Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 16, 2013
Jill Burke, ed. Rethinking the High Renaissance: The Culture of the Visual Arts in Early Sixteenth-Century Rome Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 402 pp.; 84 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9781409425588)

Rethinking the High Renaissance: The Culture of the Visual Arts in Early Sixteenth-Century Rome, edited by Jill Burke, consists of twelve essays that emerged from a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in 2005. They take the art of Rome in the first decades of the sixteenth century as their subject, and collectively foment reconsideration of the notion of “High Renaissance” style. In accord with current scholarship and survey texts, the term “High Renaissance” is understood as a product of historiography only loosely related to the historical period in question and is therefore placed in quotations throughout the volume. This rethinking of periodization is not likely to be seriously questioned by scholars who, in light of the work of Ernst Gombrich and others, are now likely to use the term “High Renaissance” skeptically and self-consciously, if at all.

Unlike the term “Renaissance,” which was rooted in early modern Italian humanist critical language, “High Renaissance” (“Hochrenaissance”) was an invention of nineteenth-century scholars. Jacob Burckhardt and his student Heinrich Wölfflin postulated a Greek aesthetic in Italian “classic art” of ca. 1500–1530 and championed Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo, and Andrea del Sarto as its foremost exponents. The eighteenth-century valorization of the art of Raphael, in particular, as the pinnacle of what came to be known as “classical” style was for critics like Luigi Lanzi and Johannes Winckelmann predicated upon a related narrative of artistic decline in the 1520s after the Urbinate’s death (or the Sack of Rome soon after). In contrast, Vasari’s highly polemical Vite established a presumption of Florentine superiority that placed Michelangelo at the summit of Italian art, the terza maniera or maniera moderna—not Raphael, who was treated very carefully, but whose extra-Florentine birth necessitated a firm second place. Furthermore, Vasari did not concede a narrative of decline in the generations that followed Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Thus, it is abundantly clear—from choice of artists to critical terminology and the construction of narratives—that Vasari’s “modern manner” and later centuries’ “classical” or “High Renaissance” manner are distinct. Indeed, as recent scholarship has also stressed, the modernity of sixteenth-century art was very much at stake, and this modernity—deeply preoccupied with all’antica invention but never simply so and never in isolation from other currents (theological, vernacular)—permits a more productive and better historicized analytical lens. Rethinking the High Renaissance marks a strong move forward in this vein.

The volume consists of two thematic sections: “Vantage Points,” deconstructions of several of the master narratives constituting the mythic High Renaissance, and “Making the High Renaissance: Classicism, Conflation, and Culmination,” which turns to artist-based case studies to further deconstruct those narratives. The first section reiterates the claim for Michelangelo’s unequaled superiority (which critics from Ludovico Dolce to Giovanni Pietro Bellori strenuously contested). Vasari’s correlation of Michelangelo’s primacy to his sole mastery of the arts of disegno—architecture, sculpture, and painting—represented an effective stratagem. David Cast destabilizes this Michelangelo monolith with a trenchant analysis of the disunity underlying Vasari’s claims for unity in the arts of design. Cast’s focus is on architecture, and the epistemological, historical, and moral tensions unique to this medium. These include the fissures in humanist theory—the more objective language of reason in architectural design and functional experience versus the poetics of subjectivity attached to the viewing process and (sometimes morally problematic) conceptualizing of artifice in painting and sculpture—and architecture’s long-stigmatized link to the mechanical arts. Kenneth Gouwens explores a singular historical dimension of the “rise and fall” narrative structuring the historiography of “High Renaissance” and “Mannerism.” He shows that Christian eschatology, which naturally intensified and transformed around the millennium and post-Sack in the prophetic writings of Pietro Galatino, Egidio da Viterbo, and Joannes Staphyleus, purveyed a narrative of progress indebted to the eschatological notion of the “fullness of time” (plenitudo temporis). While elucidating the roots of some overlapping conventions, Gouwens’s work modulates the master narrative in important ways.

The remaining three essays in the volume’s first part, by Brian Curran, Suzanne Butters, and Gwendolyn Trottein, adopt diverse and complementary approaches that result in a fracturing of the ultimate “High Renaissance” monolith: Rome and the “classical” tradition. Curran takes two tacks. The first is to explore the foundation of discursive practices advancing the “High Renaissance”/“classical” ideal in distinguished later twentieth-century survey texts by scholars Frederick Hartt and Sydney Freedberg. After noting some implications for current pedagogy, and student resistance to formalism in particular, Curran then utilizes his own model of “usable antiquity” to consider the plurality of beholder responses to some of the key antique sculptural finds in early sixteenth-century Rome: the Laocoön (ca. 40–20 BCE) and the so-called Cleopatra (now identified as Sleeping Ariadne [ca.100 AD]). In this context, a work like Rosso Fiorentino’s Dying Cleopatra of ca. 1525–26 assumes its emphatic modernity in its paragone with the poetics and visual form of its antique model. With a subtle analysis of documents, Butters (despite a curious omission of Leonard Barkan’s work on antique fragments in Renaissance Rome) shows that the humanist project to recuperate ancient Rome in the service of Christian imperium was littered with fragments that signified frustrated imperial ambition (ancient and modern) to some and straightforward loss to inhabitants whose property or benefices stood in the path of the papal wrecking ball. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Julius II’s deliberations on the agonizing, and agonistic, St. Peters building project. In juxtaposing totalizing rhetorical ideals (“figments”) with historical contingencies (“fragments”), Butters offers a useful meta-model for charting the problem of “High Renaissance” style in Rome. Lastly, Trottein eloquently chronicles the Rome(s) fashioned by Cellini in his autobiography (1558–66)—with pre-Sack Rome parodied as a seat of Petrarchan lyricism in the circle of Raphael and the post-Sack city skewered as the backdrop for ludicrous acts and “questionable motives” in the circle of Clement VII. Trottein shows that Rome, typically viewed as a simple stage for Cellini’s pompous heroics, served rather as a labile stage for his mock-epic heroic exploits in a sharp subversion of Vasari’s heroic model.

