Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2001
Giovanni Ciappelli and Patricia Lee Rubin, eds. Art, Memory and Family in Renaissance Florence Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 316 pp.; some b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (0521643007)

This is a valuable book for both historians and art historians concerned with Renaissance Florence. It boasts the intriguing topic, “Art, Memory, and Family,” and contains scholarly essays from leading historians and art historians in their respective fields. As discussed by the art historian Patricia Lee Rubin in the book’s preface, the essays originated in a symposium held at the National Gallery in London in 1996. Although some of the conference papers have since appeared elsewhere in print, Rubin’s thoughtful preface (the historian Ciappelli wrote the introduction) incorporates their ideas to make this volume an almost complete record of the conference.

As with many conference anthologies, one expects a diverse collection of essays, some of which may have been written specifically for the occasion and others that may have been refashioned to suit the chosen topic. Indeed, many of the contributions in this volume do seem to have been tweaked to fit the overall theme. The level of scholarship is, however, consistently high, and the book holds together well as a worthwhile record of interdisciplinary work in a rich and timely area of investigation. Unfortunately, in a review of this length I am able to highlight only a few of the essays here.

The book is divided into four parts. The first and final sections contain essays by historians, while the middle ones feature essays by art historians. In the first historical part, “Memory and its Materials,” Lauro Martines contributes a remarkable essay that demonstrates the ways in which various forms of poetry, including rhymes and the spoken word, became powerful public expressions of memory, both honorific and defamatory. This is just the sort of essay that usefully tempers the tendency to celebrate memory as necessarily positive. Though Martines refers specifically to poetry, he offers perhaps the most insightful passage in the volume regarding all forms of art and memory when he writes: “Poetry reminds us that memory is selective—selecting with an eye for present need. The past is remembered for the sake of the present; but the present need is no respecter of the facts and small truths of the past. History becomes the victim of memory” (53). Indeed, one must acknowledge that the past is always viewed through our filtered lenses of the present and subject to continual reinterpretation. A complementary warning, of sorts, is offered in the concluding essay of the volume by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., who reminds us of concurrent desires to destroy or alter memory, for example, through the rewriting of a family history or the decision to forget those facts not appropriate to the agenda at hand. Even in law, the subject of Thomas Kuehn’s essay, one finds that “Memory…is not simply preservative; it is creative, notably so in moments of conflict” (270).

The essays contributed by the art historians in the middle sections of the book cover a wide range of genres and themes and will stimulate future discussion in the field. Among the most notable in “The Imagery of Memory” are essays by Alison Wright on portraiture and Andrew Butterfield on tomb monuments. Since each paper investigates a type of art—and thus a type of memory—at the core of any study of Italian Renaissance art and culture. Wright discusses conventions of portraiture and relates independent profile images, particularly those of women, to donor portraits. In contrast to studies of profile portraits that have emphasized control of the gaze (of both image and viewer), Wright interprets this type of representation, “as a more public cipher of virtue within the rhetoric of images in general” (96). This is an extremely productive avenue of interpretation and complements the author’s fruitful comments elsewhere in the essay concerning nonprofile images and their relationship to sculpture.

Butterfield investigates the funerary monument in terms of its taxonomy, and identifies norms by which the originality and meaning of individual works may be recognized. Though his essay appeared previously under different title in Res (1994), the conclusions are invaluable and deserve the wider audience they will receive in this volume. Butterfield establishes limits of terms and types to be used in classifying funerary monuments. For instance, scholars widely use the term “humanist tomb,” yet only two of the usually named examples actually commemorate individuals rightly classified as humanists (Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini). Butterfield also shows how the type of monument itself was a particular signifier of social status because it was often determined more by public honor than by private wealth.

