Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2000
Francis Ames-Lewis The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist Yale University Press, 2000. 322 pp.; 50 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0300092950)

This book is an amazing compendium of information concerning the reevaluation of painting and sculpture as parts of the liberal arts during the early Renaissance (1290-1520); architecture is all but excluded because its position was already rather elevated. The observation in itself is not new; assessment of the graphic arts was a leitmotif of art historical scholarship throughout the twentieth century. What is impressive is the myriad aperçus Ames-Lewis has amassed and divided into eleven salient categories, each developed in well-illustrated and annotated chapters. These chapters, he proposes, when taken together, produce an image of the ambient life of talented boys and men who start life at the beginning of the fifteenth century as skilled craftsmen and, after a hundred years or so, mature into attractive, sought after, intellectuals who are nurtured by the rich and famous. In the process, they moved upward in rank from respected but socially restricted professionals to the level of the intelligentsia where their products are elevated to a new position of respect. The plethora of documentary information is culled primarily from published sources that have moved away from the former fundamentals of art history (attribution, date, and iconography) to deal with social context (practice, patronage, and biography). These eminently viable categories make for a series of lively and erudite analyses which are directed, as the author himself declares, to a general public of nonspecialists.

The analyses follow a path of the artists’ ever increasing intellectualization, starting in Chapter 2 with their education and training. Within vernacular and technical instruction, Alberti’s treatise on painting is shown to have had a major and far-reaching impact. Chapter 3 deals with their social and cultural activities including holding civic appointments (such as mayors and council members), titles at court (familiaris), personal elegance, collecting of art objects (Andrea Bregno and Giulio Romano, e.g.), and giving artistic advice to other collectors. Many of these activities were in emulation of antique artists, as reported by Pliny the Elder.

As described in Chapter 4, the artists were commemorated in permanent tombs, characteristically in the form of bust portraits in the imago clipeata form, and cenotaphs erected by later devotees (Fra Filippo Lippi’s in Spoleto), plus a small number of self-designed mortuary chapels (by Mantegna, one of the heroes of this book, and Raphael, the other hero).

The subject of Chapter 5 is the artists’ knowledge and use of archaeology, augmented by the spectacular finds of the later fifteenth-early sixteenth century (Golden House of Nero, Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön). While it was too early for a true “scientific” archaeological approach, the author says they “engaged visually and intellectually with the material culture of the classical past,” looking for “clearer anatomical form, pictorial composition, and treatment of narrative” (109-10). Raphael showed his scholarly acumen in differentiating three period styles on the Arch of Constantine, and artists like Mantegna and Antico tried to recreate the life of the classical past with their own works. Others induced a growing trade in “fakes.”

In Chapter 6, the relation between image and text is discussed chiefly in terms of the paragone or Comparison of the Arts, as set out primarily in the writings of Leonardo and Castiglione, with emphasis on the classical source in Philostratus. Statistically, painting seems to come out on top (in fact there is little reference to monumental sculpture in this book ), and not only for artists but also for courtiers. The engagement of the artists in this intellectual discourse and mental exertion, according to the author, shows them sharing humanist values.

Everyone agrees, as Chapter 7 argues, on the similarities between painting and poetry. The discussion points out painters who write poetry and poets who paint; poetry about particular paintings, and paintings that draw their inspiration from poetry. The one true art-historical innovation is the new genre of paintings as poetry, that is, those images with no narrative but only poetic evocations of the forces of nature, seasons, weather or mood as their subject. Botticelli’s Primavera is the first, followed soon by the poesie of Giorgione and Titian.

The subject of “Artistic license, Invention, and Imagination” in Chapter 8 takes the form of reports on artists refusing to do what is expected: Donatello choosing to leave areas of his sculptures unfinished and thus inventing “intentional negligence”; Bellini refusing to paint a subject Isabella d’Este tried to impose; Mantegna doing The Triumphs not for a preconceived destination but for his own pleasure (in faithfully reconstructing the classical Roman world).

