Genius handily condensed

Renaissance - Worldly Goods

October 25, 1996

Both these books are the work of what I would describe as proper historians. George Holmes and Lisa Jardine are in the business of studying a wide range of material in pursuit of a novel synthesis of the Renaissance, and the former in particular is profoundly concerned with the visual arts. Seen from the inside, the terms "history of art" and "art historian" at times seem to be grounded in a sense of inferiority. It is as if writers on art can only make themselves feel academically respectable by kidnapping some of the intellectual seriousness of the historian tout court. Yet historians feel few qualms about crossing over into enemy country, with results which are predictably illuminating but - reassuringly enough - never faultless.

Of course there really is such a thing as art history, and indeed it is increasingly popular as a subject for study. When it comes to the Renaissance, archival art history is all the rage, so that it sometimes appears that every newly discovered notarial record is hailed with more enthusiasm than the re-emergence of a mere painting or sculpture. It remains the case that art history, however hard it tries not to be, is dependent on art criticism. The contract for a work by Leonardo or Raphael is deemed to be of greater interest than one for a work by Marco d'Oggiono or Giovanni Francesco Penni, because we rate the former more highly than the latter. There is a determination to shy away from value judgements, but the choice of artists to be discussed in a crypto-objective way reveals the abiding power of a long-established hierarchy, which has remained pretty much unchanged since the time of Vasari. The vast majority of iconographic analyses are devoted to big names, not small fry. Even the olympian figure of Sir Ernst Gombrich, who always professes not to be a connoisseur in any shape or form, tends to write about artists from the first and second divisions.

Oddly enough, when real historians write about art, they are in general notably less tormented by anxieties about the validity of league tables or orders of merit than art historians are, and confine themselves to the acknowledged peaks without turning a hair. Indeed, one has more than an inkling that they imagine themselves to be at least as well equipped to do the job as the professionals. A particularly bizarre case in point was Carlo Ginzburg's 1981 study of Piero della Francesca, Indagini su Piero. Ginzburg's credentials as one of the most intelligent and original historians of recent years are not in doubt, yet his book on Piero overflowed with the art- historical equivalent of UFO watching, namely portrait spotting. He argued that the same man was represented in three of Piero's works, identified him as a particular member of the family which commissioned one of these works, and did not even pause to wonder why this man, Giovanni Bacci of Arezzo, should have featured among the members of a confraternity in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro shown clustering beneath the Virgin's cloak in Piero's "Madonna della Misericordia". One would be less surprised to spot Ian Botham in a photograph of the Pakistan cricket XI.

Happily, George Holmes's Renaissance does not suffer from this kind of aberration, not least because it is concerned with the broad sweep as opposed to Ginzburg's microhistory. The idea is to explain what is enduring and distinctive about the culture, but above all the art, of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, and what aspects of them became the foundation for the world we live in today, with cities being regarded as of paramount importance. Holmes is perfectly aware of the fact that such a brief makes it impossible for him to deal with everything, but reacts to the problem actively rather than passively. He writes that "Attention is given to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Erasmus, but not to the artists of mannerism, a movement that included many delightful painters and sculptors. This is based on the belief, right or wrong, that Pontormo and Bronzino, Correggio and Cellini were less significant."

To someone such as myself in the throes of finishing a book on Correggio,who also happens to be allergic to the term mannerism, and who most particularly feels it cannot usefully be applied to his hero, these slurs are like water off a duck's back.

More seriously, though, this does seem to be a pretty outrageous piece of dice-loading. Nobody would dispute that Leonardo and Michelangelo are more significant than almost anybody else, but there are plenty of lesser figures who earn a mention in spite of the fact that their claims are no more obvious than the members of the Holmes salon des refuses. The illustration on that very page is of a detail, not specified as such, from a picture by Carpaccio, a charming painter, but not exactly in the Leonardo class either.

In the end, who's in and who's out is neither here nor there, not least since the featured players are largely self-selecting. What matters is the quality of the writing about them, which is consistently distinguished but seldom revelatory. In a way, this is unsurprising in view of the amount of ground to be covered - and this is a Renaissance which ends with Shakespeare and Rembrandt - but it remains the case that there are few of the personal touches an insider might have found it impossible to resist. It cannot have been at all easy to wrestle with so many of the thorniest problems of Renaissance art history, and it is not intended as faint praise if I record that there were remarkably few moments when this particular reader was muttering "no" under his breath. Mantegna's "Agony in the Garden" in the National Gallery was never an altar piece, however, nor is Pontormo's Santa Felicita "Deposition" a fresco.

Two of the great merits of Renaissance from the point of view of the general reader for whom it is intended are that it is not unreasonably expensive and that it is on the whole very well illustrated. Almost everything, apart from the odd Mantegna or Signorelli bombed in the last war, is reproduced in colour, and mostly very well. A lurid red "Laocoon" and a pre-restoration "Jonah" from the Sistine ceiling are rare disappointments, but Jan Van Eyck's Washington "Annunciation" and Holbein's "Ambassadors" look resplendent since cleaning. It is unfortunate that a number of the images, including Durer's "Adoration of the Magi" and Altdorfer's "Saint George", are in reverse.

Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods is another footnote-free zone, and it also contains some art history, which has its occasional lapses too. The big idea here is to examine a tremendous range of human activities in terms of the power of money. Whereas Holmes is predominantly linear and chronological, and mostly confines himself to Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, Jardine is more inclined to move in a mysterious way. Hers is an exceptionally ambitious enterprise, even if its claim to be a new history of the Renaissance may be asking for trouble.

It is full of extraordinary factual information, and is likely to teach anyone a thing or two. What is more, the narrative thread is never hard to follow, and one has a definite sense that the recondite material that often seems to take the author's fancy is not chosen at random. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and even though there is the same desire to seek the bedrock of our world in the period that is to be found in Renaissance, Worldly Goods is wonderfully evocative of what a profoundly different world it was too.

Jacob Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy was published in 1860, but is wearing exceptionally well. Neither of the two books under review is likely to be regarded as equally "significant" in the judgement of posterity, but there again they might be happy to settle for "delightful" status alongside Correggio.

David Ekserdjian is in the sculpture department, Christie's, London.


Author - George Holmes
ISBN - 0 297 83564 5
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £30.00
Pages - 2

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