A New History of Italian Renaissance Art
Stephen J Campbell and Michael W Cole
2nd edition
Thames & Hudson
712pp, 858 colour and black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £49.95

The Renaissance was so-named in the 19th century. A Florentine would have described the art and ideas of his city as La Nuova Scienza, or 'The New Learning'. In other words, the creators of the Renaissance believed that they were doing something novel, while later historians of the Renaissance believed that they were reviving something that had already happened. At issue was the relationship of the Renaissance to the Classical world that might, or might not, have been reborn, and the relationship of the Renaissance image of the Classical world to the modern world. The Renaissance was in two minds about this. Ghiberti, whose Commentaries (circa 1440) were one of the first post-Classical art treatises, emphasised the revivalist theme. But Vasari, in Lives of the Artists (1550), emphasised the innovative element.

These days, historians take two approaches to this conundrum. One is to declare the Renaissance to be a historical mirage: rather than a revolutionary breach of the kind that typified the political life of early modern Europe, it was an extension of the scientific and intellectual advances of the High Middle Ages. The other is to reconcile the image of the Renaissance as backward-looking revivalism and forward-looking New Learning.

Tellingly, the term 'Renaissance' entered the English language in the 1830s via French. The French Revolution, with its revival of Roman Republicanism, really had been a deliberate 'rebirth', yet it had also transformed modern politics. This is a hard idea to absorb, because it requires the reader to look backwards and forwards in history at the same time, while simultaneously focusing on the Renaissance itself.

Stephen J Campbell and Michael W Cole's New History of Italian Renaissance Art does all that, and more. This elegant and comprehensive reconciliation of this double view of the Renaissance was acclaimed upon its publication in 2012. This, the second edition, expands Campbell and Cole's survey of 14th-century art, revises their assessment of several artists, Leonardo da Vinci among them, and includes a valuable appendix on the materials and techniques of the Renaissance workshop. The whole story is laid out in short, richly illustrated chapters, from Giotto and the 'political geography' of the Trecento to 'church humanism' and the divergent paths that led into the 16th century. Each chapter has plenty of historical context, and a lightness of touch that comes from heavy learning.

Naturalism, the Renaissance method, was not simply 'a problem of imitating the physical world'. The artwork was not a mirror of Nature, but an historically conscious interpretation, using 'a symbolic visual language' that a sophisticated viewer would have understood in historical terms. Verrochio's Water Sprite (circa 1470) was made for the Medici villa at Careggi, near Florence. Its motif, a winged infant carrying a dolphin, was an ancient one. Verrochio's contemporaries, Campbell and Cole write, would have seen the 'ancient prototype', but they would also have seen modern and local innovation.They would have seen the Water Sprite in conjunction with Donatello's spiritelli, the angelic figures described by Aristotle and carved by Donatello for the marble cantoria, or singing gallery (1432–38) in Florence's Duomo. The authors link Donatello's frieze thematically to the dancing, drapery-clad figures of Pisanello's drawings, whose attitudes and dress express 'artistic allegiance to antiquity', even as Pisanello's use of a live model, rather than a sculpture, deviated from it.

This single thread in Campbell and Cole's magnificent tapestry shows how the Renaissance, by bequeathing the idea of 'the artist' and artistic method, used its past in order to shape its future.
Dominic Green

 

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