Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2016
Douglas Biow On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards Haney Foundation Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 328 pp.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780812246711)

The Renaissance individual, by now, is deconstructed, multiplied, shattered, and divided, but again and again it stubbornly returns, resilient and enduring, reintegrated and unified. In a learned synthesis of cultural and intellectual history, Douglas Biow presents a staunch defense of the concept of the individual, boldly asserting its importance in sixteenth-century Italy. Jacob Burckhardt and Stephen Greenblatt here loom large, as does the recent, insightful work of John Martin (John Jeffries Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Biow assures readers, however, that he intends “not to resuscitate in any form or manner a Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance individual” (ix). Rather, the book aims to “reconsider how valuable the notion of the individual was for some men who lived and worked in Renaissance Italy” (ix), and additionally to substantiate the individual’s “significant cultural force” (5).

On the Importance of Being an Individual: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards draws from a wide array of visual and literary sources to explore sixteenth-century, elite, male identities with a persistent interdisciplinarity. Biow looks to “art, literary, intellectual, medical, and cultural history” (3), and to this list can be added other trends or trajectories with which scholars of diverse stripes have recently engaged: histories of professions, charlatanism, artisanal knowledge, cleanliness, expertise, secrecy, and even plastic surgery. Between the introduction and the brief yet valuable epilogue, the book is organized into three sections of two chapters each: “Professionalism,” specifically that of artisans and humanists disseminating (and dissembling) specialized knowledge; “Mavericks,” and in particular two Venetian provocateurs, the surgeon and professor of secrets Leonardo Fioravanti, and the painter Jacopo Tintoretto; and “Beards”—those cultivated on men’s faces in life and in portraiture, and those deployed as narrative devices on the stage. Three of the six chapters have been published elsewhere, and not all of them rest equally felicitously under the thematic umbrella of the Renaissance individual.

The first chapter examines sixteenth-century artisanal discourses—specialized fields and practices of knowledge artfully and artificially crafted and performed. An exceedingly thorough survey of premodern traditions and definitions of ars and techne sets the stage for an astute analysis of artisanal and professional treatises: ego documents, for Biow, which reveal more about the practitioner than the practice. Biow here enriches accounts of the rising status of the artist by departing from the familiar story of artisans striving for access to nobility. Instead, he underscores the cultivation of uncouthness and aggression—the abrasive and impudent aspects of early modern masculinities—in one of the book’s most valuable contributions to an understanding of the varieties of Renaissance manhood.

Key texts here include Vannoccio Biringuccio’s De la pirotechnia (1540), Giorgio Vasari’s Vite (1550 and 1568), and Benvenuto Cellini’s Trattato dell’oreficeria (ca. 1565) and Trattato della scultura (ca. 1565). A guiding paradox for Biow—one well known to students of Renaissance knowledge and secrecy—is that ostensibly teachable expertise and erudition are rarely proffered candidly or efficaciously, but rather to advertise and amplify professional authority. Biow argues that such performances and publications of knowledge crucially shaped the individuality of remarkable men, as did the literary productions investigated in this and the following chapter, notably Torquato Tasso’s Il Secretario (1587), Francesco Guicciardini’s Ricordi (1530), and Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (from 1508, published 1528). Biow emphasizes both the fundamental vagueness of these texts and the extent to which they purportedly reveal the secrets, logics, and operations of a trade or art, while simultaneously insisting on and reinforcing incommunicability. The texts at once offer knowledge and impede access, bolstering the status of the aggressively self-promoting author and foreclosing any opportunity for the reader to become a successful practitioner.

Part 2, “Mavericks,” examines (and celebrates) the spectacular, the unconventional, the bold. The folksy surgeon Fioravanti staked professional claims through direct experience, dramatic performances, and homespun medicine, all circulated in print. Biow focuses on urine, noses, and the tricks up Fioravanti’s capacious professorial sleeves to imagine how this exceedingly resourceful, gutsy, and iconoclastic doctor positioned himself against and in conflict with institutionally sanctioned practices and discourses, to forge with derring-do his own intellectual and practical authority as “a maverick with a distinctly individualized, personalized voice” (151). Next, Biow turns to Tintoretto, whose artistic identity was fashioned through anti-establishment comradery with Venice’s popolo (if, in comparison, he seems much less the rabble rouser than Fioravanti). Biow interprets visual rhetorics of cleanliness through the conspicuous washer woman in the painter’s Jews in the Desert (ca. 1592) in San Giorgio Maggiore (opposite his famous Last Supper [ca. 1592]). Biow insightfully emphasizes the centrality of cleanliness and politezza within the Serenissima’s constituent ideologies, though links between Tintoretto’s maverick individuality and his visual engagement with cleanliness are rather unconvincingly and imprecisely drawn. As Biow affirms, politezza connects refinement and civility to cleanliness, but also to polish, I would add, intimating ideals of nobility, aristocratic decorum, and lordliness indicated by its relation to the English “polite.”

