Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 26, 2001
Gabriele Neher and Rupert Shepherd, eds. Revaluing Renaissance Art Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2000. 241 pp. Cloth (0754601692)
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This anthology is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on consumption and consumerism in the Renaissance, particularly from an art-historical perspective. It is based on a session entitled “Values in Renaissance Art” at the 25th Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians, held in Southampton, England, in April of 1999. Most of the original papers delivered at the conference were revised and have been included in this book; others were added to expand the scope of the project. These essays explore a wide spectrum of issues and employ an array of methods as they re-evaluate overlooked artists, “minor” art forms, and other topics and intangibles that have been ignored by art historians in the past but that were important in the Renaissance. In particular, they bring attention to the varied and complex forms of valuations art could receive in this period.

The volume consists of thirteen chapters, including an Introduction by Gabriele Neher and Rupert Shepherd that thematically links the other essays. The Introduction raises the question of which value constructs (not just the monetary ones) Renaissance individuals would have assigned to the visual arts. The issue is explored by examining Francesco del Cossa’s epistolary request to the Marquis of Ferrara for greater remuneration upon completion of the paintings at Palazzo Schifanoia. Neher and Shepherd propose that Cossa wanted his patron to reconsider the work in terms of costs and other values. The letter is reprinted as the first endnote, but given its importance here, its translation into English would have made the essay more accessible to a wider readership. Nonetheless, this is a thought-provoking paper that stimulates the reader’s appetite for the chapters that follow.

Chapter 2 is the only essay to consider pecuniary issues per se. Jo Kirby’s “The Price of Quality: Factors Influencing the Cost of Pigments during the Renaissance” explores the cost of artists’ materials, their various mineral and insect sources, locations of procurement in Europe, and processes for acquiring various colors. Students of Renaissance art and material culture will find her tables documenting pigment prices useful for further study.

Kirby’s essay is followed by three chapters, each addressing philosophical and humanist concerns of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the first of these, “Artefici and huomini intendenti: Questions of Artistic Value in Sixteenth-Century Italy,” Ben Thomas explores the paragone debate (the question of which artistic medium—painting or sculpture—was more noble) as presented by the Florentine literato Benedetto Varchi. Varchi collected correspondence from prominent contemporary artists, including Pontormo, Bronzino, Cellini, and Vasari, which allowed them the unique opportunity to articulate those particulars they believed endowed their art with nobility. Thomas pithily compiles and examines these viewpoints and contrasts them with those of theorists and patrons, who at times parodied the artists’ responses.

The two other chapters exploring humanist issues are by Sally Korman and Stephen Campbell. Korman’s “‘Danthe Alighieri Poeta Fiorentina’: Cultural Values in the 1481 Divine Comedy” persuasively argues that Florentine reclamation and re-evaluation of Dante as native cultural icon occurred through Cristoforo Landino’s edition of the Divine Comedy, published in 1481, which served as a response to earlier, non-Florentine versions of the poem. Campbell’s “Mantegna’s Parnassus: Reading, Collecting and the Studiolo” calls for a more extensive and divergent treatment of the mythological paintings for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo. It divorces the Parnassus from its famous patron and evaluates it in the context of Renaissance philosophical debates.

Chapter 6, Charles Rosenberg’s “Alfonso I d’Este, Michelangelo and the Man who Bought Pigs,” recounts the events that led Michelangelo to create his lost Leda and the Swan. By focusing on the Duke of Ferrara’s attempts to acquire a work by Michelangelo (based on documentation by Condivi and Vasari), it reflects upon the rising status of artists in the cinquecento and an “emerging economy of reputation,” in which the value of a work of art derived from the fame of its maker.

Three chapters concerning textiles ensue consecutively in the book. In Chapter 7, “New, Old, and Second-Hand Culture: The Case of the Renaissance Sleeve,” Evelyn Welch discusses the importance and value of detachable sleeves in Renaissance apparel for men and women, including legislation to keep these expensive sartorial commodities from the “wrong” people. She also argues that the value of the sleeve was not necessarily in its cost, but in how its wearers used it to associate themselves with their social betters.

