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Balancing acts: reading sources and weighing evidence in recent Italian renaissance art history.

How does art get made? This fundamental question may have as many answers as there are works of art. The kinds of answers, however, are limited in number. Leaving aside for the moment the ultimate, imponderable answer - which resides in the genius of the individual artist - one may focus on more readily definable, even quantifiable, kinds of answers found in medium and technique, for example; or in visual traditions and precedents; or the specific instructions relating to particular commissions, which may be recorded in such documents as contracts; or the way in which the work was displayed and used; or the more general but equally important considerations of its spiritual or psychological context. These kinds of questions and answers are considered by the authors discussed here.

In Picturing the Passion, Anne Derbes recognizes changes in thirteenth-century Italian narrative paintings of Christ's last days, which she explains in relation to Franciscan spirituality. Many of these cycles are small in scale, crowded into the aprons of historiated Crosses, that is, the area flanking the figure of the crucified Christ. In this way, the monumental, iconic, and timeless image of the Savior is juxtaposed with miniature narratives that place his sacrifice within its historical - that is, temporal - context. Beginning with works of the second quarter of the Duecento, both narrative and corpus demonstrate an increasing emphasis on Christ's suffering. The living Christus Triumphans, his eyes open, expression impassive, and head upright, is replaced by the dead or dying Christus Patiens, eyes closed, expression anguished, and head resting limply on his shoulder in works by Giunta Pisano, Coppo di Marcovaldo and others. Later masters, such as Cimabue, added to the imagery of Christ's suffering by painting the Patiens with a translucent or transparent loin cloth. Revealing Christ's nudity, the diaphanous fabric asserts his humanity, as in earlier Byzantine Crosses (28, 30-31). Passion narratives represent "Christ's humanity with an unsparing directness" (158), depicting his suffering and the grief of his mourners with increasing specificity.

While recognizing the importance of Byzantine models for these artistic developments, Derbes takes issue with Hans Belting's thesis that Italians treated Byzantine works as sacrosanct prototypes (159-60). She argues that "we need to go beyond the assumption that these painters always emulated Byzantine art to ask how central Italians . . . responded to Byzantine art, and why they did, and why, at times, they did not" (15). Derbes considers that the "Byzantine component" in thirteenth-century Passions "may stem, at least in part," from Franciscan missionary activities in the East (24). She also relates Passion paintings to Franciscan writings, including liturgical texts, notably the Office of the Passion by Francis himself (22), and such devotional guides as the Meditations on the Life of Christ. Sometimes these kinds of texts "weave together more than one version of same event, or . . . offer the reader options, recounting first one version, then a second." Dealing with comparable variations in the pictorial narration of the Passion, Derbes examines the similarities and dissimilarities of Italian and Byzantine cycles. Saint Francis's Office of the Passion begins with the Betrayal, the beginning for many narrative cycles as well.

Depictions of the Betrayal also introduce the pernicious subtext of anti-semitism (35, 65, 68, 69, 79-81), visualizing an ugly reality of thirteenth-century life. In 1215, Derbes reminds us, the Fourth Lateran Council ordered Jews to wear badges or special clothing to make them immediately recognizable to Christians (88). The Inquisition was up and running by the 1230s. In 1239, Gregory IX - the same pope who had canonized Saint Francis eleven years before - ordered that Jewish books were be seized in March 1240. In obedience to his edict, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and, naturellement, found "guilty" (89-91,290).

Depictions of the trials of Christ offered a particularly convenient forum for the representation of anti-semitism (72-93). According to legal practice, the trial before the Roman Pilate was the most important of Christ's several trials described in the Bible, because only Pilate was empowered to condemn the defendant to death (72-73). Even so, Pilate was "often treated leniently [in the cycles] . . . ; the Crucifixion was defined as a Jewish crime" (79). Indeed, Christ's other trials involved Jews - first Annas, then his son-in-law, the high priest Caiaphas - although, as Derbes explains, the two events are usually telescoped in narrative cycles as in the texts of John 18:13, 24 (73). In the Arena Chapel, Giotto represented the trial before Caiaphas and the Jewish priests but not that before Roman Pilate. And Duccio in the Maesta, setting some kind of record for the depiction of litigation, depicted the trial before Annas, two scenes with Caiaphas, and four with Herod. One sees these and other Italian Passion cycles differently, having read Derbes's useful volume.

