Saturday, 12 May 2012
Reframing the Renaissance
By Alexandra A. Jopp
The uncertainty and elusiveness of the Renaissance is well recognized. This is because the period has neither exact chronological boundaries nor distinctive cultural features that would allow it to be sharply defined.
The many scholarly approaches to interpretation of the Renaissance do not bring much clarity and, in fact, often complicate the understanding of the period. The more methods and classifications that exist for a phenomenon, the more blurred the criteria become.
This creates a particular problem today, one which can call into doubt the “legitimacy” of historical research: can a historian reasonably hope that he or she will be able to express the essence of the Renaissance as a whole? At the same time, though, there remains a need to examine the Renaissance’s place in history and interpret the many changes that occurred in Italy between the fourteenth and the sixteenths centuries as, at least in part, an expression of a single historical event. Thus, we are also confronted with the challenge of rethinking and reframing the Renaissance.
For the scholar, the goal is to understand the ultimate cause behind so many of the phenomena of the time. The difficulty – a common one in any historical field – lay in trying to analyze a past era from a modern reference point.
Jules Michelet, a nineteenth-century French historian, first introduced the word Renaissance to refer to the culture of fifteenth-century Florence. In 1860, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, provided the classic interpretation of the Renaissance as the birth of modern man. Burckhardt concentrated on political and cultural history, discussing many aspects of the lives of people, including their religion, art and literature. The Renaissance, according to Burckhardt, was the time when civilization was freed from the “faith, illusion and childish prepossession” of the Middle Ages:
In the Middle Ages, both sides of human consciousness – that which turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or held awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation – only through some general category. In Italy, this veil first melted into air: an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis: man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.
Burckhardt went on to make the Renaissance man and the products of the Renaissance imagination the object of his study, as did his successors, who focused their attention on the culture and humanism of that age. In 1939, Panofsky recognized Burckhardt’s explanation of the Renaissance as the “discovery both of the world and of man.” The foundations of this new birth, according to Burckhardt, were first visible in Italy, and they became the basis of the modern world. Burckhardt argued that in the fifteenth century, after a long period of dormancy following the fall of the Roman Empire, European culture was reborn. It was in late-fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italy that new ideas about the nature of the political order – a desire for a republican form of government, for example – developed and that the idea of the artist as an individual seeking personal fame emerged. This contrasted with the modest and world-denying attitude of the Middle Ages. Burckhardt also saw the desire for learning and the pursuit of the good life as repudiations of medieval religion and ethics.
At the time Burckhardt completed The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, there was little in the way of accepted knowledge about what we today consider the Renaissance. His work identified a distinct shift from corporate medieval society to the modern spirit that occurred in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To a great extent, his book formed the modern concept of the European Renaissance as an essential break with the viewpoints and society that preceded it. While most modern scholarship accepts Burckhardt’s fundamental argument that the early fourteenth century marked a significant break with the Middle Ages, historians of his time rejected it, viewing the Renaissance as a universal period in European history that lasted to 1600. Accepting the revisionists’ stress on the continued importance of Christianity, some modern scholars discarded Burckhardt’s assertion that the Renaissance was the first stage of modern history, calling it, instead, a transitional age, lying between the Middle Ages and the modern world.
Thus, Burckhardt’s book represented the first complete picture of the Renaissance as an era of awareness and acceptance of man as an individual who is unique and free in his actions. This rebirth was in sharp contrast to the view prevalent during the Middle Ages, when a person saw him or herself as merely occupying a very low position in the universal hierarchy. The consequences of this liberation and transformation were profound: the conquest of the world and the discovery of new lands; the study of the universe; the introduction of beauty and sensuality into the arts; and a revolution in politics and government. Burckhardt created the classic image of the Renaissance man as a Titan – strong and gifted.
Thus, Burckhardt identified the key features of the Renaissance that mark it as the first modern era: the discovery of the human being as an individual agent and the awakening of the self. He considered the Renaissance to be an essential stage in the process of realization of the freedom of mankind. As with so much about the Renaissance, the basis of this concept lies in classical times. Indeed, his wealth of details about the Renaissance is not produced by a self-consciously scientific procedure, but, rather, through the reading and observation that a classical education made possible.
Prior to the publication of Burckhardt’s book, the Renaissance was considered to be little more than a local outbreak in Italian art in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Burckhardt designed a model of how modernity emerged, in both political and cultural senses, and he identified key features of modernity and its dynamics.
Among the great Italian authors of the period, the concept of the Renaissance is particularly significant in regard to Petrarch, who not only revived ancient ideals regarding language, but also deliberately raised the problem of renovating the culture. The conception of the Renaissance as a time of rebirth of learning and rediscovery of antiquity can be traced to Petrarch and his followers, the Humanists. A renaissance – small “r” – in the arts quickly spread to other spheres and, as Panofsky noted in Renaissance and Renascences, “by 1500 the concept of the great revival had come to include nearly all fields of cultural endeavor.”
