Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2016
Adrian W. B. Randolph Touching Objects: Intimate Experiences of Italian Fifteenth-Century Art New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 328 pp.; 50 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300204780)

Adrian W. B. Randolph’s Touching Objects: Intimate Experiences of Italian Fifteenth-Century Art is an impressive scholarly work, moving effortlessly from discussions of mid-twentieth-century German art historians to contemporary methodological issues around feminism and aesthetics. Randolph’s fluency in language and culture is matched by his conceptual and intellectual confidence. The result is a demonstration of where art history has traveled and what now might be asked and known about works of art. Specifically, this book, which addresses objects made for or associated with the feminine or the domestic sphere (except in one instance), inquires not merely what the images in or on a work of art mean but also whether they might mean different things to different groups, doing different things—in other words does holding, handling, or touching something change its meaning? Although the idea that one can uncover this level of historical response might be met with a certain, justifiable degree of skepticism, Randolph does a remarkable job negotiating between modern and Renaissance encounters. In the end even the most incredulous reader is forced to revisit, guided by the author, some essential ideas about viewing and using art in fifteenth-century Florence.

To begin with what the book is not: It is not about sculpture, i.e., it is not about the tactile in art. The title, while not incorrect, is perhaps a bit playful because Randolph considers not touchable things but who touches things in the Renaissance and how that action creates responses or, in the words of the subtitle, “Intimate Experiences.” The duality implicit in the English word “touching”—both the act of and the emotion—is slanted toward experience. Randolph uses the German words—scholarly and historical to be sure—Erfahrung and Erlebnis (5) in his reflection on this quality as considered in Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s 1960 Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method, rev. trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004). Randolph addresses the social construct implicit in the use or experience of particular objects, especially within a world equally inhabited by women and men. Implicit throughout is the notion that such “gender equality” is an important part of Renaissance studies and Renaissance art. While it is impossible to argue as to the general veracity of that statement, Randolph makes it abundantly clear, at least to this reader, that objects made for and about women address different ideas and, also, employ different standards.

Each chapter in Randolph’s book is its own self-contained essay. In each one, ideas are presented about well-known works that completely alter the reader’s modern experience of them. Every chapter rehearses the book’s large ideas and its methodological arguments. This was probably more evident to this reviewer, who read the entire text over the course of just a few days, than it will be to most readers, who most likely will read a single chapter at a time, focusing on one of the various genres. Although redundant in spots, the central argument about use and meaning—experience—builds elegantly from object to object.

The first genre Randolph addresses is portraiture. Specifically he uses the appearance of hands within portraits, and strikingly most often female hands, to make a point about physicality. The contrast between what Randolph describes as the “faciality” of male portrait busts (from quattrocento Florence) and the corporeality of female portraits from the same city and period succinctly articulates the evident difference between them (33). Yet the logical next step that faciality, or the desire to record a particular face, does not pertain to female portraits, is not argued. One of the most hotly debated issues in Renaissance portraiture—what is a female portrait?—is, therefore, sidestepped. To his sense of the body of the female sitter, Randolph adds the gesture of hands. His link between decorum and immobile hands and their inverse (wild hands and inappropriate behavior)—expressed, for example, when Salome waves her arms (48–50)—forever alters one’s sense of these gestures.

Portraits concern themselves with the intimate viewing of an individual. Randolph expands this process to include the place defined for viewing—not of portraits per se, but how frames, whether actual, depicted, or conceptual, define what we see. Here again, the idea resonates most profoundly with female portraits. The topic of seeing through a window, or just seeing through, begins with the Incarnation—“visual penetration” (75)—and progresses via “the male gaze” and gendered spaces to framed portraits of women. Although this list might seem artificial, Randolph brings together theology, urban space, and gendered social constraints to illuminate his selected images.

The core of the book is devoted to a series of what might be called domestic objects. The term often implies a work of lesser value made by an artisan rather than an artist, but this is exactly Randolph’s challenge. Objects made for the home and used in the home had complex meanings that need to be considered with the same care as altarpieces for churches. Randolph devotes a chapter to boxes, another to chests, and a third to trays. Each type relates in its function and decoration to the lives of women. As items for display and as containers, they are themselves comparable to women, a point also made in relationship to paintings and frames (112). The small containers, scatole, were decorated with amorous themes, yet this eroticism is depicted with remarkable violence, a martial physicality unexpected in the domestic sphere. According to Randolph, love, passion, and “the vital spirit” that is driven to such violence are tied to the very nature of vision itself (135–37).

From the passionate but imaginary hunt, the book turns to sleep and memory as depicted on cassoni. Again, Randolph begins with a reconstruction of how the object was used. He makes the important point that the historically accurate forzieri narratives were viewed over and over (146–50), like modern picture books, endlessly available for rereading and reviewing. The nudes on the inside covers of such giant boxes are especially interesting. Randolph links the images of reclining nudes enclosed within to shame and knowledge of the body. Although he notes the parallel with sarcophagi (163), the Renaissance reading of a reclining nude body in a box, in imitation of sleep and therefore death, is surely more significant than he implies. It would be a daily reminder of the shortness of life on earth and the inevitable burial to come. Randolph is clearly aware of the puns, visual and verbal, implied in his study, but that such ideas survive into English—chest and box being two salacious wordplays relevant here—opens up a new level of awareness on the part of the modern reader.

The last of the domestic objects discussed is the tray. Here readers are returned to the first theme—the role of hands, of touching in the sense of holding and using because of their “handiness” (174). Although Randolph correctly emphasizes the double-sided nature of these trays and the parallel with both medals and altarpieces, it is hard to imagine the physical act of seeing both sides. Randolph, however, mines his discussion of windows and frames to turn the viewing of the deschi into a “multiple, refractive and interactive” process, a seeing into as much as a seeing through (177–78)—a definition of viewing that returns the reader to the notion of the frame. Indeed, the entire chapter, which unfolds like origami in reverse, reflects ideas, actions, and themes from earlier chapters. So love, marriage, public and private, touching and viewing all play roles in this complex chapter.

The last chapter, like the first, moves beyond the domestic female sphere to consider works with a public function, specifically the pax. Randolph affords such much-used objects their intrinsic value as works of art. He goes on to link the physical experience of them—the act of kissing—to all of the themes presented earlier. Here it might be worth noting a lost opportunity to link his idea with ritual as discussed by Joanna Cannon in her article “Kissing the Virgin’s Foot: Adoratio Before the Madonna and Child Enacted, Depicted, Imagined” (Studies in Iconography 31 (2010): 1–50).

Touching Objects is a remarkable performance. As is the case with most Yale University Press publications, it is lavishly illustrated, and the notes, although abbreviated in style, as required currently, open up new vistas for the study of the theory of ideas, women in the Renaissance, and some of the objects themselves. Even the most traditional reader will find exposure to Randolph’s book rewarding. Carefully restrained in his interpretations, he considers the experience of living with what for us are works of art by removing them, at least temporarily, from the museum and returning them to their original home and meaning.

Shelley E. Zuraw
Associate Professor, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia

Please send comments about this review to