Hayden B.J. Maginnis's Painting in the Age of Giotto deals with some of the same material as Derbes but in a very different way. This perceptive study of Trecento painting is also the handsomest publication I think ever to have been produced by Penn State.

Maginnis argues that our present-day understanding of the Trecento has "its origins in the Cinquecento" (1). Most scholarship, Maginnis asserts, has been in the form of monographs, concerned primarily with attribution and dating. To be sure, some "contributions . . . take a larger view" (3), and he mentions Frederick Antal in Florentine Painting and Its Social Background (published in 1947 and bound to the politics and psychology of the Post-World War II era), and Millard Meiss in Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (first published in 1951 and reprinted many times thereafter). No other twentieth-century authors are included in this historiographic discussion. A similar stringency characterizes the infrequent footnotes which honor the works of dead predecessors but largely ignore the living. Such citational stinginess undermines credulity when the reader is asked to believe that nothing much has changed in the interpretation of Trecento art between the beginning of the fourteenth century and the end of the twentieth. Indeed, Maginnis himself belies this claim with the bibliography, listing many useful works neither cited in the notes nor credited in the text for their contributions.

Maginnis underscores Giorgio Vasari's influence on modern art history, including Vasari's prejudice in favor of Florence at the expense of Siena - and, for that matter, at the expense of everywhere else, most notably Venice. Maginnis traces the Renaissance author's influence on historical interpretation of various monuments, including Duccio's Rucellai Madonna (a documented work of 1285 now in the Uffizi). Although Vasari admired the Madonna, he was mistaken about its authorship, attributing it to Cimabue - a Florentine and the teacher of Giotto, the hero of Vasari's first age (64-66). Believing Vasari to be correct, later authors extolled the painting and its primacy in the history of art. The correct attribution to Duccio was first suggested by the archivist Vincenzo Fineschi in 1790, followed by Franz Wickhoff in 1889, who compared the Rucellai Madonna and Duccio's Maesta. Today one may think that everyone before Wickhoff must have been blind not to recognize this stylistic kinship. Once Duccio's authorship of the Rucellai Madonna was established, however, the panel either vanished altogether from art histories or at best was cast as a bit-player in the drama of the Trecento revolution. Berenson ignored Duccio's painting, for example, and "Cimabue's Santa Trinita Madonna, a work Vasari only included in the second edition of the Lives, came to take the place of the Rucellai Madonna as the picture announcing the rebirth of painting" (68).

Another of Vasari's mistakes, at least as most American, English, and German scholars see it, involves the attribution of the fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Francis in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, the basilica that was severely damaged in the earthquakes of 1997. Maginnis tackles this vexatious problem, invoking the title of Richard Offner's seminal essay to conclude that "One man's Giotto is another's non-Giotto" (79). Offner's essay ("Giotto, Non-Giotto"), published in 1939 in the Burlington Magazine, treats the Arena Chapel as exemplifying Giotto's style, which he differentiates from that of the nearly-contemporary Francis cycle. Stylistic disparities are such that the same master, Offner concludes, cannot have painted both works. Much of the historiographical and methodological ground rehearsed by Maginnis here has been explored also in Alistair Smart's book, The Assisi Problem and the Art of Giotto: A Study of the "Legend of St. Francis" in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi (Oxford, 1971; reprint, New York, 1983), which is listed in Maginnis's bibliography but not cited in his own discussion of Assisi (chapter 4). Maginnis adds an important observation, however, noting that "Vasari had not mentioned the frescoes" in Padua, and they came to be considered "a major monument in Giotto's oeuvre" only in the nineteenth century (85). The situation seems an unintentionally ironic counterpoint to the exaltation of the Rucellai Madonna when it was believed to be by Cimabue, and its banishment to scholarly limbo when it was returned to Duccio.