The case studies in the volume’s second part turn to “High Renaissance” artist-protagonists. Sabine Frommel and Michael Bury carefully discuss the exclusion of two artists from the early sixteenth-century creative vanguard: Giuliano da Sangallo and Pietro Perugino, respectively. Frommel meticulously charts Giuliano’s evolution as an architect in Medicean Florence and papal Rome. She notes his unrivalled understanding of Albertian and Vitruvian principles in building design (typically merged with medieval and antique Florentine elements) served Medici patrons in Florence well. However, Popes Alexander VI, Julius II, and even the Medici pope, Leo X, found it lacking in comparison with the complexity and vertical dynamism of Bramante’s architecture. Bury’s essay nuances the issue of Perugino’s limited range, in line with contemporaries’ criticism of his lack of varietà in the reuse of figures. There is evidence that Perugino was appreciated for longer than generally presumed, particularly for the devout character of his richly colored art and the loveliness of his representations of celestial figures. On the cusp of the Umbrian artist’s decline, Raphael’s decision to preserve his vault in the Stanza dell’Incendio (ca. 1514) can be understood as a sensitive response to these strengths and to the decorum of the space (in addition to the fact that, unlike in other Stanze, there was no material reason to make a change). Christoph Frommel expertly charts Bramante’s astonishing range of sources—looking to Byzantine and Gothic prototypes and motifs derived in the architect’s formative Lombard period with Leonardo (in addition to the Brunelleschian vocabulary of early Christian, medieval Tuscan, Albertian, and Roman antique sources). In so doing, Frommel neatly dovetails Sabine Frommel’s essay. Both clarify why Bramante’s less philologically classical approach was understood to yield unparalleled all’antica grandeur.

Raphael features in two other essays. Angeliki Pollali’s close reading of the Vitruvius translation the artist commissioned from the humanist Fabio Calvo ca. 1514–20 reveals that Raphael, though attentive to other all’antica elements, betrays a lack of interest in correcting Calvo’s erroneous passages on the classical orders (considered a defining feature of “High Renaissance” architecture). Taking as her starting point Quattrocento humanist Lorenzo Valla’s notorious unmasking of the falsity of a touchstone of Roman Christian imperial ideology, the donation of Constantine to Pope Sylvester, Meredith Gill explores potential dissonances and ambivalence in Raphael’s expressly artful treatment of the subject’s celestial and temporal hierarchies in the Sala di Constantino (1520–24). While Gill touches upon the related problem of “Mannerism” in asserting pictorial artifice as an expression of ideological conflict, Sheryl Reiss, in agreement with Alexander Nagel’s current work on reform and anachronisms, identifies a variety of medieval prototypes that complicate André Chastel’s popular notion of a Clementine style (kin to John Shearman’s “stylish style”). Especially compelling is her comparison of the formal and spiritual resonance of the fourteenth-century San Zanobi Madonna in San Lorenzo with Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna (ca. 1531) for the Medici Chapel in the New Sacristy of the same church. David Hemsoll presents incisive analysis of Michelangelo’s highly sophisticated and judicious selection of a range of source material (much like Bramante)—from Melozzo da Forlì’s Loreto Cathedral frescoes (1477–79), to Pintoricchio’s S. Maria del Popolo (ca. 1509) and Piccolomini Library (ca. 1502) vaults, Bramante’s Castello Sforzesco designs (ca. 1492), and Donatello’s Tabernacle of the Sacrament (1432–33)—in composing the Sistine Ceiling. Volume editor Burke agrees with Hemsoll’s assertion that any reconsideration of early sixteenth-century art ought to include further study of this apparently deliberate artistic strategy. Indeed, this is a vital arena in which the extraordinary innovations and achievements of great artists like Bramante and Michelangelo come into sharper focus. Study of their ever-evolving and complexly theorized artistic practice—reasonably understood in Vasari’s terms as a certain inventive license within the rule (as Christoph Frommel discusses)—is one path to a historical, rather than historiographical, rationale for distinguishing them from their peers.

There are fundamental problems with the structure of this ambitious and important volume. In particular, the choice of Julian, Leonine, and Clementine Rome risks still reifying the Wölfflinian “classical” ideal (and favored artists, i.e., Raphael) even while proffering strategies to deconstruct it (a contribution by a scholar of “Periphery,” such as Stephen Campbell, would have usefully interrogated the master narrative from a different direction, as would scholarship on sexuality, gender, and class). The decision to focus on Rome means that Leonardo merits only a passing mention (with respect to Bramante) and precludes (perhaps strategically) consideration of still more problematic artists common to “High Renaissance” historiography and Vasari’s maniera moderna, e.g., Fra Bartolomeo, Andrea del Sarto. Nonetheless, Burke is to be commended for her discerning selection of contributors to this excellent volume, which Ashgate (a blush-worthy number of typographical errors notwithstanding) produced in handsome form. With it, teachers and scholars of sixteenth-century art are now better equipped to interrogate the dialectical figments of norm and form, renaissance and renascence, history and historiography.

Kim Butler Wingfield
Associate Professor, Art Department, American University

Please send comments about this review to