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Art, Family, and Memory in Renaissance Florence. (Reviews).

Giovanni Ciappelli and Patricia Lee Rubin, eds., Art, Family, and Memory in Renaissance Florence

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xix + 316 pp. [pounds sterling]60. ISBN: 0-521-64300-7.

In 1392, Guido di Tommaso Deti confided to the Florentine notary Ser Lapo Mazzei that their mutual acquaintance, the childless silk merchant Francesco Datini, "has [by building] given himself a child and a posthumous memorial." At first glance, Guido di Tommaso Deti's observation seems to bristle with profound insight into Francesco Datini's individual psychology. With the publication of the above volume of essays, collected and presumably expanded from a conference that took place in London in 1996, it is now clear that Deti's acute observation has much less to do with Datini's individual psychology and much mote to do with a generalized cultural obsession in Renaissance Florence with lineage and memory. The sixteen contributors to this volume make a convincing case that this Florentine preoccupation binds several different kinds of artistic and literary production. Even Samuel Cohn's thoughtful dissent serves to intensify by contrast the preoccupation of elites with art, lineage, and memory, a preoccupation so vast that religious women sought escape from its suffocating influence, preachers viewed it as the source of civic strife, and communal officials and religious institutions alike sought to suppress the proliferation of coats of arms with which elite families hoped to memorialize and preserve their patronage in perpetuity. This preoccupation often resulted in direct conflict, as Megan Holmes' essay on the convent of Le Murate points out, with monastic precepts and with the reluctance of institutions to surrender their autonomy to benefactors obsessed with patronage.

The editors have organized the contributions into four distinct but related sections: Memory and its Materials, The Imagery of Memory, Family Identity, and the Transmission of Memory. The first section, especially the essays of Patrick Geary and Giovanni Ciappelli, provides a broad conceptual framework. For Giovanni Ciappelli, the materials of memory exist in the libri di famiglia that during the Quattrocento, at least, were a characteristically, if not uniquely Florentine genre. Both Ciappelli in this section, and Anthony Molho, in the fourth section on the transmission of memory, point to reasons of state to explain, on one hand, the proliferation of libri di famiglia, and on the other, a sudden surge in the use of surnames in documents between 1300 and the mid-Quattrocento, culminating in the organization of the 1458 index to the Tratte (drawings for offices) for the first time by surname rather than by Christian name. In both cases, the requirements of political officeholding and the need to identify the state's debtors and creditors fueled these important markers of lineage, memory, and family identity. The use of surnames leveled off and the production of libri di famiglia virtually ceased in Florence once the ruling class had established itself as a distinct elite of easily identifiable noble families, whose claim to noble status by the early modern period came to reside in the genealogical compilations of a Vincenzio Borghini or the increasingly ubiquitous prove di nobita. Nicolai Rubinstein's brief contribution makes more explicit the political uses of memory, and Lauro Martines treats the politics of collective memory as expressed in poetry. Of special relevance to the remainder of the volume is Patrick Geary's essay, and Geary's use of F. C. Bartlett's work in experimental psychology that approaches memory not as a passive experience, but as an active reconstruction of the past.

The use of memory to reconstruct and even to reinvent the past figures prominently in many of the more detailed studies in the two subsequent sections on art and memory and on family identity, such as the contribution of Geraldine Johnson, which reminds us that Renaissance portrait busts, following their classical Roman predecessors, acquired their value not from precise reproduction of their subjects, but rather by representing their subjects' characters according to certain physiognomic ideal types. Hence, these portrait busts preserved memories of character, memories deliberately shaped by patrons. Viewers of such portrait busts even used them as a form of sympathetic magic -- as a way of transmitting through memory the character and beauty of the sitter. Likewise, Alison Wright's study of portraiture as "the memory of faces" emphasizes the use of profile as a way to preserve in memory the image of the sitter.

Patricia Lee Rubin's reading of the appearance of Matteo Palmieri and his wife as the donors in Botticini's painting Assumption of the Virgin, a painting that Palmieri himself commissioned as his memorial, reinforces the importance art as a vehicle for the construction and reconstruction of memory. In this case, Botticini represented Palmieri as the exemplar of a dedicated life of public service, an ideal that Palmieri's own Della vita civile and its evocation of Scipio's dream portrayed as the path to divine favor and personal salvation. The memory of a man or a woman did not merely persevere against the erosion of time, but actively exhorted viewers and rememberers to the pursuit of virtue.

Brenda Preyer and Amanda Lillie cover architecture and family identity; the former notes the deliberate replication of the materials and design of older palaces in their subsequent redesign and reconstruction, and the latter shows how important was memory of place, bordering on nostalgia, in the preservation and maintenance of family identity; a memory of place whose power often transcended the physical buildings themselves. Indeed, the beauty of memory resided precisely in this power, as Lorenzo Fabbri's essay on the Strozzi in exile shows. Exile and the memory of family often reinforced and strengthened family ties in a way that physical proximity was more likely to undermine.

In a collection with so many essays, a reviewer cannot possibly do justice to each individual contribution. Even in those areas with lacunae, the contributors and editors have pointed out directions for further research. Margaret Haines, following Franco Franceschi, suggests indirect ways to explore family and social relationships among artisans. Andrew Butterfield, whose excellent study of the evolution of tomb sculpture explodes "humanist tomb" as a useful analytical category, identifies the need for a thorough study of Renaissance chivalry, a social phenomenon neglected by historians of Florence despite a historiography heavily weighted toward the study of elites and patronage. In Thomas Kuehn's essay, law preserved memory from the ravages of uncertainty, but even in law, memory was not "merely preservative, but also creative." Legal consilia on rights of inheritance influenced subsequent redactions of statutes, which in turn reinforced the claims of agnatic lineage.

This collection of essays provokes considerable thought and makes an important contribution to the state of our knowledge concerning how art reinforced, stimulated, and even created family pasts and family futures in Renaissance Florence. One regrets only slightly (since the topic has been amply treated elsewhere) the lack of an extended mention of Giorgio Vasari's own contribution in the Lives to the commemoration of artists themselves. Surely Vasari's work is a prodigious feat of reconstructive memory with explicitly didactic intent. Who in literature could be more status-conscious than Vasari's borrowed Giotto, from whom a presumptuous consumer of no discernible lineage supposedly receives a richly deserved comeuppance? Even the illustrations in the 1568 edition of the Lives are themselves a visual reconstruction of artists as Vasari wished them to be remembered, as he simultaneously reshaped the collective identity and family memory of Renaissance art for future generations of historians and art historians.
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Author:Gavitt, Philip
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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