Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2014
Stephen J. Campbell and Michael W. Cole Italian Renaissance Art New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011. 696 pp.; 703 color ills.; 114 b/w ills. Paper $112.50 (9780500289433)
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Italian Renaissance Art by Stephen J. Campbell and Michael W. Cole provides a new textbook alternative for those who teach the Italian Renaissance, joining established texts like John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke’s Art in Renaissance Italy and the venerable History of Italian Renaissance Art by Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins. While all of these texts are written by leading scholars and largely cover the same material, they do so in distinct ways. History of Italian Renaissance Art, which was first published in 1976, taken over by Wilkins in 1994, and is currently in its seventh edition, presents an explicitly Vasarian account of the art of Italy beginning in the duecento and ending with late Mannerism, with a brief mention of the early Baroque. As Wilkins explains in his introduction to the current edition, “Like Vasari, Hartt emphasized works created in Florence, Rome, Siena, and Venice. While there is much that is worthy of attention in the art . . . [of] other centers . . . to include this material in detail would have detracted from Hartt’s thesis that Renaissance art evolved in Florence and had its most fulfilling later development in Rome and Venice” (Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins, History of Italian Renaissance Art, 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011, 8). This approach, which Wilkins has maintained, has other implications. As Wilkins frankly admits in reference to both Hartt’s original text and his own editions, “Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Hartt’s model, was organized as a chronological series of biographies . . . [and] Hartt also chose to discuss each artist independently. . . . Such a biographical emphasis often ignores the broader social and historical context within which these works were created” (8).

Paoletti and Radke’s Art in Renaissance Italy, first published in 1997 and now in its fourth edition, takes a much different approach. While its chronology is roughly similar and while it organizes its material according to the city in which the art was produced, their text is explicitly anti-biographical, declaring such a methodology to be inadequate to the key goal of producing a contextual and historical understanding of the artworks in question. As Paoletti and Radke explain, “In structuring histories of Renaissance art around artists, rather than according to the places in which they worked, the persons and institutions whom they served, and the societal expectations they met . . . historians have often failed to indicate that the critical interrelations of these social forces with the arts gave them a compelling visual life over time” (John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, 4th ed., Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012, 10). Instead the book is dedicated to the idea that “works of art were made to serve the particular purposes of those who commissioned them,” and toward this end aims to build a rich historical context, tied to the history and political circumstances of individual cities, for the works they choose to discuss, a context often supported by selections from primary sources (12). Thus, the chapter “Florence: The Medici and Political Propaganda” in Paoletti and Radke’s text evidences a much greater concern with the nature of Medici rule (and includes the text of a letter from Domenico Veneziano to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici) than do similarly titled chapters in History of Italian Renaissance Art. By taking such an approach, which emphasizes context rather than canon, Paoletti and Radke’s text not only pays less attention to issues of artistic biography and personal style, but also is free to examine a number of cities, such as Naples and Milan, whose works often lie outside the canon.

Unlike these two surveys, Campbell and Cole’s Italian Renaissance Art focuses more narrowly on art produced between 1400–1600, devoting only one chapter to the art of the duecento and trecento and including much more material related to the proto- and early Baroque of the end of the cinquecento. The two hundred years with which the book is primarily concerned is then divided into ten year periods (1400–1410, etc.), each the subject of a separate chapter. In addition to being defined chronologically, these chapters are also given thematic titles—the chapter examining art from 1470–1480 is called “What Is Naturalism?”—emphasizing important tendencies in the art of that decade and looking at the artistic, political, or social developments that might have occasioned these tendencies. With this organization each chapter ranges over a number of works, artists, cities, and traditions; thus discussions relating to individual artists, cities, stylistic schools, and stylistic periods are deemphasized. The themes explored in the individual chapters frequently tie into larger themes that run throughout the text as a whole: these include the role of the patron; the status of the image; the role of the beholder; and questions of tradition, placedness, and facture.