When the renaissance expanded beyond its place of origin in the art world and became a broader social phenomenon, it became the Renaissance, with a capital “R.” Panofsky wrote that “from the fourteenth through the sixteenth century, then, and from one end of Europe to the other, the men of the Renaissance were convinced that the period in which they lived was ‘a new age’ as sharply different from the medieval past as the medieval past had been from classical antiquity and marked by a concerted effort to revive the culture of latter.”
People of the Renaissance era did not place their hopes only on the revival of antiquity within their own culture; they looked for a rebirth of the entire world. The need for political and religious reformation was realized in Italy long before the emergence of the philosophy of Humanism. It can be found, for example, in the works of Dante. Petrarch and his successors believed that literature held the key to moral perfection. The first task for them was the education of a new type of a man, and this needed to happen through references to ancient ideals. The goal was to restore the notion of an individual’s outer and inner beauty. This ideal, though, was known only to selected individuals, and, in many ways, it was contradicted by the social reality.
From Burckhardt to Wolfflin
Every historical epoch, according to formalist interpretations of art history, has its own artistic vision, its own style. This, formalists say, is what “for example, makes us see a Gothic church, a medieval picture, its frame or even a medieval shoe as belonging to one age, and a Renaissance church, painting, ornament or costume to another.” This continuity of form ties together an era’s art and cultural environment, with knowledge of one providing information about the other. Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945), a Swiss-born art historian who was heavily influenced by Burckhardt’s work, examined the relationship between stages of art, particularly the classic art of Cinquecento and the baroque art of Siecento, and found that, “by analyzing the art objects produced at different stages art historians could discover something important about different cultures’ ways of seeing the world.” It becomes possible, then, to use works of art not only to identify the characteristic features of the artists of a particular historical time but also to feel that period’s cultural limits, the borders beyond which creativity of another type begins. This historical-artistic perception might be related to a space where art and culture are in constant contact with each other.
For late-nineteenth-century art historians, “the key issue was to find the style characteristic of an epoch or a culture in works of art.” Wolfflin succeeded Burckhardt in the chair of art history at the University of Basel in 1893, and in 1915, he published The Principles of Art History. In it, he presented a descriptive model of investigation based on two compatible and easily replicated aspects of close visual analysis: the formal analysis of individual works of art and the comparison of two styles – Renaissance and Baroque – to determine their general characteristics. He held that the general process of art development does not rest on just the styles of individual artists, but on forms and visions common to artists of a given era. Notwithstanding the diversity found among artists, Wolfflin maintained that cultural factors led to them becoming united in various groups. As he wrote in The Principles of Art History, for example, “Botticelli and Lorenzo di Crenzi, for all their differences, have still, as Florentines, a certain resemblance when compared with any Venetian, and Hobbema and Ruysdael, however divergent they may be, are immediately homogenous as soon as to them, as Dutchmen, a Fleming as Rubens is opposed.”
Artistic vision finds itself, first of all, in the forms and structural methods of the creation of a work of art. Since these forms and methods can reveal historical conditions, vision itself becomes a function of an era’s culture. Wolfflin wrote that “every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times. Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history.” This approach to art history is not always – or even often – as straightforward as it may sound, however. Different types of artistic vision can co-exist within a given nation during the same historical epoch. Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald, for example, both belong to the German Renaissance, yet their works are stylistically opposite (though Wolfflin might assert, as noted above, that, in such a case, similarities can often be identified when the works of the artists are compared with the products of an artist from another time or country). In addition, the cause-and-effect relationship between artistic vision and culture is not always one-way, and vision can variously be understood as a reflection of the cultural mentality of a particular epoch or as a contributing factor to that mentality.
Wolfflin tried to unite different types of artistic vision into one natural and consistent process. He believed that the cultural conditions of different epochs established certain borders for artistic expression, and he attempted to use works of art to track, step-by-step, the evolution of various types of artistic vision in order to provide a better understanding of human perception. In the end, though, he was forced to conclude that changes in the principles of artistic perception could not be fit into a single model.
By studying the forms and the borders of the history of artistic vision in various epochs, it is possible to learn much about a given era and to discover connections between a composition and the culture in which it was generated. Artistic principles, which relate closely to artistic perceptions, are found also to be identified with certain periods. For instance, in painterly works of art in the Renaissance, one can see the obvious principle of classical symmetry, with the main character located in the center of the image. Interpreting the evolution of the general principles of art as a movement through the borders that separate one epoch from another enables us to understand better the cultural influences that shaped the visions of artists of various eras. Uncovering the common characteristics of artistic vision in works by different artists may help us to construct what Wolfflin once set out to produce: an art history “without names.” The stages of this history would be defined not so much by individual artists as by the artistic visions that are shaped by – and that help to shape – the environment in which they appear.
On Michael Baxandall and Social History
Michael Baxandall is one of the most important art historians of the latter half of the twentieth century and is the author of the 1972 book Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy: A primer in the social history of pictorial style. Applying cross–methodological methods to his study, Baxandall challenged and expanded the definition of Renaissance art by including socio-political, cultural and religious concerns in his analysis. He investigated the foundational causes of Renaissance art while noting the social factors that contributed to the response of those who beheld the artistic reaction and the social norms of which the artist was well aware of and took into account. In contrast to Burckhardt, Baxandall was not interested in the “rebirth” of antiquity as the iconographical force of the Renaissance. Instead, he examined the discovery process of art-making and consumption in contemporary documents. He not only downplayed the revival of antiquity and the archeological study of relics that gave the period its name, he also gave short shrift to “the mastery of learned texts that permitted the encoding of arcane wisdom, profane and sacred, in works of art.” As noted by Christopher Woods, professor of art history at Yale University, Baxandall’s book gave us the embodied eye of the period, “the eye that attends, reacts, feels, savors, and calculates, with lightning speed.”
In Baxandall’s words, “the fifteenth century was a period of bespoke painting, and this book is about the customer’s participation in it.” Baxandall tried to help us see the paintings of the time as their consumers saw them. The “period eye” dealt with the relation of the paintings to modern expectations, interests, skills and habits.
Baxandall also sought to show how ways of seeing are culturally constructed and variable over time. In addition, he gave examples of the iconography of gesture in Italian paintings of the period, noting that “the painter was a professional visualizer of Holy stories.” The period eye, as Baxandall explained, affects the way that a viewer interacts with an image. It includes a viewer’s visual skills, which may cause him or her to have a particular experience with a certain image. These visual skills are known as perceptive style, and they are specific to certain times and cultures. Thus, Baxandall tried to modernize what he called “Quattrocento cognitive style,” especially in regard to the fifteenth-century pictorial style. He wanted to propose “insights into what it was like to think, intellectually and sensibly, to be a Quattrocento person.” Cognitive style, he wrote, includes “the interpreting skills one happens to possess, the categories, the model patterns and habits of inference and analogy that one person possesses.”
On Material Culture
Material culture has become a fashionable concept in the academic discipline of Renaissance art history. The phrase originated in the field of anthropology, where it has existed since at least the last century. More recently, art historians have begun to incorporate the phrase into their terminology, and historians of Renaissance art appear to find it engaging, primarily because it helps to circumvent questions of the artistic status of artifacts that are raised by the way we view art in our own time. Scholars such as Texler, Megan Holmes, Frederica Jacobs and others examine the material culture accessible to specific classes of people and, with it, the types of artwork that the different classes might own. In such explorations, the works of art form both a source of information on cultural and social habits and commodities to be consumed. Lisa Jardine, in A New History of the Renaissance, suggested an analytical approach that has as its goal to “understand the Renaissance afresh.” Jardine stressed the materialism of the period, noting that “Early Renaissance works of art which today we admire for their sheer representational virtuosity were part of a vigorously developing worldwide market in luxury commodities.” The culture of early modern Europe, she wrote, was largely the product of consumerism and was defined by “a competitive urge to acquire” and the “entrepreneurial spirit.” Jardine found that the era was a “celebration of belongings – the possessions which advertise an individual’s purchasing power.”
Richard Goldthwaite, a leading economic historian of the Italian Renaissance, reflected on the roots of consumerism as a cultural phenomenon and the role that art played in this process. Goldthwaite offered an “enlargement of Jacob Burckhardt’s classic – and much-debated – vision of Renaissance Italy as the birthplace of the modern world; to his formulation about the Italians’ discovery of antiquity, nature, man, and the individual is here added their discovery also of things.” He theorized that the “new attitude about goods that arose in Italy marked the first stirring of what today is called consumerism.”
During the Renaissance, as in other periods, “art was on occasion vested with supernatural powers.” For instance, as Trexler wrote, “In the area of Florence, the most famous icons were the images of the Virgin in the Servite Church of SS. Annunziata.” The “Nostra Donna” of Impruneta was regularly brought into the city to control the weather. Florentines had faith in miracles and, in the late ducento, the Madonna and Child at Or San Michel in Florence intervened when nature got out of control, saving, the faithful believed, devotees from the city’s frequent floods.
