Remembering the Renaissance


Bartolomeo Montagna, Saint Justina of Padua, c. 1490

by Patricia Emison

During the decades (more than three) that I’ve been studying the Renaissance, it has changed considerably. I can remember the flood in Florence in 1966, and the general horror and will to help that followed. One hundred people died, a humanitarian disaster of a lesser scale than the 230,000 tsunami victims of 2004, yet consternation at the cultural impact was certainly high. Admittedly, relief operations have become more professionalized during the interim. Still, everybody seemed to care about the damage to works of art in Florence, and many people volunteered to go shovel and scrape mud. Underlying that response was the tenet that Renaissance art, primarily though not exclusively

Florentine art, was highly significant, that an educated person — perhaps an educated person from anywhere in the world — could be expected to know something about the art and the period, and to care that the flood had damaged part of our shared cultural heritage. Plato, Renaissance art, Shakespeare: all seemed of unequivocal value, and the art most vulnerable. I, as a WASP child growing up in a small city that happened to be named Rome, went to Italy on my second solo trip to Europe, after Greece, at the age of 18. It seemed my responsibility to learn about that past.

By the 1970s, though, the cultural tectonic plates were already shifting. Despite living in a world saturated with advertising and publicity, we somehow couldn’t recognize ourselves in a culture that endorsed idealization. The Renaissance was metamorphosing from the revered ancestor to the father-figure ripe for slaying, the source of cultural authoritarianism, and the art whose learnedness put off the modern viewer and whose religiosity did too. The more Caravaggio’s star rose, the lower Raphael’s sank. As late as the 1940s, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington was built in a Neoclassical style that owed much to the Renaissance; it is now hard to believe that it was built within living memory. The Renaissance strikes many of my students as so familiar it isn’t worth knowing about, to paraphrase Yogi Berra.

Giotto, Last Judgment (detail showing rolling up of the sky toshow heaven beyond), c. 1305

The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory isn’t a typical academic book. It wasn’t written in world-class libraries on time funded by prestigious grants; it wasn’t written for scholars of the Renaissance. It was written while teaching, by coming back from a lecture and trying to capture in writing what I wanted my students to have learned, what I thought they needed by way of background to make looking at Renaissance art more than a matter of trying to cope with esoteric legends of the saints and recognizing that tempera and oil are fundamentally different media. It’s an attempt to hint at the flavor of the time, to help the reader imagine a very different world in which poetry was esteemed and science wasn’t, not for the sake of saying that period was better or even exemplary but simply for the relish of a very basic sort of difference: the pleasure of realizing that history exists.

Besides being an attempt to paint Renaissance Italy as a startlingly unfamiliar place and time (not least, unrecognizable to itself), the book attempts to hint at how complex a being it necessarily is that tries from the twenty- first century to reach back to the time about which Vasari wrote, made complex by the intrusion of the old master tradition and its enemies, not to mention by the writing of art history, old and new, academic or belles-lettristic. We have our work cut out for us if we try to think about altarpieces, portraits, and narrative subjects made before Shakespeare, before Protestantism, before nation states — in some cases, even before the vernacular amounted to much.

Approximately a century ago, Heinrich Wölfflin wrote Classic Art, an introduction to High Renaissance art, a book still in print, though it is now of more historiographical interest than art historical. A quick look at that book will indicate how foreign is his way of approaching the period: multiply that distance by five and the task of avoiding nonsense in what we attribute to the past becomes quite daunting. Study of the Renaissance is presently and has been for some time a study of its Enlightenment, Romantic, and Modern or Anti-Modern overlays, as well as of whatever can still be discerned of its original “foundations”, never intended as anything other than basic day-to-day functioning, albeit tinted with some faint hope of immortal fame. Like an iceberg the Renaissance has gotten to be top heavy, laden with centuries of having been made useful to the powers of the present for many presents now past. The Post-Modern present affords an opportune moment for re-examining the first self-defined Post-Antiquity.

After Michelangelo, Fury or Damned Soul, engraving, mid-16th century

The reader of The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory is invited to reflect on ways in which our current cultural identity has incorporated versions of or vignettes from that remote and rather small-scale bit of the past, whether or not we have consciously participated in that process of insemination. Like the Mona Lisa or loathe it, with that painting portraiture was no longer only about social status. Like the David or loathe it, with that sculpture the concept of heroism was no longer purely epic. Like the availability of reproductions of art everywhere or decry it, the phenomenon goes back to paper manufacture and printmaking in the Renaissance. Middle-class taste, be it good or be it bad, started to play a role in the art of the Renaissance. And in the long history of literature’s rivalry with the visual arts (and vice versa), the Renaissance plays a crucial part. After many generations of an art history about the Renaissance that insisted on its superiority, it seemed time for one that insisted only on its importance, its having been hugely significant to creative people for hundreds of years, its being by now part of our cultural DNA. Of all the many “firsts” associated with the Renaissance, not least is the great pleasure the general populace seems to have taken in its art.

Scholars are apprehensive of generalizations and theorists are disdainful of claims of canonicity: I hope to avoid the righteous ire of both. Yet I thought we needed a book that moved freely over vast ground chronologically and that ignored disciplinary boundaries, both in what was covered and in how it was articulated. I tried to write a book that was at once basic and not completely predictable, that would invite its readers to think about the Renaissance with a new eagerness, with a sense that its history is still evolving, and that both we and it are still in the process of being made. Faciebat, as Pliny said of his book, echoing how Apelles and Polykleitus had signed their works: “it was being made,” rather than, “it has been accomplished”.

About the Author

Patricia Emison is Professor of Art History at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Leonardo (2011), The Shaping of Art History: Meditations on a Discipline (2008), The Simple Art: Printed Works on Paper in an Age of Magnificence (2006), Creating the `Divine’ Artist from Dante to Michelangelo (2004), Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art (1997), The Art of Teaching: Sixteenth-Century Allegorical Prints and Drawings, (1986), as well as the self-published Growing with the Grain, Dynamic Families Shaping History from Ancient Times to the Present (2005). She is also the recipient of recent essay awards from the Johnson Society of London and the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. She is the author of The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory.