Sixteenth-century painting learnt without going to schools

Dürer to Veronese
March 24, 2000

This lavishly illustrated book is intended as a companion to an earlier volume by a similar National Gallery team, though one that can also be read independently. The earlier text coincided with the opening of the Sainsbury wing, with its then novel juxtaposition of earlier northern or southern works: the book, too, refused to erect barriers between these paintings and emphasised what they had in common. The present volume follows its precursor in its avoidance of misleading abstractions such as "schools" and in its structure of chapters surveying first the contexts, then the materials and techniques of paintings. However, in dispensing with the series of full-size plates with commentaries it has lost an illustrated catalogue character, and, as admitted in the concluding chapter, wishes to stand as a general survey of 16th-century European painting.

Yet, despite many illustrations of works from other collections, its main focus is still on the National Gallery. Can these holdings be made the basis of a satisfactory general account of what the authors would not want us to call Renaissance painting? The last four chapters, dealing with the painters' techniques and procedures as they interrelate with wider aesthetic issues, seem the most successful. The gallery's pictures prove rich enough to support wide-ranging surveys not only of painting techniques (apart from fresco), but of matters such as the planning of works, drawing procedures and different supports, the latter proving a particularly valuable section. The investigations of the scientific department underpin the perceptions and historically informed observations of the authors, whose comments can be followed with the aid of superb detailed photographs. Combinations of unprecedented painterly freedom with control are repeatedly made evident, and the authors also show how the appreciation of idiosyncratic styles connects with phenomena such as the rise of the connoisseur or the debates on disegno versus colore . This synthetic approach will be of particular value to those, both students and general readers, who find much literature on Renaissance painting methods either out of date, drily specialised or dauntingly technical.

In the five earlier chapters, the authors profess their intention to renounce not only teleological notions of "advance" in art but the concepts of "High Renaissance" and "Mannerism", assessing paintings according to their physical context and function, not their adherence to "progressive" stylistic criteria. This works best in the chapter on private devotional work, which demonstrates how novel artistic approaches could freshen familiar subject matter, and that on palace paintings, where patronal tastes for antique literature and artefacts are important. The authors are particularly sensitive to the level at which paintings such as those by Veronese or Titian were hung and other issues of physical context. While here they are willing to venture outside the gallery's confines to discuss painted palace facades or majolica, in the altarpieces chapter they are hampered by the rather uneven holdings of the National Gallery's 16th-century examples of the genre, though this section gains strength towards the end in discussing artistic competitiveness and the introduction of narrative.

The organising categories cause most problems when not anchored to the examination of physical objects or artistic genres but to concepts. Overlap between the chapters is apparent, and there is also a certain amount of resonant but misleading titling. The first chapter, titled "Power and imagery", confusingly oscillates between a brisk "historical background" survey of a familiar kind and a discussion of issues of doctrine and of decorum in religious art that might have been better incorporated in the later altarpiece section. Conversely, passages in the uses of portraiture by patrons would have better suited the first chapter than the "Description and the ideal" one. The latter could then have focused more decisively on the artistic problems for the painter in balancing the observed raw material of his landscapes and portraits with other aesthetic demands for "invention" or his desire to exhibit a personal, expressive manner.

Some uncertainty as to the intended audience seems apparent in the bibliography. Whereas the text shows that the authors were targeting interested but not well-informed gallery goers, who need to be told, for instance, that the pope is bishop of Rome or that Constantinople and Istanbul are the same city, the reference section largely assumes an academic audience. There is no doubt, however, that both categories will greatly benefit from this work. Yet despite its successful marrying of visual instruction with delight, and its richness of scholarly insights, it seems in the final analysis to be trying to balance too many different themes and purposes.

Mary Rogers lectures in the history of art, University of Bristol.

Dürer to Veronese

Author - Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister and Nicholas Penny
ISBN - 0 300 07220 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 317

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