Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 1999
Sarah Blake McHam, ed. Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 287 pp.; 139 color ills. Paper $24.95 (0521473667)

Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture brings together under one cover a series of essays written over a thirty-year period. The earliest articles, first published in 1970 and 1971 respectively, are H. W. Janson’s “The Revival of Antiquity in Early Renaissance Sculpture” and Irving Lavin’s “On the Renaissance Portrait Bust.” Also reprinted here are Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s “Holy Dolls: Play and Piety in Florence in the Quattrocento,” (first published in French in 1983) and Claudia Lazzaro’s “Gendered Nature and Its Representation in Sixteenth-Century Garden Sculpture” (first published in 1991). The remaining seven essays—by G. M. Helms, John T. Paoletti, Joy Kenseth, Sarah Blake McHam (the editor), Paul Barolsky, William E. Wallace, and James M. Saslow—are new to this publication. The topics covered span two centuries from the first half of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th century and, essentially, two cities—Florence and Rome. With the exception of the two articles on Michelangelo (by Wallace and Saslow), the other articles do not concentrate on the work of a single artist (although in practical terms, the essays by Janson and Barolsky largely concern Donatello). Instead, most deal with broader issues of technique, iconography, function, patronage, and typology. According to McHam, this multiplicity of approaches is the rationale for the collection.

In her introduction, the editor emphasizes that the publication addresses two lacunae in the critical and methodological study of Italian Renaissance sculpture: first, it is intended to focus “on the objects of analysis, not the mode of analysis and its theoretical basis;” and second, it serves to “redress the paucity of literature about Italian Renaissance sculpture” (p. 5). Both of these goals are admirable. The introduction, the second half of which functions as an independent article on the historiography of Italian Renaissance sculpture, sets out to explain the decreasing role that sculpture plays both in modern consciousness and in contemporary art history. The privileging of painting, both as an entity and as a subject for study, is blamed for this decline. In other words, both the history of painting and the relative ease by which paintings can be photographed for study today are responsible for the apparently diminishing interest in sculpture among students and scholars. Sculpture has clearly lost the paragone, but why is harder to say. It should be recalled that historians of sculpture share the handicap of physicality with architectural historians. Indeed, to experience a building through photographs is an infinitely more distorting process than for sculpture. Yet architecture has maintained its audience because architecture, like painting, is powerfully present in our lives today. Tragically, figural sculpture, the great triumph of the Italian Renaissance, has not survived the modern age in any form that cannot be described as kitsch.

The problems inherent in the reproduction of a three-dimensional work by means of a two-dimensional photograph are manifest: American students are seldom afforded the chance to consider the physical presence of a work of sculpture. Even the great collections of sculpture in the United States are stronger in works in relief than they are in three-dimensional sculpture from before the end of the 16th century. It is often necessary to use ten or more slides in a lecture in order to simulate the reality of a three-dimensional work for students. As McHam rightly points out (p. 7, n. 34), photographs profoundly distort our visualization and, thus, our understanding of sculpture. It is, therefore, rather disheartening to have to acknowledge that the black and white photographs in this book (many from the Charles Seymour, Jr. Archives) are singularly poor in quality. Presumably the financial restraints that determined the selection of photographs (and, in some cases, the omission of images that appeared in the earlier edition of an article), also led to the disturbing use of parenthetical reference to images not included in the book, e.g. “(see Donatello’s Crucifix in Santa Croce, Florence; P/R ill. I.23)” (p. 14). “P/R” refers to John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, (New York: Prentice Hall, 1997). This unhappy solution to the expense of photographic reproduction sets a dangerous precedent; I hope a better solution will be found for future publications.

McHam and her fellow contributors take up arms in the battle to defend sculpture using a variety of approaches. Although not concerned with “theory and methodology per se” (p.5), they cast a satisfyingly wide net: discussions of patronage, classical sources, gender, and sexuality appear alongside considerations of scale, function, production, technique, and contemporary texts. The more-or-less chronological organization of the essays works quite well when read from cover to cover. The reader is offered surprising frissons of recognition when, for example, an idea first hinted at in Janson is amplified in a later article by Paoletti (“Familiar Objects: Sculptural Types in the Collections of the Early Medici”) or Kenseth (“The Virtue of Littleness: Small-Scale Sculptures of the Italian Renaissance”). Whether others not charged with reviewing the book will have a similar opportunity is uncertain. Most students, one might imagine, will dip in and out as their own assignments require. Each of the essays answers a different type of question, exemplifying the diverse methodologies employed today. While a laudatory goal, the overall cohesiveness of the book is partially undercut by variations in the relative merits of each article as an independent work of scholarship; this, of course, is an inherent problem in any collections of essays. Furthermore, although the precise audience for whom this text was intended is not explained, the implied readership seems to shift from essay to essay. Thus McHam’s article on “Public Sculpture in Renaissance Florence” represents an ideal introduction to the long and complex history of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. G. M. Helm’s article, “The Materials and Techniques of Italian Renaissance Sculpture,” addresses a critical instructional problem. Whereas most students had the act of painting thrust on them sometime in their lives, few have ever had the opportunity to carve marble, cast bronze, or even model in wax. Yet the article is both conceptually and literally difficult, diminishing its value as an introduction to sculptural technique. Other articles, notably Lavin’s, Paoletti’s, Klapisch-Zuber’s, and Saslow’s (“Michelangelo: Sculpture, Sex, and Gender”), take up complex issues that are only slowly being digested by scholars. When readings these, students might feel that they have been dropped down in the middle of unknown territories.

The book as a whole is well organized, the articles well chosen—no mean task when joining so many eclectic styles and subjects. The initial discussion of technique underwrites all that follows. It is then with singular pleasure that one is able to reread Janson’s and Lavin’s fundamental articles. Together with Paoletti, Klapisch-Zuber, and Kenseth, they construct a powerful argument in defense of quattrocento sculpture in all its diversity of purpose and means. While a student at Smith College, I was once told by James Holderbaum that there were two ways to approach Italian Renaissance sculpture: You could either concentrate on everyone but Michelangelo and in the end you would be led back to the master, or you could study Michelangelo and in the process be forced to confront all of his contemporaries. McHam and Barolsky exemplify the former approach, Wallace and Saslow the latter. Barolsky, as always, offers such an elegant reading of Donatello through the words of Vasari, that the profundity of his conclusion about the spiritual nature of carving itself seems to slip up on you unaware. Wallace’s essay on “A Week in the Life of Michelangelo” is an all too rare example of a deeply serious subject—Michelangelo’s working methods—presented in a spirited and engaging manner. It is a treat indeed to be able to laugh out loud when reading about Michelangelo! Saslow’s discussion of the sculptor’s own sexuality and its place in the larger cultural milieu of the time allows us to see a different facet of the artist, the internal workings of his mind rather than Wallace’s description of his day-to-day activities. Finally, Lazzaro’s article embodies the essential expansion of type, artists, and iconography that late 20th-century art historians have undertaken. What may once have been dismissed as of lesser import because of quality, purpose, and even location is now being drawn into the canon. Lazzaro’s article serves as a bookend that frees us from the conundrum of Michelangelo while returning us to the essential question of the relationship between painting, sculpture, and architecture.

In the end one might be tempted to question the choice of authors and articles. But immediately one realizes that although other scholars and other topics might be equally essential, this book does not require them. Its value can be measured in the sum of its parts and each part adds to our knowledge of Italian Renaissance sculpture.