Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2004
Patricia A. Emison Creating the “Divine” Artist: From Dante to Michelangelo Boston: Brill, 2004. 454 pp.; 69 ills. Cloth $148.00 (9004137092)

This is a big book—an ambitious, wide-ranging, spirited, learned, and expansive book. It will be of interest to those scholars of Italian Renaissance art especially concerned with the emergence of the modern idea of the artist. In the manner of Michael Baxandall, Martin Kemp, and David Summers, among others, the author explores the lexicon of Renaissance art. Like David Cast, Patricia Rubin, and Catherine Soussloff, Patricia Emison is concerned with the biography of the artist and its broad ramifications. In a similar vein, like Joseph Koerner, she is attentive to the artist’s self-representation. The author has read widely; her bibliography of recent scholarship and primary sources is extensive.

Exploring the ways in which Renaissance artists and writers came to be seen as “divine,” Emison pursues the related concepts of ingegno, fantasia, capriccio, grazia, and difficoltà, among countless other terms, as she surveys a wide range of interrelated texts, both modern and ancient. The reader can be easily overwhelmed by the torrential intensity of her references; thus, on a typical page we encounter (hold on!) Romano Alberti, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Lorenzo Valla, Cicero, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Pliny the Elder, Pamphilus of Macedon, and Apelles. If a work of Renaissance art could be said to be emblematic of Emison’s energetic approach, it would be one of Leonardo’s deluge drawings.

In a rich weave of intellectual history, Emison discusses Pliny’s account of ancient art; she has much to say about Giorgio Vasari’s Lives; she writes about Renaissance composers; she considers the artist as huomo famosissimo; she explores the Romantic responses to the Renaissance; and she writes a history of the idea of ingegno, which is the background to the modern idea of artistic genius. This summary does not do justice to the range of related topics that come into play. In addition, a valuable corpus of illustrations, some familiar, others not widely known, helps to elucidate her basic themes.

The two figures who frame Emison’s discussion, Dante and Michelangelo, are a compound of fact and fiction, both real and mythic. Much of the fictional and mythological character of these two “divine” figures depends on the ways in which their personae were shaped by the Bible and the enduring theological literature. Although the author dwells, in the grand Warburgian manner, on the classical roots of Renaissance culture, a companion volume to her book might well be written in order to focus more sharply on the religious origins of the late medieval and early modern “divine” artist. For starters, we might point to the ascent of Dante the pilgrim, the fictional hero of his own poem, to paradise as a journey to divinity. Dante’s spiritual ascent was intertwined with his rise to greatness as a poet, as a divine poet. Long before the nineteenth century, Dante himself planted the seeds of the modern religion of art on a grand scale when he exploited theology in the celebration of his own poetic glory.

Exploiting Dante’s theological poetry in his Lives of the artists, Vasari, in turn, achieved a fully developed religion of art, above all, in the biography of the new Dante, Michelangelo—the “divine” artist par excellence. Nowhere is the modern religion of art more conspicuous than in Vasari’s Counter-Reformation account of Michelangelo’s Moses. When Emison considers this great work, she looks to Sigmund Freud, who spoke of Michelangelo’s colossal figure as “more than human”—a description that evokes the “divine.” When Vasari described the statue earlier, however, he more expressly associated Michelangelo’s art with God’s. Vasari suggested that when one looks upon the Moses, it appears that God has here put together and prepared the body for Resurrection, before that of any other, by the hands of Michelangelo. As he often does, Vasari assimilated theology to aesthetics in his description of Michelangelo’s godlike art. For the perfection of the sculptor’s divine art is a prophecy in stone of God’s future artifice when, at the end of time, the end of art history, we might say, God will resurrect the perfected bodies of the blessed.

The virtue of Emison’s bountiful book is that it both consolidates and broadens our view of the modern idea of the “divine” artist. Her stimulating work now puts us in an excellent position, however, to turn our attention more fully to the partially acknowledged but still far too neglected role of theology in shaping Renaissance ideas about the “divine” artist. Granted the powerful influence of classical aesthetics on Renaissance art theory, future studies of the period will need to ponder more deeply, for example, the ways in which the idea of artistic “perfection” is not only technical or stylistic but often deeply spiritual. In the teleological view of the Renaissance, in the view of Dante, Michelangelo, and Vasari, the progress of the poet’s or artist’s life is inevitably a journey to God. Indeed, if the story of Renaissance art and art theory is to be understood in Renaissance terms—not our own!—it must be seen from a more fully developed perspective of Biblical exegesis, allegory, and typology.

Paul Barolsky
Commonwealth Professor, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia

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