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"Spalliera" Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes.

The first-time reader, confronting the term "spalliera" in the title, may associate the subject with the more familiar genre of "cassone" painting, the narrative scenes on wedding chests fashionable with patrician families of the Quattrocento. The flaws behind that assumption, however, emerge as the author demonstrates that "spalliera" painting was a distinctive type of household decoration, despite the tendency of earlier scholars, notably Schubring (1923), to group the narrative panels together.

The paintings discussed here are hardly trivial examples of Renaissance art. The oblong scenes, painted on wood, have long been admired at many levels: as lively, colorful records of secular life; as three-dimensional images captured with one-point perspective; as aesthetically satisfying compositions of architecture, landscape and figures where the ideal seems to reflect the real; and as concrete evidence of the humanist revival of ancient texts. Celebrated artists of the Renaissance - like Uccello, Botticelli and Titian - painted "spalliere" while others - like Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti - wrote about their narrative structure. These scenes, created between 1470 and 1520, have been popular with connoisseurs, at least since the time of Vasari whose admiration for the "fables of poets" meant that he emulated them in his own home. But the inevitable renovation of palatial interiors disrupted the installation of most cycles and, with the art market propelled by an appetite for single panels, "spalliere" have been sold as independent works to museums and collectors. The diaspora creates a formidable challenge for the scholar who seeks to restore the scenes to their original context.

This publication benefits from careful design and excellent illustrations. An unusual feature is the set of color plates at the front that makes it convenient for the reader to refer to renowned "exempla." Black and white illustrations appear in the text as well as at the end, following a checklist, or catalogue, of extant "spalliera" series. In uniting disparate scenes on these pages, the catalogue affords an overview of cycles, as well as detailed information about individual panels. A good bibliography ranges across academic disciplines.

The accessible design of the book complements the author's approach. Confronting a tangle of unresolved or unexamined issues, the authorial voice is understated, even modest, in guiding the reader toward a clearer vision of formal and thematic issues. She scrutinizes primary sources, navigating the divide between Renaissance texts and today's inadequate terminology. In examining visual and narrative conventions, the author links the decorative panels to painted cycles, including the monumental walls of the Sistine Chapel, and to the metaphor of Alberti's "open window." The chapter on "Morals and Meanings" connects the literary content of the scenes to contemporary rituals and gendered messages. Recently recovered documentary evidence merges with literature and social history so that "spalliera" paintings, initially the domain of connoisseurs or iconographers, take on new dimensions. Famous panels, notably Botticelli's "Primavera" and Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love," are reinstated in their domestic settings, their nuptial significance secured. The heroines of such cycles, whose status was inscribed in the patriarchal culture of Renaissance Tuscany, become prototypes for the ideal woman. Although "spalliere" were intended for private homes, they promoted the civic virtues underlying the Renaissance city state.

The term "spalliera" comes from "spalla," or shoulder. Looking at shoulder level or, as Leonardo wrote, "on a level with the eye of the spectators," might be taken as emblematic of Barriault's book. Graceful prose and an organized presentation make the text pleasing to follow, while close attention and the necessary erudition are rewarded by insights into the complex world of narrative unity.

EUNICE D. HOWE University of Southern California
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Howe, Eunice D.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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