Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2014
Sarah Blake McHam Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance: The Legacy of the "Natural History" New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 464 pp.; 120 color ills.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300186031)

In his dedicatory preface to the emperor Titus (AD 77), Pliny described his goals in writing the Natural History with capacious reflection:

My subject is a barren one—the world of nature, or in other words life. . . . Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one person to be found among us who has made the same venture, nor yet one among the Greeks who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject. . . . It is a difficult task to give novelty to what is old, authority to what is new, brilliance to the common-place, light to the obscure, attraction to the stale, credibility to the doubtful, but nature to all things and all her properties to nature. (Pliny’s Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, vol.1, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann, 1967, 9–11)

Pliny’s characterization of his monumental literary endeavor was understood well by Renaissance humanists, scholars, and theoreticians, and the ambitiously unprecedented form and content of the Natural History became a fundamental reference and authority for many of their intellectual and cultural initiatives, beginning with Petrarch in the early fourteenth century. In 1489, Angelo Poliziano, the most brilliant humanist scholar of Greek and Latin literature during the second half of the fifteenth century, codified Pliny’s text in his Miscellanea, a tour de force of textual criticism and philological commentary. Poliziano provided a catalogue of the Greek and Roman authors he discussed (around 160), organized according to their genres of inquiry: Grammarians, Poets, Historians, Rhetoricians, Philosophers, Astrologers, etc. Pliny, for whom Poliziano had great respect, was located under the genre for “Authors of [an] Ambiguous Title” (Autores Ambigui Tituli), where he finds company with Vitruvius, Petronius, Varro, Frontinus, and Macrobius, among others. Far from equivocating about Pliny, Poliziano’s categorization perceptively underscored the depth and breadth of Pliny’s text and echoed the Roman author’s own resonant characterization of his work as being about “the world of nature, or in other words life.”

To say that the Natural History was of central importance within the scientific, intellectual, and artistic culture of Renaissance Italy would be to state the obvious. Although Pliny’s text was well known and copied beginning in ancient Rome and throughout the medieval period, it was during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries that it flourished and was read with a different variety of objectives. Mined as an authoritative source of information from the ancient world; consulted for its moral and ethical perspectives on luxury and abundance; studied for the author’s knowledge of the materials, practices, aesthetics, patronage, styles, and the achievement of artists; and critiqued as a work of Latin literature, the Natural History was required reading for anyone among the educated shapers of culture. A recent burgeoning study of Pliny in the ancient world by both art historians and classicists has also opened new avenues of inquiry and ways of thinking about Pliny’s work in broader textual and historical contexts (Jacob Isager, Pliny on Art and Society: The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art [Odense: Odense University Press, 1991], and Sorcha Carey, Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003] immediately come to mind here, although the bibliography is extensive). Moreover, references to and discussions of Pliny have been ubiquitous in Renaissance art-historical literature for quite some time (insightful passages in Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999] [click here for review], and David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981], are but two instances among many essays and studies). What is original and important about Sarah Blake McHam’s sumptuously produced book—in both ambition and breadth—is her dedication to examining the impact, assimilation, imitation, and reception of the Natural History within the artistic culture (literary and visual) of the Italian Renaissance as a whole, beginning with Petrarch through the end of the sixteenth century. Growing out of years of research and publications on Italian Renaissance art in which her interest in the classical tradition figures prominently, McHam explains in her preface that “although the scholarship about Pliny in the ancient world was extensive and actively evolving, there was very little analysis of Pliny’s influence in later periods. Art historians regularly cited Pliny but no one had focused on him by collecting and analyzing the examples and patterns of the ways in which his information was used. I began to see the need for such a book and decided to undertake it” (xi). The result is an essential book for the study of Italian Renaissance art and culture, as well as for anyone interested in the classical tradition and, of course, the reception of Pliny.

McHam’s principal focus is on books 33–37 from the Natural History, long known as The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, the title given by Katharine Jex-Blake and Eugenie Sellers to their important translation and commentary of 1896. McHam’s research and knowledge of her material are scrupulous. She has read widely and thoughtfully, and she demonstrates a substantive command of the primary and secondary sources, which, though not exhaustive, are judiciously referenced in the footnotes and bibliography as they are relevant to specific issues within her discussion. This book is very generous to the reader in structure and organization, and its style is lucid and approachable.

