Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2016
David Young Kim The Traveling Artist in the Italian Renaissance: Geography, Mobility, and Style New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 304 pp.; 63 color ills.; 104 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300198676)

In The Traveling Artist in the Italian Renaissance: Geography, Mobility, and Style, David Young Kim examines how the mobility of artists was understood in early modern Italy. Seeing the era as being one “on the move” and “in motion,” he presents a rich account of this mobility, particularly its meaning in relation to geography and style. Ultimately, his book’s true concern is early modern subjectivity and how mobility could be understood as an “artful, puzzling, and controversial” process, one that could, in certain cases, help construct a successful artistic persona or banish it to the margins of history. Reading key texts and images, Kim argues convincingly that early modern mobility should be considered an “iridescent concept, a flickering semantic surface whose hue constantly changes according to the speaker’s disposition, sympathy, or prejudice” (2). Thus, in attempting to assess early modern mobility, Kim must himself be dexterous in his approach, guiding the reader through a thicket of complicated material. He provides his work with a list of postulations that captures some of the most pertinent things to take away from his dizzyingly multifarious discussion. Provided upfront in his introduction, these postulations work like threads in the fascinating labyrinth that follows.

Kim’s first chapter establishes, in highly nuanced terms, the relationship between his “iridescent concept” of mobility and such traditional art-historical ideas as influence and style. Taking the reader on a tour of the work of Lorenzo Lotto (that ultimate chameleon among early modern Italian artists who could deploy the local styles he encountered during his peripatetic career), Kim demonstrates in a series of visual analyses that Lotto, rather than passively imbibing the artistic atmospheres of his venues (that is rather than being merely “influenced” by the styles of particular places), is an active arbiter of his own changing style, an artist who “can intensify, compile, or reject his understanding of place, both native and foreign, in its subtle degrees” (34). With Lotto’s precedent firmly in mind, Kim then confronts the field’s historiography where he perceives, as others have, that the influence concept simply cannot capture the chaotic nature of style as it is registered in works of art. Rather, an artist’s style continuously changes, marked by evolving differences that speak to intersections within time, personal relationships, and geographical space. Kim shows how diagnosing style raises questions about cause and effect that assertions about influence simply cannot answer. To address this problem, he suggests how focusing on the concept of mobility allows artworks to be interpreted more fully. As Kim puts it, mobility “posits difference as style’s ontological foundation, unstable as quicksand as that foundation may be” (36).

Having established the desirability of understanding mobility in period terms, Kim moves on to read deeply in period texts. His particular focus is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in the edition of 1550, which Kim shows to be ambivalent about mobility. On the one hand, Vasari points out that it was the mobility of barbarians, Germans, and Byzantines that brought low the arts of Italy; on the other, Vasari often sees the travels of artists, such as Giotto or Michelangelo, as disseminating good style to other places. In these examples, the reader is not surprised to learn that Vasari’s statements about mobility are also exercises in judgment, revealing his regional preferences. So, in making use of the term aria (a term that can designate either a localized climate or an artist’s manner), Vasari suggests that the rarefied aria of Florence could liberate an artist from bad practice, just as the mal’aria of another city could undermine the good kind. In fact, travel was not helpful to every artist, especially if he does not exercise good judgment regarding what is studied while journeying. It should also be borne in mind that, in contrast to those artists who obtained glory abroad, an artist might be censured for assuming pretensions upon returning home.

Most interestingly, Kim shows that Vasari did not conceive mobility only in terms of physical travel: even if the artist was stationary, he should keep an active mind, stimulated by interaction with others or mobile artworks. Finally, Kim points out how Vasari could imagine mobility as something internal or spiritual, like a pilgrimage toward artistic greatness. Following in Vasari’s footsteps, other writers could carry this imagery further, comparing the artist’s struggle to the difficult ascent of a high mountain.

