Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2013
Patricia Emison The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 264 pp.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9781107005266)

Patricia Emison’s The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory examines some of the most celebrated works of art of the Italian Renaissance. Its itinerary is not based on a linear, chronological trajectory, but rather on salient issues and works that have defined the field of early modern art history. Emison establishes her objectives in the introductory chapter, stating that her book addresses students of the Italian Renaissance who wish to learn more about specific topics as well as a more general audience interested in acquiring a broader knowledge of this extraordinarily rich period in the history of art. In Emison’s own words, it is “an effort to introduce it afresh as a time of admirable achievement . . . and to do so as succinctly as possible” (3). In other words, Emison’s study seems intended to serve as a companion to general textbooks covering the art of the Renaissance, offering more focused readings on specific topics and eminent works of art. Overall, her book aims to explain why Italian Renaissance art has long epitomized the center of gravity for the discipline of art history itself, although I would assert that this view holds less true in the current global era. Emison summarizes and synthesizes major issues of imitation, invention, authorship, and beauty, all of which have been and are key themes for an engaging body of Italian Renaissance artworks. This corpus has been recently approached with methodological perspectives in addition to what Emison proposes, as outlined, for instance, by Rebecca Zorach in her introduction to Renaissance Theory (Rebecca Zorach, “Renaissance Theory: A Selective Introduction,” Renaissance Theory, eds., James Elkins and Robert Williams, New York: Routledge, 2008), where she writes about alternative routes taken in the field of Italian Renaissance art. Emison’s book should be read in conjunction with such texts for an enlarged and richer view of the field and its critical perspectives.

Chapter 2 of The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory provides an overview of the historiography of the Renaissance, characterizing its reception over time, although her narrative primarily relies on Anglophone literature. It is undoubtedly a daunting enterprise to embrace the German or Italian literature on the topic, and Emison’s aim is to offer a critical framework for a volume that addresses an English-speaking audience. Renewed engagements with the scholarship of such influential authors as Roberto Longhi or André Chastel, among others, remain foundational, however, for the way in which art historians think and write about Italian Renaissance art and architecture.

Chapter 3 deals with one of the most vexing questions in the field: the rise of Renaissance art and its norms in the early trecento. As has long been known, the renewal of letters and arts beginning with Dante, Petrarch, Giotto, and Simone Martini was never directed literally toward reproducing the ancient past. Instead, trecento art created and perfected a new culture based on the assimilation and transformation of ancient traditions and histories. Emison explains the implications of this rebirth and rejuvenation (36) and evokes the political and social changes that accompanied the development of the new art of the Renaissance in Italy. Among the several examples examined, Emison’s treatment of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (a Franciscan church consciously turned into an ancient temple) as a renewal ideal that manifested itself in quasi-archeological terms in the fifteenth century is quite effective. Emison’s inclusion of drawings is noteworthy, especially those by Michelangelo, which were admired as works of art with their own distinct teleologies and not so much as preparatory sketches, models, or aid-memoirs for works in other media.

Chapter 4 on portraiture turned out to be one of my favorites, not only because it opens with a longstanding Renaissance “icon,” Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1503–6), but also because it reviews unresolved issues that still bedevil readings of this mysterious image. Described in Vasari’s biographical account of Leonardo, this elusive portrait began its life as an enigma largely because of the woman’s celebrated smile. Leonardo represented both the appearances of Lisa’s outer charm and the deeper beauty of her character, simultaneously making claims for the art of painting itself. Emison pointedly writes that “Leonardo moved the portrait from something to admire toward something to think about” (71). Although she does not propose any new interpretation, Emison’s discussion of other celebrated female portraits, from Raphael’s Velata (ca. 1516) to Giorgione’s so-called Portrait of Laura (ca. 1506), offers a useful compendium to reflect further on an equation between the beauty of women and that of art, on appearance and semblance, and on the blurred distinction between masquerade and self-display in Renaissance portraiture.

Chapter 5, “Visualizing Ideas,” considers a number of paintings, sculptures, and prints, as it shows how artists represented Christian and pagan themes. Emison presents and deliberates on a sequence of experimental works, including Giotto’s fresco of the Visitation in Padua’s Arena Chapel (1305), Masaccio’s Enthroned Madonna from the Pisa polyptych (ca. 1426), Andrea Mantegna’s engraving Battle of the Sea Gods (1470), and, finally, Giambologna’s marble Rape of the Sabine Woman in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi (ca. 1581–83) as examples of artistry and new forms. In addition, she returns to the question of the origins of Italian Renaissance art, which old theories “traced to the teachings of Saint Francis” (114). The notion of origins in the turning of the Byzantine style into the modern manner has recently been problematized by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, among others (Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, New York: Zone Books, 2010) (click here for review). These scholars have shown that the sharp break of the medieval era into the Renaissance postulated by Vasari in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550; 1568) is artificial. Icons, Byzantine iconographies, and early Christian ivories and reliefs had a life well into the sixteenth century in, for example, the collections of antiquities gathered by rulers, scholars, and artists throughout the Italian peninsula. Byzantine mosaics or their fictive rendering appear in major Renaissance monuments and works of art. A recognition of the total neglect of Ravenna, a major center of Western and Eastern cultures in Italy, in any general narrative of the Italian Renaissance, including Emison’s book, invites a rethinking of the origins of the Renaissance in less linear sequences than histories of the period have admitted so far.

Chapters 6–8, respectively entitled “Why Did the High Renaissance Happen,” “Revolutionary Norms of Beauty,” and “Genius,” attempt to explain works of charming, intoxicating beauty and inventive compositional forms produced by such self-aware artists as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, and Correggio. These chapters address some of the most debated issues in Renaissance art, including the question of originality, along with the central role of art in Italian society. Correggio is a positive addition to Emison’s retinue of Renaissance heroes, as he remains one of the most overlooked masters of the Italian Renaissance whose artistic achievements and role in the development of Renaissance art continue to be underestimated. One of the merits of these chapters, however, is the enlarged corpus they cover, with a particular focus on prints. It has long been noticed that prints (in Italy, especially Marcantonio Raimondi’s prints) provided Renaissance masters with a ready-made and bounteous vocabulary of artistic inventions, with the medium allowing for the circulation and acceleration of ideas. One wonders whether additional attention to ancient coins, gems, and plaquettes might reveal that these media also were favored forms of knowledge transfer. Renaissance artists copied, replicated, and reinvented these small-size, portable objects in other art media, such as large sculpture, drawings, and fresco painting. In general, bibliographical references in Emison’s book are necessarily limited as a result of its scope, yet they could have been more current considering recent debates over crucial works of the Italian Renaissance that the volume examines.

The epilogue of Emison’s study poses a provocative question: why should we study the Italian Renaissance now? Her book has of course already addressed that issue, whether directly or indirectly. But finding a definitive answer is another matter. It is certainly clear that the North American academic world is slowly incorporating more non-Western and less Eurocentric fields. A quick review of offerings in art history programs throughout the United States and Canada reflects these shifts. Although Italian Renaissance art is no longer the center of the discipline, there is reason to agree with Emison when she writes that in valuing this particular era of visual culture we “could collectively be remembered not least for our art, [but] for being the kind of society that valuing art could make us” (219). In that sense, the study of Italian Renaissance art and the recollection of its visual memory could continue to teach new lessons, while also offering less charted topics of investigation for renewed interrogations.

Giancarla Periti
Assistant Professor, Graduate Department of History of Art, University of Toronto

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