Perhaps consideration of polish and politeness could be extended to the following section, with the beardless, puliti/politi faces of the fifteenth century serving as foils to a vast assembly of sixteenth-century beards. Accordingly, Biow seeks to explain the shift from “virtually no hair on the face . . . to all types of hair sprouting on the faces of urban Italian men” (195). He considers clean-shaven quattrocento men within the context of Italian urbanization, though perhaps urbanity—imbued with ideals of genteel/gentile status and politeness (and of course polish)—could take the argument further. Biow then deftly interprets sixteenth-century beards—meticulously manicured extensions of the individual which were fashioned and displayed, even fabricated and exchanged—in art, life, and theater. One should be wary, however, of drawing definitive conclusions about adornment or fashion from images, particularly from representations of men whose status afforded disproportionate historic and artistic visibility. While most lords seem to have been shaved regularly, as was Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who also sought out depilatory ointments, the faces of many other sorts of men remain much less historically visible. The present account, in fact, overlooks the facial hair of various fifteenth-century signori. Gian Galeazzo Visconti at the century’s dawn, and Pandolfo III Malatesta (Sigismondo’s father) a few decades later, both cultivated elaborately forked beards. In the early 1480s, Ercole d’Este wore a beard (though not permanently), and Francesco Gonzaga did in the following decade, as assorted portraits, including that in Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna della Vittoria (1496), attest. Biow’s intervention poses fascinating, timely questions, yet shows how much research remains to be undertaken, in terms of bodies and fashion, and especially those of Renaissance men.

Biow redeploys genius as a mysterious quality, and one overdetermined as masculine, as a certain “nescio quid” that “defined extraordinary male individuals and underwrote their ability to succeed brilliantly as professionals” (3). Indeed, scholars increasingly acknowledge that the Renaissance individual (as this person has been imagined) is male, and, accordingly, Biow explores his masculine guises. Yet, this book is not one that is conversant with the fields of gender or masculinity studies (nor one genuinely engaged with fundamental, revisionist scholarship on the individual from feminist perspectives) outside of a handful of essential, recent studies of medieval and early modern men, including Patricia Simons’s The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), and Valeria Finucci’s The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity, and Castration in the Italian Renaissance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). Readers learn quite a bit about a number of singular, sixteenth-century men, but less clear is what perspective is gained on Renaissance masculinity, or about maleness or manhood more broadly. Deliberation on the stakes for studying men alone would be welcomed, beyond a vague “hope that some of my observations may be of use” to scholars of Women’s Studies or that the book may “indirectly contribute” to understanding the gendering of the Renaissance self (4). Gender analysis, in some instances, veers dangerously close to accessing the rhetorics of gender studies to (further) sideline or exclude women, or, alternatively, to intermittently remind the reader that once again we attend to phenomenal men. Perhaps a less celebratory, more critically honed investigation of elite men—and explicit engagement with the relationality of masculinity and its constructions (their formation and performance in relation to those of femininity)—would help avoid reifying genius, individuality, and authority as male, and would enable us to confront and denaturalize the essentially gendered nature of all masculinities.

Most productively in the epilogue, Biow evaluates male individuals in relation to other men. He affirms that “certain elite men yearned to conform to and distinguish themselves from collectivities” as they asserted through beards “their own particularity as individuals, in carefully crafted, public self-presentations” (7; emphasis in original), which might suggest less distance from new historicists and social historians than Biow concedes. Indeed, from this perspective, Biow’s Renaissance individual might strike the reader as simultaneously less traditional and less polemical than one might have supposed. The epilogue acknowledges that the experiences and performances of men—let alone their beards and artisanal treatises—were embedded within communities with overlapping and conflicting but often-shared identities. Fashion theory serves as a useful guide here, attentive as it is to individuality’s relation to collectivity and conformity. Individuals, let me suggest, locate and assess themselves within social structures, and make choices to express conformity, imitation, or differentiation. For even the most inventive maverick, available choices reacted to and were defined in relation to previous fashions and possibilities—whether by recalling, rejecting, or adapting them, or more typically somewhere in between. For Biow, there is “substantial value in thinking about the individual in the Italian Renaissance,” but to conceptualize this person, it is crucial, as he asserts some extraordinary men did, to “reflect upon how the individual and the collectivity are dialectically engaged as well as historically determined” (227).

Timothy McCall
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of History, Villanova University

Please send comments about this review to