For Vasari, one symptom of studious travel, both actual and mental, was the achievement of copia, that demonstrable diversity of subject matter and styles which Kim relates to another of Vasari’s terms, varietà. The meanings of varietà dominate Kim’s discussion in the second half of the book, which locates the quality not only in artists but also in their artworks. As Kim argues, images become sites of virtual travel, being repositories of motifs and models learned from mobile study, collecting, and discoursing on art. In his account, Vasari’s key exemplar of proper varietà is Raphael of Urbino, the sometime provincial artist who, through his resettling in Florence and then Rome, develops a synthetic style out of the many he samples in order to compete with the Florentine Michelangelo’s inborn greatness. Joining varietà to good judgment, Raphael not only changes his style as he moves, but also enlarges the range of his subject matter. But Kim also shows how this geographical vector can be reversed when, later, Perino del Vaga returns home to Florence from Rome, demonstrating his achievement of varietà, a varietà that articulates the differenza between his newer, Roman style and the one in which he was schooled. With such developments, Kim indicates how discussions of varietà eventually came to confuse, rather than determine, the special character of individual geographical styles, as an artist’s manner might embed more than one style inside itself. For Kim, such situations embody the potential problems that threaten the coherence of Vasari’s thinking about mobility throughout the Lives.

Later sections of the book examine responses to Vasari’s mobility concept, including that of the Venetian patriot, Lodovico Dolce, in his dialogue L’Aretino of 1557. Dolce’s perspective on mobility centers on the work of Titian, whose huge renown almost leads the artist to depart Venice for prestigious work elsewhere, nearly depriving the city of its chief ornament. In contrast to Vasari, who thought travel to Florence and Rome obligatory for artistic greatness, Dolce’s Titian does not travel much at all, but conceives a new style at home, as if by way of a miracle. Moreover, Kim shows that when Dolce’s Titian does spend some time away from Venice he is not contaminated by foreign influences, but rather jumpstarts the mobility of others who then travel to see his works. In the process, Titian becomes something like a traveling critic. Kim contrasts all this with Dolce’s treatment of Sebastiano del Piombo, the Venetian expat whom Dolce criticizes for adopting the style of Rome and depending on the artistic help of foreign artists like Michelangelo. In fact, Kim shows how Dolce ultimately understands mobility in largely disparaging terms, concluding that, for Dolce, too much interest in the foreign, and particularly the non-Venetian, defies decorum. In this way, Dolce’s views differ considerably from those of Vasari, while simultaneously reflecting a contemporary trend in Venice where authors increasingly disapproved of the eclectic syncretism that had defined the city’s culture in earlier epochs.

Kim considers at length two other early modern writers who treat mobility, Giovanni Battista Armenini and Federico Zuccaro. In his De’ veri precetti della pittura (1586), Armenini presents himself as an ideal eyewitness guide to the fledgling artist, arguing that an artist must associate himself with a variety of places and persons through travel. Armenini presents the ideal destination of these travels as Rome, where he emphasizes multisensory investigation of physical artworks (so that they may forcefully impress themselves on the traveler’s memory) and discursive communication with other artists on site. Although Kim shows that Armenini is not an entirely reliable or useful guide, he indicates that Armenini moves the discussion of mobility away from the realm of biography to make it a precept of artistic study, declaring that mobility alters the mind in fundamental ways that books cannot. Following Armenini, Zuccaro’s Il passaggio per Italia (1608) presents mobility as a diversion and recreation of the author himself. Far from focusing exclusively on artistic studies, Zuccaro embraces travel for its own sake, recording the sights, sounds, and flavors of his various destinations. The artist’s self, not his style, is touched by the varietà that he encounters, so that “varietà remains a sight seen at a distance rather than a term with stylistic import” (233). In sum, Zuccaro is a traveling gentleman relating his experiences, an artist who emphasizes ecumenical sensory enjoyment in a way that contrasts with Vasari’s own preference for abstentious sobriety in travel devoted to artistic study alone.

No summary of Kim’s book can do justice to the richness of his treatment of the topic and his utilization of a whole range of period sources relating to other subjects including travel literature and natural history. Interdisciplinarity aside, however, the real importance of his book may be the way it inserts itself into the growing debates surrounding circulation and exchange in the early modern world at large. Although he rightly focuses on Italy, Kim has much to contribute to the growing community of art and cultural historians whose interests look beyond Italy’s borders. In asking about period attitudes toward mobility, Kim shows how art history can do far more than source the foreign carpets and porcelain in Italian pictures. Exchanging the concept of “influence” for “mobility” may allow us to seek better answers to the questions of why and how early modern “globalization” mattered to period artists and their audiences.

Christian K. Kleinbub
Associate Professor and Chair of Graduate Studies, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University