Like Paoletti and Radke, Campbell and Cole explicitly reject the biographical tendency in Italian Renaissance art history. However, through their multivalent thematic model, they also wish to stress the multitude of possible historical approaches that might be used and, in this way, to emphasize that “the writing of history is the making of a narrative, and that different stories can be told about any of the works” (15). Thus, “the life of its author, the interests of its buyer, or patron, the tradition behind its subject matter, the responses of its audience, and so on” are all issues that inform their interpretations in different chapters in the text (15). This approach differs from the somewhat more narrowly political and patron-centered interpretations offered by Paoletti and Radke. Moreover, the neutrally chronological organization of each chapter also provides Campbell and Cole with the opportunity to examine the Renaissance more broadly and “to compare works produced simultaneously in different Italian cities, characterizing what is most distinctive in local traditions and practices, while also highlighting essential common ground” (15).

In addition to shaping the organization and coverage of all three books, the approaches used by their respective authors also frequently affect their discussions of individual works, although perhaps not as radically as their methodological declarations might suggest. This somewhat unexpected result is tied to the fact that all the authors regularly (and rightly) feel the obligation to discuss the salient contextual, formal, and iconographical properties of the works and to place these elements into some sort of traditional framework of style and contextualized symbolic function. Since in many cases this material is relatively independent from the goals of the chapter in which the work is discussed or the volume of which it is a part, the presentation of individual works is sometimes more similar than different. This outcome is particularly noticeable in the discussion of the sculptures for Orsanmichele and the Florentine Baptistery and Cathedral; here all three volumes largely focus on the same fundamental stylistic and contextual points.

Still, obvious differences abound. This is particularly marked in the discussion of a work like Benevenuto Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa. As one might expect, Hartt and Wilkins, who place the work (which dates from 1545–54) into a chapter called “The Late Sixteenth Century,” focus exclusively on the style of the work, briefly discussing its formal relationships to Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1446–60), the anatomy of Michelangelo’s nudes, and Cellini’s artistic proclivities resulting from his training as a goldsmith. Paoletti and Radke discuss the work in a chapter called “Florence under Cosimo I” and further place their treatment of the work in a subsection entitled “Art as a Symbol of the Advanced State.” While they again relate the work to Donatello’s Judith, which would have been its neighbor in the Loggia dei Lanzi, they do so in a way that concentrates predominantly on the political meaning of the work in Ducal Florence, emphasizing the manner in which Duke Cosimo I used art to both co-opt and undermine key aspects of Florentine political ideology.

Campbell and Cole’s contextualization of the work is notably different. They discuss Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa in the chapter “1540–1550: Literate Art,” and as a result their treatment focuses on its literary and poetic function. Following recent scholarship, they argue that the work should be read as a self-conscious response to Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (1525–34) that aims to assert both the superiority of Cellini over Bandinelli and of bronze over marble. Concentrating on Cellini’s witty conceit of placing the head of Medusa into the line of sight of Bandinelli’s Hercules, and thus seeming to turn him to stone, they support their interpretation by reference to poems by Bronzino and others who commented on this and other related ideas. In so doing, they consciously avoid any discussion of the political meaning of both the work and the gesture, placing the work instead into the significant, broader, trans-Florentine context of the relationship between art and literature in the middle of the cinquecento.

As this example and the brief summary of the text might suggest, the organization of Campbell and Cole’s Italian Renaissance Art in key respects follows a pedagogical model that many of us use, aiming not only to cover the material in chronological order, but also to thematize it in a number of diverse ways. It is also necessarily ambitious in its approach. While in the classroom we can safely omit works, even major works, that do not advance our pedagogical goals and thematic emphases, a survey text has an additional need for coverage both as an end in itself and so that it might be useful to a wide range of teachers. This need for inclusiveness is a tension in this dual thematic and chronological organization, as the inclusion, in their proper chronological position, of both the monuments of Italian Renaissance art and recent additions to the canon can present a challenge to the thematic unity of the chapters. A second tension is related to the slicing of the Renaissance into ten-year segments. While Campbell and Cole occasionally stretch the temporal limits of these sections, such a chronological organization, when combined with the thematic focus of the chapters, necessarily makes it more difficult to present a diachronic account of key thematic, historical, stylistic, and biographical trends.