Recent scholarship has focused on the impact of image cults and the materiality of the miraculous image on visual arts in Renaissance Italy. Freedberg, for instance, has examined the ways in which Florentine practitioners from all classes responded to images and how those images affected the viewer. He also pointed out that by restricting the psychological impact of the image to its cultural significance, “art historians have diminished the range and depth of their subject.” He proposed a history of images that would not differentiate between art and non-art and would contain insights from psychology, philosophy and the social sciences. In this case, Trexler and Freedberg seem to be in agreement that emotional responses to sacred images are rooted in a collective sense of legends, miracle stories and symbols. It was believed that objects had power and that “the spirit was found in objects with some association, pictorial or narrative, to a demonstrably powerful person, living or dead.” Such images were easy to perceive because they did not have any text. One does not need to be able to read to behold an image. Thus, religious art finds its power in its ability to transcend language in telling a story and provoking emotions. Physical representations of sacred figures were aids to contemplation of the divine that non-literate members of the population could use in lieu of reading of the Bible. Statues and paintings, then, were encouraged as they invited devotion and served moral purposes, especially for the uneducated.
Trexler described and analyzed the understanding of sacred images, relating concepts of the sacred implied in image-worship to the culture of humanists and their ideals of human dignity and virtue. Trexler’s study focused on miraculous images and image cults within Florence during the medieval and early modern period. The status of a church, he noted, depended upon the number and quality of its images, relics, and ex-votos. All major churches kept lists, and visitors mentioned the relics first whenever describing the church. The relics were sometimes carried in processions outside the city, and the items modified the behavior of those nearby as it was believed that they could bring miraculous events with them. Some works, for example, were credited with effecting cures or protecting devotees from harm and misfortune. In spite of what the general public might have believed, though, church authorities maintained that the relics themselves did not perform miracles. Rather, God and his saints were thought to be working through the objects.
For an art historian who studies sacred images, one of the first tasks is to define the term “sacred image.” As Megan Holmes observed, “any religious image was potentially the site of miraculous manifestation and potent sacred intercession.” It was only the images that performed miracles repeatedly for a wide public, however, that were officially recognized by authorities and that were enshrined and presented with ritual offerings.
For Jacob Burckhardt, the impact of the Renaissance on man was the key to understanding that period. Since then, however, several other methods of analyzing the epoch have been offered. Burckhardt focused on the idea of freedom and used historical events as illustrations. The Renaissance provided the opportunity for an individual to free himself from history and become his own creator. But the issues and contradictions of the Renaissance have been noted by Burckhardt’s contemporary critics who argue that the liberation of man and the formation of his nature is a complex task. Man’s development is not frozen, they insist; it occurs throughout history, and history cannot be separated from an individual’s flow of time.
The Renaissance is modern not because modern man finds himself in it but because modern man recognizes himself in it. The study of the Renaissance (like any historical research) cannot be separated from philosophy, and the period demonstrated that history has a complicated, multi-faceted nature that comprises the interplay between individuals and society. As such, it is a phenomenon that can reveal much about the nature and development of man.
Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Dover Publications, 2010.
Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. University Of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1991.
Goldthwaite, Richard. Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1995.
Holly, M. A. Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Holmes, M. (2011), Miraculous Images in Renaissance Florence. Art History, 34: 432–465.
Jardine, Lisa. Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. Norton & Company: New York, 1996.
Kim W. Woods, Carol M. Richardson, and Angeliki Lymberopoulou. Viewing Renaissance Art. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2007.
Panofsky, Erwin. Renaissance And Renascences In Western Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 1972.
Reich, John and Lawrence S. Cunningham, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities. Boston: Clark Baxter, 2010.
Richard Trexler, 'Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image', Studies in the Renaissance, 59, 1972, 7-41.
Wolfflin, H. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: Dover Publications, 2010), p.81.
 Ibid., p. 81.
 John J. Reich Lawrence S. Cunningham, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities (Boston: Clark Baxter, 2010), p. 287.
 Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance And Renascences In Western Art (Boulder: Westview Press, 1972), p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Holly, M. A. (1984). Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History. New York : Cornell University Press, p. 49.
 Wölfflin, H. (2009). Principles of Art History. In D. Preziosi, The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (pp. 119-129). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 50.
 Wolfflin, H. (1950). Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. New York: Dover Publications, p. 11.
 Wood, C. ,(2009). When Attitudes Become Form (on Michael Baxandall). Artforum International , 43-44.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Baxandall, M. (1988). Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.3.
 Baxandall, M. (1988). Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 45.
 (Baxandall, 1988), p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 30.
 Carol M. Richardson, and Angeliki Lymberopoulou Kim W. Woods, Viewing Renaissance Art, Vol. 3 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 19.
 Lisa Jardin, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (New York: Norton & Company, 1996), p. 19.
 Ibid., p, 12, 34.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Richard Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Richard C. Trexler, “Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image,” Studies in the Renaissance, 1972: 7-41., p. 8.
 David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 5.
 Richard C. Trexler, “Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image,” Studies in the Renaissance, 1972: 7-41., p. 9.
 Megan Holmes, "Miraculous Images in Renaissance Florence," Art History 34, no. 3 (June 2011): 432–465., p. 435.