Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 1999
Hatden B. J. Maginnis Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Re-evaluation University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. 368 pp.; 16 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0271015993)
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Some of the underlying tensions—I hesitate to use the word conflicts—in this ambitious book are expressed even before it is opened, in the juxtaposition of the name of the great Florentine artist, Giotto, with a detail of the Virgin and Child from the Rucellai Madonna painted by the Sienese master Duccio on the cover. Is the point that the era belongs (or has belonged) verbally or nominally to Giotto (i.e., Florence), but, in fact, visually to Duccio (i.e., Siena)? This would seem to be the sense, at least in part, of the author’s dual preoccupation with words and images—with the historiographic tradition extending from the Aretine Vasari to Millard Meiss on one hand, and with the major monuments of Italian painting in the first half of the fourteenth century on the other (the author’s knowledge of which is impressive). For example, in the first part of the book Maginnis argues that Duccio, and particularly in his Rucellai Madonna, was in fact the true progenitor of Trecento naturalism, which, in turn, served as a foundation for the style of the Renaissance (but not without considerable difficulties and deviations en route). Concurrently he argues that Giotto, to whom the role of founder and progenitor was given by Vasari, practiced an art that had “non-naturalistic aims” (102). In so doing, Maginnis presents us with a reversal of the world order derived from the canonical texts on which art history has traditionally been based, and he does so by taking what he posits is a fresh look at the paintings themselves.

Such points also give some sense of the import of the term “reevaluation” for Maginnis. This is not a book that reveals heretofore unknown or obscure works of painting, nor is it based on new material excavated from the archives. Its realm is that of the familiar, at least to students of Trecento painting. Most of the major monuments of the Trecento are assembled here—from Assisi, Siena, Florence, Padua, and Pisa. And so, too, are many of the major categories, concepts, and theories that have been used to order and explain them—"naturalism," “narrative,” “the Black Death style.” Within the context of the theme of word and image, however, it is interesting to observe that, whereas Maginnis’s verbal narrative follows essentially a chronological trajectory, the illustrations are arranged in a way that cuts across the timeline, in pairs on the individual openings of the book, each given one full page. The author has done this “to enlarge upon the text by creating visual ‘arguments’ in the sequence and juxtaposition of the illustrations,” so that “the reader will discover contrasts and comparisons that . . . will be revealing” (ix).

While it strikes me as admirable on the face of it to give the reader such freedom (and especially in contrast to the nervous, brittle, and grimly overdetermined cropping and fussy arrangement of figures that occurs in some art-historical publications today), this disposition, however simple, straightforward, and neutral-seeming bears the burden of a Wolfflinian methodology that has an important implication in the present context. Many of the paintings that were the subjects of Wofflin’s comparisons were shaped like the very pages of the books on which they were reproduced, rectangular or square, and it would appear to be the same for the works that Maginnis discusses here, but it is most decidedly not. Thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italy is characterized by painting before the age of the tableau (and its connoisseur), and the shapes of the works, which might strike us today as eccentric or bizarre, and their placement in elaborately filigreed frames or on the irregular or curved surfaces of walls, spoke to the functions for which they were produced. By and large these were paintings made, not for palaces and public buildings, but for sacred spaces, chapels, and churches, which were also the settings for activities of cult, devotion, and memory that were rich, complex, and full of diversity. Surely the life of these places is one critical frame of reference that the historian must take into account in any explanation of why the paintings look the way that they do, and especially as regards this crucial spatial dimension (which would then inevitably involve a fuller discussion of such other media as architecture and sculpture as well as framing devices and ornament). For the most part, these paintings have been made here to look like something they are not. Maginnis’s arrangement makes them look like a museum gallery sequence.

The abstracting of these works from their context is very much in the spirit of Maginnis’s concept of style, which could be described as transcendent: “Pictures have a troublesome way of asserting their independence” (1). “Art has a history, because there is a history of style” (3). “Naturalism” and “abstraction” move in “currents”: “. . . as painting started to move toward the mannered style” (201; or also 133). Style “develops” (97). Transcendent, but not teleological: “. . . at every point, in every case, painters might have made alternate decisions” (108). But in what sense were these decisions about “style”? What I seek in pondering this art is some sense of the circumstances and contingencies of its production and use, precisely the points that have been explored recently by scholars, particularly from Germany, who have studied the relationship between Byzantine icons and early Italian panel painting (Hans Belting), the growth of the Franciscan order and the diffusion of Franciscan imagery (Dieter Blume), and the cult of saints (Klaus Kruger). This research has offered important insights into why Dugento and Trecento paintings look the way that they do by placing art within the context of the practices of individuals, of institutions, and of societies. It is not that Maginnis is unaware of the issues. He speaks at times eloquently of meaning, function, and viewership, but his observations have been grafted onto a conviction that is fundamentally other (see esp. 192ff.).

One of the longest chapters in the book is devoted to a discussion of Meiss’s now famous thesis concerning the impact of the Black Death on painting in Florence and Siena. For Meiss the plague represented a psychic disturbance in a social context that had a profound effect on art by literally reversing its direction and causing a return to the medieval values of the pre-Giotto age. Maginnis argues against such cause and effect in essentially two ways. He suggests that the impact of the plague in a variety of arenas of life was probably less devastating than Meiss had assumed. But when one can speak of a thirty to sixty percent loss of population within a few years, the question of “more or less devastation” seems academic. Ultimately, however, Maginnis rejects what he considers to be external factors altogether. According to Maginnis, painting changed within itself by becoming more and more of what it had been for quite some time already before the plague—a beautiful object, a decorated surface—to which Maginnis applies the term “mannered.” In discussing the term Maginnis alludes to its origins in sixteenth-century criticism and culture, which must return us in some sense to a difficulty raised before. By the sixteenth century, of course, the space of painting itself had changed: it was no longer anchored, as it was in the middle of the fourteenth century, in the sacred realm of cult, devotion, and memory; it had become an item to be collected and displayed in the houses of rich men and women who prized it in a culture of connoisseurship within which the term “mannered” itself had a place.

Maginnis’s research on Sienese Trecento painting, presented in numerous articles over the years, has illuminated an array of monuments and issues. In this broadly framed and synthetic study, he offers us the other side of the coin: an interpretation of Trecento painting in the form of a large, thematic narrative. Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation will have an important place in the discussion of the subject for some time to come.

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