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Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy. .

Luke Syson and Dora Thornton. Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. 288 pp. + 120 color pls. and 80 b/w pls. index. bibl. $50. ISBN: 0-89236-657-5.

Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy is co-authored by Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, a previous and present curator at the British Museum. Luke Syson, who was formerly in the Department of Coins and Medals, is an expert on Pisanello and other fifteenth-century Italian medallists and Dora Thornton, who is the curator in charge of Renaissance objects in the Department of Medieval and Modern Europe, has a special interest in Renaissance maiolica. Their book concentrates on the art of Quattrocento Italy and its tide, although suggesting luxury objects of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries (snuff boxes, chatelaines, scent bottles, etc.), is used by the authors to mean objects, on the whole the decorative arts, distinguished by virtus, in the sense of the Latin virtus, or excellence. This discussion of Renaissance art objects is heavily weighted in favor of the interests of the authors and among the art and objects they discuss a great deal is to be learned from their respective concentration on coins a nd medals and maiolica.

This is a specialist study which, nevertheless, will have an appeal to the general reader. Beautifully illustrated with many color plates of works, most in the British Museum, Objects of Virtue is divided into six chapters which concentrate on fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italy. After a brief introduction, the first chapter deals with "Defining Social Virtues"; chapter 2 follows with a discussion of "Betrothal, Marriage and Virtuous Display"; next chapter 3, "All'antica Style"; chapter 4 treats the important subject, "The Value of Disegno"; chapter 5, "Glass and Maiolica: Art and Technology"; and the concluding chapter 6 is entitled "Art Objects?" Each chapter is well furnished with notes, and there is a select bibliography (divided into primary and secondary texts) and an index which includes names, places, and subjects (so often omitted but essential in a study of this kind).

There has been a marked interest in art objects of the Renaissance manifest in conferences on the art market (the first of which, sponsored in 2000 by Syracuse University, Georgetown University, and the Ministero per i Beni Culturali, is on the point of publishing its acts); specialist publications (most of which are noted in Objects of Virtue) and more general studies such as those of Lisa Jardine and Richard Goldthwaite, who in Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 discusses some of the issues of the book under review.

The authors are, indeed, indebted to Goldthwaite's excellent discussion of the purchase of art and the way it increased during the Renaissance, particularly his section on "Demand in the Secular World" and its consideration of architecture and domestic furnishings. And they acknowledge this debt by citing Goldthwaite's study in their first footnote. The initial chapter on defining social virtues introduces their subject by discussing the 1416-17 translation of Aristotle's Ethics into Latin by Leonardo Bruni, which provided a classical precedent for the contemporary cult of magnificence in which expenditure on buildings, including private palaces, was deemed important. These were the palaces which on completion would quickly be filled with splendid art objects.

The chapter "Betrothal, Marriage and Virtuous Display" concentrates on the furnishing of houses and the sorts of art objects created on the occasion of marriages (cassoni and brides' boxes) and childbirth (birth trays, which one learns were sometimes given in advance). These were often beautifully painted by distinguished artists and represented (in the case of the marriage) a large and unique expense. The furnishings of the camera (chamber) were rarely renewed during the lifetime of the married couple. Vasari's biography of Dello Delli in the 1568 edition of the Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects provides an understanding of cassoni, spalliere, and other painted objects created expressly for domestic decoration -- in the fifteenth century and in the period in which Vasari was writing. For some reason, Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany by Anne Barriault is not cited, nor is Tempting Pandora: A Selection of European Boxes 1200-1800, the catalog of an exhibition held at L'Antiquaire and T he Connoisseur in New York in 2000.

The authors include a discussion of jewelry and its part in marriage -- as dowry and display -- a subject often neglected when Renaissance marriage is considered. We find that jewelry was sometimes not owned by the bride but borrowed for the occasion. This practice continued into the sixteenth century where at the wedding of Christine de Lorraine and Ferdinando I de'Medici jewelry was not given to the bride but designated for her use alone. Cornucopias (emblems of Hymen, god of marriage) were often part of wedding imagery and thus of jewelry made for marriages. In discussing Bianca Maria Visconti's marriage portrait, the key article by Paola Venturelli (Arte Lombarda, n. 116), which provides an extensive discussion of her jewelry, is inexplicably omitted.

The chapter, "All, Antica Sryle" is particularly distinguished by Luke Syson's discussion of Quattrocento medals, a subject which he has studied in depth. Mention is made of how coins and medals were displayed and a further exploration of this subject would have been in order. Display provides an important reflection of the way numismatic material was viewed by contemporaries and sets these objects in context. Another subject which is frequently alluded to, often with pertinent examples, is the contest with Antiquity and the way in which Renaissance artists set about surpassing their ancient predecessors. This theme emerges not only in this chapter but also in others (such as that devoted to glass and maiolica) as well. A full discussion bringing together the many examples the authors have identified could have profitably been included.

There follows a chapter on "The Value of Disegno" and the important relation of ingegno to disegno. Dora Thornton then sets out the importance of glass and maiolica in the chapter that follows. One of her subjects of inquiry over many years has been Renaissance maiolica, and she makes clear the way in which raw materials, which are not intrinsically valuable, were transformed by technology and design into significant works of art--works of art that were valued for this very reason. The thorny and much-discussed question of whether the great historiated services of maiolica were used is confronted, and the answer is rarely. Maiolica, which was considered especially suitable for a country villa rather than a city palace, was most often employed to provide a splendid display on a princely buffet.

"Art Objects?," the final chapter, brings together certain themes discussed earlier. The important question of authorship and whether a work had to be executed by an artist or only conceived by him, is explored. The conclusion is that the idea was enough. The great painters were the possessors of inventive ingegno and concomitant disegno, and the execution of a work by their studio meant that it was attributed to the artist who originated it. Interesting subjects such as prints as sources for the decorative arts and defining phrases attributing the style of an object to a certain place (for instance alla veneziana) are also present, although in the latter case the question is somewhat more complex than the authors realize.

This is an important book which considers the decorative arts in Quattrocento and early Cinquecento Italy, but does much more than that. It sets art and artists in the context of Renaissance society and the changing patterns of life and consumption. New objects such as painted cassoni and historiated maiolica are given their due. An entire chapter is devoted to the crucial role that the influence of antiquity played in art and its creation. Broader questions regarding art and the artists who created it punctuate the entire discussion. While other subjects might have been included, the authors have provided an altogether excellent study which will interest specialists but will also have an appeal to those interested in Italian Renaissance culture in general.
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Author:McCrory, Martha
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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