The Italian Renaissance, flagship of western civilisation, core of values around which so many of our humanities disciplines, particularly art history, have been moulded, has lately been shaken to its roots. Revisionist critics, their voices in crescendo during the 1992 Columbus Quincentennial, indecorously charge that it was none other than Renaissance civitas which inflicted the evils of colonialism upon the non-European world.
Not only did Renaissance Europe oppress the indigenous civilisations of America, Asia and Africa, these critics proclaim, but post-Renaissance "eurocentricism" has so blinkered humanistic studies that even the art of the non-western "other" has been systematically "marginalised".
What do contemporary art historians say to these embarrassing accusations? Claire Farago, associate professor at the University of Colorado (Boulder), responds with a thoughtful collection of 13 essays by art-historian colleagues plus one by herself. All share the view that the Renaissance should be "reframed" to include the relevant art of non-western cultures, and also to be more aware of how non-western cultures have been represented (and misrepresented) in Renaissance art.
Even Renaissance kitsch like deer-antler chandeliers and gilded coconut cups deserves re-examination (as in one interesting contribution by Martin Kemp). While Farago considers herself a moderate in the current methodological debates, she did not slight the neo-Marxist left; W. J. T. Mitchell in fact wrote her epilogue, a "(re)created" semiotic "greeting" between Erwin Panofsky and Louis Althusser!
Most of the essays relate to the Italian Renaissance (including a superb piece by Anthony Cutler on the related historiography of Byzantium). "Italocentricism" notwithstanding, Italy was the Renaissance engine, and the "diffusion of the Italianate" - Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann's term - was the potent cultural force of that time in Europe and wherever Europeans were settling.
In his own contribution Kaufmann examines such influence in Europe east of the Danube, a rich new area of Renaissance study all but ignored during the Iron Curtain years. "Diffusion", as anthropologists use the word, implies that cultural ideas are not just impelled by an aggressive agent pushing them in from behind; the patient is often just as compulsively pulling them in from the front. One might even compare 16th-century Italianate diffusion to the osmosis of American culture in the world today.
Regrettably, Farago chose not to include a discussion of the Iberian Renaissance. If Italy was the "engine", then obviously Spain and Portugal were the "transmission" by which the Renaissance diffused to the Americas and the rest of the non-European world. But she did solicit five contributions which are specifically concerned with the European-Amerindian encounter. Three of these are first-rate: Pauline Moffitt Watts on the first missionary friars in Mexico and how they employed traditional Christian mimetic gestures in order to communicate successfully with the natives; Cecelia F. Klein on female demons ("wild women") and how similarly they were conceived by both Christian Europeans and pagan Aztecs; and Dana Leibsohn's intriguing observations on the Amerindian mapping tradition and why the natives assimilated some Renaissance cartographic conventions and rejected others.
Farago's own essay offers an excellent historiography of art history since the 18th century, even exposing the racist attitudes of the discipline's sainted founders, Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wolfflin.
As much as I admire this book, however, I have to say that neither she nor any of her other contributors advances a viable methodological alternative to the old Panofskyan elitism she professes to disdain. Indeed, Farago in particular seems only to have exchanged Panofskyism for an equally elitist but currently more chic technique which I have termed "neo-scholasticism", the constant dropping of quotes from the new peripatetic gurus of critical theory.
It is apparently more intellectually rewarding these days to rehearse received opinion from the lofty comfort of one's academic (amniotic?) cathedra, rather than test it out in the bush. My own advice to young Renaissance art historians remains: do not cite another word of Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, James Clifford, Homi Bhabha, Stephen Greenblatt, etc. until you've studied such "exotic" centres of 16th-century syncretism as Fatehpur Sikri in Mughal India, or contemplated the native-painted frescoes in the Augustinian convent at Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, Mexico, or personally talked with Maya "Christian" cofrades in present-day Chichicastenango, Guatemala, and thus have witnessed with your own eyes and ears the remarkable ways different indigenous peoples react to European Renaissance ideas.
Enough of theoretical "discourse". What Renaissance art history needs now more than ever is empirical description, fresh and first-hand from the field.
Samuel Y. Edgerton is professor of art history, Williams College, Massachusetts.
Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650
Editor - Claire Farago
ISBN - 0 300 06295 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 394