Adrian W. B. Randolph. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence.
Claiming that in fifteenth-century Florence "politics became less a place for the staging of authoritarian monologues, and more the site for persuasion and the generation of consensus" (2), Randolph examines how art participated in the formation of Florentine political life during the period of its emergence as a major city-state. Political art, functioning to engage Florentines in a dialogue, "played a fundamental role in manufacturing popular consent to authority" (2). Along with a consideration of politics and public art, gender figures prominently in Randolph's analysis. While he acknowledges the influence of feminist scholarship, he is not concerned here with an examination of misogyny in public art as some feminist scholars have been, but rather emphasizes gender in considering how the state was gendered and presented as an object of desire. He calls attention to the relation between amorous poetry and political language and extends this parallel to the way the state was imagined in the visual arts "within poetic discourses of love" (3).
The book is structured around six case studies linked by the theme of how political art engaged the public to create consensus to authority. While the first chapter deals with public art under the oligarchical regime at the beginning of the fifteenth century through a consideration of Donatello's statue of Dovizia, the remainder of the book concerns Medici projects and the ways they constructed images of authority within a consensual framework. Randolph contends that the same conceits of love and affection that framed the rhetoric of participatory politics of the oligarchy also "became a central myth of Medici authority" (77). He examines how Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo de Medici crafted images and their relation to Florence by discussing major sculptural works, Donatello's David and Judith and Holofernes, and Botticelli paintings as well as other less well-known works such as portrait medals, prints, and even the ephemeral art of banners for Medici jousts.
This engagement with both canonical and non-canonical works of art is one of the major strengths of Randolph's book. He takes an interdisciplinary approach in examining his theme, drawing upon the scholarship of social history, gender, literary, and cultural studies, as well as art history. In addressing how images functioned, Randolph considers their impact on a diverse public and not just a male elite. This consideration is more evident, however, in some chapters than in others, such as the chapter on Donatello's David which posits a predominantly male spectatorship. While Randolph synthesizes and draws considerably on earlier scholarship, he offers new interpretative insights into possibilities of reception and meaning as evidenced in his discussion of David in which he addresses the nudity of the figure in the context of homosocial relations in fifteenth-century Florence. In suggesting new interpretations, Randolph does not aim to challenge earlier ones or to present an alternative authoritative truth, but to enlighten the reader to various ways images could have functioned in Florentine society. His text stresses the multivalence of meaning in the images he considers. While these interpretative possibilities are often intriguing and his discussion of Florentine culture informative, one might question if all these possible meanings were truly persuasive or intended as an overt strategy of persuasion.
In fact, the problem of multivalent meanings becomes the focus of the chapter on the Judith and her contradictory nature as heroine of liberty and threatening woman who decapitates her male victim. Although somewhat underestimating the extent that some feminist scholars have recognized the ambivalent meanings inherent in Judith, Randolph provides a detailed discussion of the multiple and shifting meanings of the subject. By examining contemporary prints he exposes the moral ambivalence that rendered Judith problematical as a persuasive symbol.
While Randolph has deliberately avoided a broad, overarching treatment of the political function of art and has conceived his book in the form of semiautonomous essays that examine aspects of this question, ending his book with the ambivalent Judith may not best serve his main premise. A concluding section drawing together the threads of his arguments about how the rulers of fifteenth-century Florence used art to create political consensus would have helped reinforce the theses articulated throughout his rich discussions. Randolph presents his material with admirable organization and clarity. He is particularly sensitive to issues of methodology and adept at incorporating various methods and disciplines into his discussion. His handsome, well-illustrated book will be valuable for students of Renaissance culture both for its excellent synthesis of information and for the stimulating insights it provides.
Loyola University Chicago
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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