Chapter 9 describes Ekphrasis as a method that is again heavily attached to the artist’s interest in classical prototypes, gained through study or humanist advisors. By the end of the century, reconstructions of ancient compositions and subjects caused numberless artists to be identified with Apelles and Phidias. Under this rubric, the author takes occasion to put a new slant on the praiseworthiness of some of the greatest paintings of the first quarter of the sixteenth century (Bellini’s Feast of the Gods; Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians).

Self-portraiture, the theme of Chapter 10, forms another building block in the definition of the artist’s increasing intellectualism. In seeking Renaissance images to be trusted as portraits, let alone self-portraits, the author’s disclaimers seem to render the subject so “problematical” as to be insoluble. Nevertheless, he finds a few signed and sealed examples and shows that artists had various ways of upping the ante of self-representation. They put themselves in the company of the great and mighty (Gozzoli, Botticelli), showed their success by wearing expensive apparel, and demonstrated their humanistic and classicizing pretensions by pairing themselves with poets and humanists (Ghirlandaio). They put self-portraits on medals with classicizing subjects of the reverse (Filarete), and on trompe-l’oeil panel paintings complete with elaborate shrine-like settings (Perugino, Pintoricchio).

Self-portraiture extends into the topic of Chapter 11, namely, the display of skill. The claim is that artists kept these and other works for which no purpose can be documented, to demonstrate both their technical and intellectual prowess. Ames-Lewis says that these works of self-advertisement had the following characteristics: small size, cheap materials, special visual effects, and no known function. His discussion moves from prints, to drawings, and finally to paintings. Some examples of the latter are Piero’s Flagellation, Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome, Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in Convex Mirror, Van Eyck’s Man in the Red Turban, and Donatello’s Feast of Herod. He says that they all show the artist’s engagement with the intellectual and scholarly concerns of those who were practitioners of the liberal arts.

The book ends with a brief chapter on artists’ reputations. During their lifetimes, artists’ temperaments were characterized (Niccolò dell’Arca was thickheaded), independence was noted (Ghiberti’s rejection (sic) of Leonardo Bruni’s program), and individual styles were defined. Such characterizations show the artists’ increased prestige, the final element that justified recognition of their works in painting and sculpture, alongside poetry, rhetoric and their companions, as liberal arts.

Now, as valuable as this compendium is, let the nonspecialist to whom this book is directed beware. What art historians have been at pains to put together in terms of chronology and development, this author tears asunder. In each paragraph in each category, nuggets of information and direct quotes skip about in a fashion that makes anyone who cares about historical sequence positively dizzy. If you know your chronology, you can follow. But for a general reader and nonspecialist, it is disaster.

Then there is the author’s failure of courage. Prof. Ames-Lewis reports that no evidence is evidence if not backed up in writing. Works of art are not to be trusted to say what they mean. Only when accompanied by written documentation can a work have a date, a function, or a meaning, if any. And even about such works, we can never be sure. So what is the result? Undocumented works, such as Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation, and the other so-called demonstration pieces, become rather boring exercises and the nonspecialist is discouraged from learning by looking. Aside from this rather dispiriting reticence, endemic in certain forms of British art history, probably the most serious short-coming of this study is the heavy preconception that the study of secular humanistic classicism is the only evidence for intellectual activity. It is this old idea that is fully documented. What is missing is a single mention of the artist’s search for enriched spiritual and psychological expression through new representational and compositional techniques. Religious works were the majority of commissions artists made a living producing, and with which they were deeply engaged. If, as the author is at pains to prove, their intellectual life progressed in an upward climb in the eyes of contemporary humanists (many of whom were members of religious orders and ordained priests, including Alberti), their increased sophistication in learning and in ability to give visual form to mental activity surely also applied to the major area of their endeavors. On this subject, where the author could have made a new contribution, he is strangely silent. Still, in the end, the general reader will find satisfaction in the sheer quantity of interesting information given, and in the gift of a rather original set of illustrations that make the intellectual life of the early Renaissance more visible than usual.

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin
Princeton, N.J.