In the second art-historical section, “Family Identity,” it is especially welcome to see architecture so well integrated into the discussion. Architecture, as it relates to family identity, is receiving increasing scholarly attention that complements traditional issues of urbanism or formalism. While Brenda Preyer focuses on urban palaces in Florence and Amanda Lillie concentrates on country estates, both essays prompt a reconsideration of how a building could determine a family’s place in the community, both physically and conceptually. These contributions nicely augment the fascinating essay by Megan Holmes in the previous section, which is a case study of the Benedictine nunnery, Le Murate, and its patronage by Giovanni Benci. There, too, the author’s welcome emphasis is on the building’s role in a process of crafting a personal and civic identity for a patron and his family.

The final essays in the volume , under the heading, “The Transmission of Memory,” return to historical investigations. Especially innovative and fascinating is Anthony Molho’s systematic study of the Monte Comune, the city’s register of publicly funded debt. He offers compelling, quantifiable data indicating that the adoption of a surname in Florence was linked to the emergence of a new ruling class, and that once this class was established, the percentage of families using surnames stabilized. This study’s wide-ranging implications will affect notions of family in Renaissance Florence and beyond.

The book as a whole reflects general tendencies of scholarship within Italian Renaissance history and art history. After reading the sixteen essays, introduction, and preface, all by distinguished scholars in their fields, five general observations become apparent and, I suspect, are generally true of scholarship within the disciplines at large.

First, the city of Florence remains uniquely central to Italian Renaissance studies. While this statement might seem axiomatic, recent years have seen a concerted effort to broaden our study of the period, particularly beyond Florence and Tuscany. More than ever before, one has opportunity to study the art and history of other cities and other courts, yet Florence is still the intellectual center of our understanding of the period and its culture. A theme of this type could not be so exhaustively explored for any other Renaissance city, and thus Florence often comes to be seen (fairly or not) as a case study with larger implications for Renaissance Italy. Second, and in relation to the first, there should be little surprise that in this volume the Renaissance is still primarily understood as the fifteenth century.

A third observation is that we continue to see increasing attempts at scholarly interdisciplinarity. This is evident not only through the overall assemblage of essaysbut also within each essay itself. Patrick Geary’s essay, “The Historical Material of Memory,” even draws heavily from the seemingly distant field of experimental psychology. Overall, there is tremendous cross-fertilization between historians and art historians here, which will have broad repercussions for future trends of scholarship.

This leads to a fourth observation, true for both historian and art historian alike: primary documentation is not only invaluable for our disciplines but seemingly inexhaustible. The study of original historical materials continues to add immeasurably to our knowledge, both through newly discovered documents and the reinterpretation of familiar ones. Because of the overall theme of memory, several authors emphasized the use of ricordanze, the distinctly Florentine memoranda that reveal so much about daily life. This emphasis is especially notable in the studies by Giovanni Ciappelli and Nicolai Rubinstein. Furthermore, Lorenzo Fabbri makes excellent use of Strozzi documents to trace that family’s fortunes while in exile, Molho discerns unexpected results from the Monte Comune, Kuehn examines legal documents, and Margaret Haines looks at disparate sources regarding artists. Most importantly in the context of this review, a number of contributors employ works of art as primary documents, and these are fruitfully read as such by Rubin on paintings, Preyer on architecture, and Geraldine Johnson on sculpture in the context of the family.

Unfortunately—and perhaps surprisingly, given its theme—the so-called decorative or domestic arts are not well-represented in this collection. Rubin does note in her Preface that the conference had included papers by Jacqueline Musacchio on childbirth and its attendant objects, Cristelle Baskins on cassone paintings, and Lisa Jardine on books. Inclusion of these or similar papers would have added considerably to the publication. Nevertheless, Rubin goes a long way to compensate by offering an admirable overview of recent developments and bibliography in the field.

As a final note, I should point out that Art, Memory, and Family in Renaissance Florence is a well-produced book. It has sharp black-and-white illustrations integrated with the text and contains an excellent bibliography and a helpful index. Overall, this is an extremely valuable collection of essays, and the book adds considerably to our understanding of art and society in early Renaissance Florence.

A. Victor Coonin
Rhodes College