Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 13, 2022
David Hemsoll Emulating Antiquity: Renaissance Buildings from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. 352 pp.; 250 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300225761)

Can we uncover the intention of the artist? With Emulating Antiquity: Renaissance Buildings from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, David Hemsoll has written a detailed new volume that proposes a definitively positive answer within the domain of Renaissance architecture in Florence and Rome. His interest lies primarily in one aspect of the architecture of the period: its relationship to the antique prototypes that provided source material for many works. He posits, with infectious optimism, that a close reading of the full oeuvres of the five architects under consideration will permit “a full and detailed account . . . of how and why successive architects conceived their ideas in the ways that they did, and expected them to be understood by others” (19). And indeed, this book does much to illuminate the complexity of how these architects incorporated antique prototypes into their work, as well as how those buildings could have been understood by their more learned patrons and inhabitants.

This book results from Hemsoll’s research on the topic over many years, and it reflects the extensive erudition of a scholar who has made a life’s work of the study of the Italian fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As such, he approaches big questions that would seem out of place in another work—not just the architect or patron’s intentions but also the thorny problem of how early modern individuals identified “good” buildings. Hemsoll sees the answers not just in antiquarian emulation, as distinguished from mere imitation, but also in the relationship of each building and architect to the political and often nationalistic context in which each work was constructed. His approach is Vasarian: he is deeply concerned with conscious intention and the individual genius, and therefore confines himself almost exclusively to the individuals and cities discussed in The Lives of the Artists. Emulating Antiquity is itself structured in three parts like the Lives: a first chapter centered on Brunelleschi and Giuliano da Sangallo, a second primarily on Bramante and Raphael, and a final concluding chapter exclusively on Michelangelo.

In a moment when art historical survey textbooks are rapidly being replaced by anthologies and handbooks, Emulating Antiquity moves in a different direction, tracking broad patterns of change through single individuals across the Italian Renaissance. In the introduction, Hemsoll declares his qualified alliance to the periodization of an earlier era of art history, not just of Giorgio Vasari but also of Jacob Burckhardt (13). He builds upon the classic sequence of the Early Renaissance in Florence and the High Renaissance in Rome, followed by Michelangelo as a period unto himself. While he does not always agree with the assessments of his illustrious predecessors (most notably he objects to Vasari’s limited interest in Raphael’s architecture), the framework in place is essentially a conservative one. This structural decision illustrates a clear divergence from the current operating principles of the art historical discipline, and the text might have benefited from a more explicit and detailed refutation of the historiographical developments he departs from. Nevertheless, the return to the longue durée combined with the rigorous attention to intention and historical context leads to striking insights on deeply familiar topics, particularly in the section on Raphael, whose late-in-life architectural production has long merited more careful attention.

In Chapter 1, Hemsoll takes up his story with Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence. In particular he addresses a perceived conflict between two schools of Brunelleschian studies: those who consider Brunelleschi’s imitation of antiquity to point toward Rome, and those who, by contrast, maintain he referenced a more recent Florentine past. Following Panofsky, and later Howard Burns, among others, Hemsoll reminds the reader that, in fact, an imitation of ancient Rome and Florentine particulars could be contained in the same building, indeed in careful selection of specific architectural forms. He is further concerned with Brunelleschi’s seeming repudiation of Gothic formal elements, which he connects to Florentine nationalist impulses, as well as to an interest in systematization which scholarship has long considered a classic feature of Brunelleschi’s approach. The focus on conscious artistic intention means that formal updates to an established type (for example, the loggia at the Ospedale degli Innocenti) are understood as seeking to “carr[y] more profitable associations” (53). Amid the mythologizing that so often slips into even the most considered scholarship on Brunelleschi, it is refreshing to consider a monument like the Ospedale primarily as a response to local contexts. This persistent practicality yields new framings also for the work of Giuliano da Sangallo. Hemsoll considers Sangallo’s work, like Brunelleschi’s, to be deeply focused on the hybridization of Florentine and antique Roman forms, albeit to a greater level of individual detail and by means of more specific referents from both categories of models. Giuliano’s closer scale of imitation, in Hemsoll’s characterization, can be directly linked to the cultural figures of Florence in the late fifteenth century, particularly the philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Cristoforo Landino, and poet Angelo Poliziano.

The second chapter relocates the narrative to Rome in the first half of the sixteenth century, and turns to the commissions completed there by familiar figures Donato Bramante and Raphael. Hemsoll traces a narrative, the pattern of which roughly matches what he observed in Brunelleschi and Giuliano da Sangallo in Florence: Bramante “pioneered architecture’s High Renaissance transformation” (207), but it was a second figure, here Raphael, who “grasped the potential afforded by [these] innovations” (206). The innovations in question concern the fluid dynamic between precise imitatio and licenzia, a framing which Hemsoll spends little time with, although it could, perhaps, have also underpinned the period reception of Raphael’s work. Through the lens of stylistic intentionality Hemsoll argues, to my mind convincingly, for a late dating for the Tempietto. His careful argumentation serves as a welcome reminder that the architect’s ductus, as it were, still should be considered together with documentary evidence, particularly when that documentation is fragmentary. Raphael, Hemsoll argues, took Bramante’s antiquarianism into the modern age, and the young architect bore responsibility for the wider diffusion of a “modernised adaption of ancient architecture” (206) beyond the borders of Rome. The final sections of the chapter address the columnar orders and the movement of architects from Rome outward from the 1520s onward; in both sections the author writes particularly elegantly on individual buildings, which come alive in his fluid and nuanced analysis.

Chapter 3, “Michelangelo and his Contemporaries,” continues the parallel with which the book began and devotes itself to the individual who according to Vasari “transcends and eclipses them all,” a citation with which Hemsoll opens his chapter (208). Much of the first half of the chapter, on Michelangelo’s architectural work in Florence, has been adapted from the author’s previously published work on the subject. Here Hemsoll argues that Michelangelo developed a philosophy of creative emulation derived in large part from his associations with Angelo Poliziano at the Medici court (216), and he observes that Michelangelo’s design strategies shifted during his time in Florence from a loose all’antica style to an approach that relied more heavily on contemporary local examples. As in the preceding chapter on Raphael, Hemsoll notes a style shift between Michelangelo’s Florentine and Roman periods. He describes Michelangelo as deliberately distancing himself from the antique and suggests that such an attitude would have appealed to his patrons who looked toward a more modern Rome. Through the lens of prototypes and imitation, Hemsoll finds few suitable successors to Michelangelo, but nevertheless concludes that his exceptional legacy rests in large part on the strength of Vasarian mythmaking. After the close analysis of the preceding chapters, it would have been illuminating to see this final section integrate broader analysis of classical imitation in successive periods, although it is understandable that the author did not wish to go beyond the already wide time frame inherited from the Lives.

Emulating Antiquity demonstrates the deep knowledge and extraordinary attention to detail that characterizes David Hemsoll’s considerable oeuvre. The occasional copy error notwithstanding, it is a well-produced and copiously illustrated volume. The book should be celebrated for its clarity of vision in the treatment of imitation, a well-trodden, but not always well understood, aspect of the architectural history of early modern Italy.

Cara Rachele
Senior Lecturer and Doctoral Program Coordinator, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich