotic functions usually accorded to the figures” (270). In a twist on Georges Didi-Huberman’s compelling 1990 discussion of how Fra Angelico figured the unfigurable with blotched and splattered marmi finti that do not so much mimic marble as offer passages of pure nonfigurative painting (Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, trans. Jane-Marie Todd, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), Nagel argues that the materiality of the stones—which texts read and written in the period described as condensed vapor or frozen cloud—overtakes any need for painting or even iconic representation.
A detail of the central slab of Egyptian alabaster in the Vicenza predella is featured both in a full-page color illustration within the book as well as on the back cover, giving the reader a close view of the rippling gradations of amber tones that give way to round white blotches. During the Renaissance this stone was known as alabastro nuvoloso (“cloudy alabaster”), a name that supports Nagel’s argument. The University of Chicago Press is to be congratulated for recognizing that Nagel’s book required ample page size to do justice to the generous program of illustration—160 figures, 60 in color—that supports the text. Beautifully produced and thought-provoking in its rewriting of early sixteenth-century Italian art history, The Controversy of Renaissance Art is, like the art it discusses, productively iconoclastic, setting the stage for a revitalized discussion of one of art history’s most deeply studied periods.
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University