Of course, analogous concerns might be raised about the other two survey texts based on their approaches to the material. As has been noted, the authors of all three works are explicit about the methodology of their books and are equally aware of the limits of their approaches. Moreover, all certainly contain errors in fact—Campbell and Cole confuse the parentage of one of the two Medici capitani and seem to mistake Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ with Pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ—and also include interpretations and emphases with which other scholars might take issue. However, one cannot review these texts as one would a traditional scholarly monograph in terms of argument and evidence. Instead one must consider them, and, in the context of this review, Campbell and Cole’s Italian Renaissance Art in particular, in terms of their pedagogical function and utility in the classroom.

There are, of course, two ways in which the pedagogical function of a survey text can be considered: how an instructor might make use of the text and what an undergraduate, perhaps studying Renaissance art for the first time, might take away from her or his encounter with it. Unlike the scholarly reader, the average undergraduate has little preexisting knowledge of Renaissance art; the physical, visual, and intellectual context in which it might be understood; and the art-historical approaches that might be used. Thus a survey text needs to provide much in the way of background, basic explanation, and clarity of interpretive structure.

Italian Renaissance Art does a good job addressing many of these concerns. Throughout the text there are nice treatments of facture (although here some explanatory illustrations might have been useful), the role of the patron, the importance of function and use, period devotional concerns, and the changing role of art. As is true with the other two texts, Italian Renaissance Art also includes a helpful bibliography and a brief glossary. However, while useful, this glossary, like the ones in the other two surveys, seems a bit too limited. Although it would be impossible to address every possible student query, all three of the surveys seem to forget how little most students know and how much they might benefit from a more thorough explication, either in the glossary or the text itself, of key iconographical types such as the Annunciation, the Last Judgment, or the Coronation of the Virgin. While some of the breakout discussions, which are located throughout the text, address such gaps in student knowledge, I found these discussions only occasionally useful, in part because the connection between topics like “goldsmiths” or “condottieri” and the theme of the chapter in which they were placed was not always obvious. I further wished that Campbell and Cole had followed the lead of Paoletti and Radke by occasionally presenting primary source material in such sections. For example, given the importance of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Second Commentary (ca. 1440) in the opening chapters of the book, it might have been helpful to present to the student readers larger selections from this text, which might also be employed by the instructor in class discussion.

In addition to the coverage of key ideas in the text itself, the inclusion of adequate visual material seems essential to student learning. The quality of the illustrations in Italian Renaissance Art is quite high (second only to the more expensive History of Italian Renaissance Art), but the pedagogical utility of this visual material might have been improved in certain ways. Given the authors’ concern with placedness, it is somewhat surprising that Italian Renaissance Art does not include diagrams of complex pictorial ensembles such as the Arena or the Sistine Chapels, and also does not provide visual reconstructions of works like the early plans for Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II (begun in 1505) or Donatello’s Santo Altar (1447–50), even when the original forms of these works are discussed extensively in the text. Likewise, the inclusion of comparative examples—classical sarcophagi are often mentioned but not shown—and appropriate details in the context of discussions of complex works such as the Orvieto frescos by Luca Signorelli undoubtedly would have been an aid to student understanding.

Of course, the real value of the survey text both for student and teacher is in the clarity of the discussions of the individual works and themes and in the utility of both the overall organization of the text and the individual chapters. Campbell and Cole’s approach to the material as a whole responds to trends in recent scholarship by decentering the Renaissance and encouraging the reader to consider a variety of broader trends and themes in Renaissance art and culture, not limiting them to one city, one interpretation, or one manifestation. Not surprisingly it also features numerous excellent discussions of individual works and ideas. For example, the treatment of naturalism and color in the chapter covering 1470–1480 is a model of clarity and, to pick just two of many possible examples, the discussion of works like Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura (1508–11) and Federico Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo (1576–79) exemplary.