Welch’s essay is followed by Mary Rogers’s “Evaluating Textiles in Renaissance Venice,” which serves as a prolegomenon to the exploration of values of sumptuous fabrics in Venetian paintings, as textiles were luxury products of this city. Here she detects a constantly shifting gradation in value attached to costly fabrics depending on the wearer’s gender, age, and status.

The last chapter of this triad is Chapter 9, Caroline Campbell’s “Revaluing Dress in History Paintings for Quattrocento Florence.” Campbell investigates an evocative point regarding the use of costume on Renaissance cassoni: she suggests that “The reading of these painted narratives as exemplary histories depended on an understanding of the costumes of the principal characters” (139). Unfortunately, in exploring depictions of the Rape and Reconciliation of the Sabine Women, Campbell at times contradicts herself: she finds that certain figures wear “ancient dress” (139), and then asserts that both Romans and Sabines don “opulent…Florentine dress” (149). She also fails to clarify important points, such as who are the Romans and who are the Sabines in the paintings, and who wears ancient or contemporary dress. These particulars are not evident in the minute illustrations of the panels. Without such explanations, the reader is lost.

The next contributions examine religious art. In Chapter 10, “The Madonna and Child, a Host of Saints, and Domestic Devotion in Renaissance Florence,” Jacqueline Musacchio examines the values associated with domestic religious art; in particular, her essay explores the plausibility of Friar Giovanni Dominici’s advice that devotional art should be in the home to educate children (as to the faith).

Next, Anabel Thomas’s “Images of St. Catherine: A Re-evaluation of Cosimo Rosselli and the Influence of his Art on the Woodcut and Metal Engraving Images of the Dominican Third Order” tries to accomplish many things. First, the essay examines Rosselli’s influence in the iconography of prints of St. Catherine and seeks to demonstrate that prints can help reconstruct lost paintings. In addition, it attempts a “re-evaluation of the enabling characteristics of printed images through replication of existing designs” (165) and explores the iconographic development of the Madonna of the Rosary theme. The chapter would have been more successful if fewer topics were undertaken. Elimination of contradictions would also have improved the essay, such as the contention that two prints of St. Catherine originated in the same printing house, which is followed almost directly with the opposite argument (174).

In Chapter 12, “Voting with their Feet: Art, Pilgrimage, and Ratings in the Renaissance,” Robert Maniura makes a strong case for the re-evaluation and study of images associated with miracles. He convincingly demonstrates that such imagery has been wrongfully associated with relics, and although scholars have shied away from this type of representation, it is worthy of study.

The last chapter seems curiously out of place. Catherine Harding’s “Madness, Reason, Vision and the Cosmos: Evaluating the Drawings of Opicinus de Canistris” examines a group of drawings by Opicinus and argues for “an odd issue of value, namely, the importance of obscurity and obliqueness, of enigmatic representations of the truth” (201). Unfortunately, the issue of value does not come across in this iconographic investigation of esoteric imagery.

Although the volume abounds with interesting ideas, is well researched, and generally avoids jargon, it suffers from certain problems. The text demonstrates an Italian bias despite its inclusive title; almost all of the papers here address Italian locations and art. As suggested above, and as is common in anthologies, the quality of the essays is uneven. The chapters also seem disconnected from each other, rarely sharing themes other than that of “valuation.” This may be because the editors sought to be comprehensive with regard to topics and approaches in the volume. Nevertheless, the relationships between articles could have been made more explicit in the introduction. Another lacuna here is any discussion of the monetary valuation of art during the Renaissance—a difficult endeavor considering the various currencies used at the time, their fluctuations, and the nonstandardized pricing of art. (Shepherd will address this issue in another project entitled “The Material Renaissance.” Meanwhile, readers may consult his two useful websites: www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/arthist/matren and www.susx.ac.uk/Units/arthist/matren/bibliog.shtml.)

Despite the problems outlined here, scholars will find Revaluing Renaissance Art to be an engaging and worthy text, particularly for its varied viewpoints and the multiplicity of “values” it documents and investigates. This volume no doubt will open and inspire new avenues for research.

Rosi Prieto
Lecturer, Art Department, California State University, Sacramento

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.