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Of love and beauty; Richard Edmonds finds Renaissance faces look familiar to modern audiences BOOKS.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Renaissance Faces

By Lorne Campbell (Yale: pounds 40)

The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims

in the making of Castilian culture

By Jerrilyn D Dodds (Yale: pounds 25)

The fascinating thing about the faces of the Renaissance, is that they all look exactly like us.

In this lovely book, you find portraits of money lenders, artists, collectors of rare and beautiful objects, courtiers, grandees, marriageable young women and people in their old age.

But take away the fur collars, the fantasy hats, the rings, golden collars and heavy garments and these are the people you would see today in offices, banks, shops or perhaps waiting at the bus stop.

Nothing much changes about the human physiognomy apart from the marks of excessive living, the warts and wrinkles. So these people distinctly resemble us.

For example, Antonello da Messina's "Portrait of a Man," painted around 1745, shows a young Venetian aged about 25 with fleshy lips, clear, grey eyes and a sort of contemporary look which lies somewhere between the designer stubble and the vaguely challenging glance directed at us.

The male nude (he's actually wearing Renaissance underpants) by Pontormo, is a self portrait which shows the artist pointing at his own reflection in the studio mirror. Homoerotic it certainly is, but Pontormo knew all about the sexual fringe of big city Italian life and this drawing celebrates the young male body in all its glory.

And where have we seen that kind of well developed male before preening in the mirror possibly after a workout? In a modern gym, of course.

So many of these faces are haunting in their seriousness and sense of life. These are images you take away in your mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Jan Gossaert's "Elderly Couple," is a case in point. Here, the artist has found a beautiful serenity in the eyes of his models who look at us from around 1520, a time when the denial of age - so much a modern problem-would have been unthinkable.

Perhaps, as you look at them, you may find yourself saying, "I have a grandparent who looks exactly like that."

Philosophers have always called the face the mirror of the soul. Study any of the men and women shown here and you get the picture along with an informed text incorporating all aspects of human life including propaganda, power, courtship, love and ambition, while exploring, very successfully, complex notions of what represents beauty.

During the Medieval period, Spain's great cities Cordoba, Seville and above all Toledo, were watersheds in the making of a world, which in time, was developing into the one we know today.

The fascinating thing about The Art of Intimacy is that it acknowledges the profound social currents whichmoved endlessly beneath the political rivalry and the religious activities which dominated in the early Renaissance Spain's major cities.

Castilian culture, which comprised so many different strands ranging from consummate craftsmen working in precious metals, to the poets, philosophers and translators, who set Arabic texts into Latin and were thus able to propagate new forms of learning throughout Europe, existed very comfortably with the different strands of peoplewho surged through the city markets, cathedrals and colleges.

Jews, Christians and Muslims achieved an understanding that stands today as much as it ever did as an example of racial unity. Obviously, there was confrontation, in the cultural diversity shown here, but by and large these people worked together in friendship and it is something to consider in today's world with its ever-present tensions.

But this is by no means a dry scholarly text and there are some extremely funny passages which enrich the book and increase its readability. Poetry, for example, was exalted at the time - particularly the poetry of love, which was developed by the troubadours, many of whom developed their linguistic skills at the courts of the Arab kings living in Spain and therefore would have had intimate knowledge of the Arab culture of Castile.

But there were very funny moments inside all of this and the question is raised: "Why would a man of no more background with an excellent education in letters and the religious sciences, begin composing love songs in vulgar Arabic and make a practice of singing them in the Medieval equivalent of the red-light district?"

The point is raised and extended here, yet the Troubadour tradition which led to the fashion for the love song with its roots in Arabic love verses led in turn as time passed to the English love sonnets of Shakespeare and others amazingly enough.

To find that historic link between English Renaissance and 12th century Spain with its Moorish culture, something which is shown here so brilliantly, is, quite frankly, breathtaking as any student of English literature will agree. Certainly, The Arts of Intimacy is, to my mind, a worthy addition to any serious bookshelf.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 13, 2009
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