The text is arranged chronologically through eight thematic “parts” with each part encompassing one or more chapters (nineteen total), and each chapter further divided into specific themes or issues. For example: part 3 is entitled “Reception of the Natural History in Fourteenth-Century Italy” and includes chapters 4 and 5, “Petrarch’s Pliny” and “Following Petrarch: The Widening Influence of Pliny on Fourteenth-Century Readers and Artists,” respectively. Within chapter 4 are five sub-sections: “Petrarch, Pliny, and Simone Martini,” “Petrarch’s Virgil and Pliny,” “Petrarch’s Own Manuscript of the Natural History,” “Petrarch’s De remediis: Early Humanist Readings of the Natural History,” and “Petrarch’s Illustrious Men and the Patron’s Role.” Such a structure demands that the book be read through in its entirety, as much material circles back or is expanded upon from earlier to later sections. If consulted as a kind of encyclopedia for particular topics in isolation, one runs the risk of missing the richness and integration of McHam’s discussion (turning to the sections on Vasari’s Lives, without having already read the prior sections on Petrarch, Alberti, Ghiberti, and Varchi, will result in an incomplete picture of Pliny’s role in the evolving culture of historical and theoretical inquiry). Three very useful appendices follow the last chapter, which can be more easily consulted as stand-alone references: “List of Plinian Anecdotes,” “List of Plinian Anecdotes and their Citations in the Italian Renaissance,” and “Signatures Derived from Pliny.”

Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance is principally a textual study, and as such it often has more of an exegetical character than that of a more narrowly focused work of textual criticism. McHam provides fulsome and careful summaries of the Renaissance primary sources she discusses, and although an experienced scholar of this period might not find many groundbreaking new ideas, these summaries will be extremely useful to readers who do not have a thorough working knowledge of these texts. Her analyses follow Pliny through an expansive trajectory of writers’ interpretive reformulations and artists’ stylistic and thematic expressions that underscore broader theoretical arguments and ideologically motivated goals as the sixteenth century came to a close. Far too numerous to outline here, McHam covers virtually every writer and artist of prominence and consequence over some three hundred years, from Petrarch, Boccaccio, Cennini, Alberti, Landino, Ermolao Barbaro, Ghiberti, Castiglione, Doni, Dolce, Varchi, Vasari, Pino, Armenini, Lomazzo, Borghini (Vincenzo and Raffaello), among others, to Martini, Donatello, Mantegna, Leonardo, Botticelli, Pisanello, Jacopo Bellini, Pinturicchio, Michelangelo, Dürer, Carpaccio, Allori, Titian, and more.

Her work here is also impressively interwoven with meaningful discussions of patrons and patronage, family ties, social networks, and iconographic readings. Insightful gems permeate the book, many of which will undoubtedly stimulate further research and new studies—the hallmark of first-rate work. Examples include Pliny’s role in the development of independent landscape painting in the Renaissance enhanced by his descriptions of landscapes by the painter Studius, who worked during the reign of Augustus; or, the critical response by artists and writers to Pliny’s discussion of public and colossal sculpture as a catalyst for their development during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; or, the suggestive final paragraph of the book where McHam observes, “In addition to his status as a weighty scientific authority, Pliny played another role in the period of religious controversy that characterized the sixteenth century. He offered humanists a moralized materialistic worldview, which was a significant alternative to the medieval Christianized Platonic theological emphasis on form and ideal” (313).

There are times when the discussion may seem to become too narrowly focused, resulting in a somewhat reductive and generalized conclusion (e.g., “Many Renaissance painters emulated Timanthes’ way of depicting inexpressible emotion” (43)), but then the reader is usually brought back to the larger and more important questions. What one ponders after reading this book is not the fact that artists, writers, and patrons were reading and responding to Pliny, but rather how they were reading Pliny and a myriad of other texts, and what they were doing with them in shaping their own modern culture. It is this synthetic and complex relationship between tradition (the Roman past) and reality (the present) that lies at the heart of the invention and definition of Renaissance culture in Italy.

Melinda Schlitt
Professor, Art History; William W. Edel Prof. of Humanities, Dickinson

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