The dual thematic and chronological organization of the chapters is also frequently effective. The aforementioned chapter on naturalism, which brings together the influence of Northern Europe, oil painting in Venice, and the artistic experimentation of Leonardo da Vinci, perfectly embodies the goals of the volume, and one can imagine an instructor using this chapter as the starting point for a rich discussion that focuses not on Florence or Venice, but rather on naturalistic trends in Italian painting more generally. Chapters like “1400–1410: The Cathedral and the City,” “1450–1460: Rome and Other Romes,” and “1560–1570: Decorum, Order, and Reform” similarly hold a strong degree of thematic unity that would be easily understood by the student and would be equally useful for the teacher in constructing wide-ranging discussions that focus on key thematic issues in Italian Renaissance art.

Where the chapters are less successful it is usually because the theme cannot be easily contained within a ten-year window or because the key works from that decade cannot be easily thematized. The latter sometimes causes Campbell and Cole to equivocate, using one word in several not directly related senses (“Chapter 20: A Sense of Place”); or requires them to introduce a number of fairly independent sub-themes into one chapter (“Chapter 16: Literate Art”); or, frequently, leads them to include at the end of the chapter works which, while essential to the goal of coverage, do not easily fit into the chapter’s theme. All of these, I suspect, would raise difficulties for the undergraduate reader and for the teacher, who would need to bring some unity to the material presented.

On other occasions it would have been useful to allow the themes to range over a larger chronological expanse. By largely limiting the discussion of perspective to the chapter “1420–1430: Perspective and Its Discontents,” some of the most interesting users of perspective, such as Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca, are necessarily excluded from the chapter itself (although their works are discussed elsewhere in the text). On a broader scale, issues like portraiture, gender, class, or memorialization, while they are treated in parts of the individual chapters, might have been more effectively presented if the discussion could have been more fully diachronic and also grounded in some appropriate application of critical methodology.

Finally, any review of this, or the other two texts, might wish to acknowledge the problematic nature of the survey text itself. These are expensive books. Given the easy availability of images via resources like ARTstor and the function of these books, for many instructors, as background rather than the central element of their pedagogical strategy, it has become increasingly difficult to justify this expense to students. Moreover, in the age of the flipped classroom in which teachers, rightly, are increasingly encouraged to practice fine-grained art-historical analysis together with students via class discussion, it is not clear what role the survey text should play. The nature of the survey largely discourages the presentation of argument and evidence and encourages a magisterial tone in which assertions are made that presuppose but do not actually include an argument. As students already tend to see the material with which they are presented either as “fact” or “opinion,” but rarely as argument, such a presentation seems to run counter to the learning aims of many instructors. Toward this end, one might wonder if the survey text itself needs to be rethought and perhaps replaced with something else: a brief presentation of important works, a more nuanced (but more prescriptive) collection of case studies, or a series of rigorous diachronic investigations of key themes.

While the Campbell and Cole text does not represent this type of reconceptualization of what a survey text might be, it does provide a different way of thinking about and organizing Italian Renaissance art along thematic lines. Given the high quality of the text as whole, the selection of this text and its particular approach to the study of the Italian Renaissance is likely to depend on the pedagogical interests of the instructor. While History of Italian Renaissance Art is designed to support a stylistic and biographical presentation, and Art in Renaissance Italy lends itself to a more micro-historical and political treatment of Renaissance art, Campbell and Cole’s Italian Renaissance Art encourages both instructor and student to think about key themes in Renaissance art as they manifest themselves in different places and, to some extent, different times. Given the right pedagogical fit, this approach could be very useful to both students and instructors.

Barnaby Nygren
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Loyola University Maryland

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.