Analyzing the style of Giotto's Paduan frescoes, Maginnis notes that "verisimilitude was sacrificed to narrative purpose" (88) in the treatment of settings and pictorial lighting. Settings - that is, fictive architecture - become more elaborate in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels in the Florentine church of Santa Croce (92-97). In the Peruzzi Chapel, the architecture is even more complex and spatially intricate than in the Bardi, and the narratives "also speak of diffusion of interest and an attenuation of dramatic force" (97). Not everyone will agree with his chronology, Maginnis says: "Particularly among Italian art historians there is a tendency to place the Peruzzi frescoes earlier than the murals of the Bardi Chapel" (97). Perhaps, but he might have added that many American scholars (including me, in Spirituality in Conflict: Saint Francis and Giotto's Bardi Chapel [1988]) agree with him and indeed have discussed at length the arguments for placing the Bardi Chapel before the Peruzzi. Similarly, other scholars share and have anticipated Maginnis's concern with "the problem posed by Giotto's sizable workshop . . . and his apparent willingness to put his name to works that in essence were near autonomous productions of assistants and associates. Indeed, it is suspected that he lent his name to the very works most in need of validation" (97), among them the Stefaneschi altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Maginnis does much to redresses the unbalanced treatment of Duccio, and his book should convert many readers to his view, restoring the Sienese painter to his proper place as a founding master of the new style. Regarding Giotto, however, Maginnis is probably preaching to the converted, and likewise in his discussion of later fourteenth-century art. The problem here concerns Millard Meiss's Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, in which superb visual analyses are bound to an untenable chronology in order to support the thesis that stylistic changes in mid-fourteenth-century art can be explained in relation to the mentality of survivors of the Black Death of 1348. During the almost half century since its publication, Meiss's book has often been challenged by such scholars as the Italian Luciano Bellosi (Buffalmacco e il Trionfo della Morte, Turin [1974], not listed in Maginnis's bibliography) and the American Bruce Cole (cited in the footnotes). After recapitulating some of the recent scholarship on the subject from the 1960s onward, Maginnis concludes with an analysis of what he suggestively calls "The Mannered Style" (188-91) and with directions for future study (chapter 9, "Toward a New History," 192-205). I do not know whether I shall follow all of his directions, but I shall certainly rewrite the syllabi of my courses in fourteenth-century art to include Maginnis's Painting in the Age of Giotto.

Maginnis's book is in part an indictment of Vasari as a historian of fourteenth-century art. Vasari's factual errors aside - and they are legion - he remains a sine qua non of Renaissance art history. Our problem is not whether to read Vasari, but how to read him, which involves remembering that his conception of history was very different from ours, as Maginnis indeed reminds us, and not blaming him for the difference, as Maginnis sometimes tends to do. How to evaluate such evidence is the subject of Martin Kemp's new book, Behind the Picture. The title derives from an anecdote about Apelles, the favorite painter of Alexander the Great - and for later ages, the archetypal great artist. Apelles was said to have concealed himself behind one of his pictures in order to eavesdrop on viewers' comments. Disagreeing with what he heard, Apelles told one critic, a cobbler by trade, "stick to your last" (2). When Leon Battista Alberti repeated the story in On Painting (1435), according to Kemp, "he specifically concluded that the artist should pay greatest attention to 'expert' judges" - not to mere cobblers and such (2).

Alberti reminds Kemp to remind us that "[t]he Renaissance saw the rebirth of a written literature specifically devoted to the criteria of excellence in the visual arts" (2). How should one read these and other sources? Do they tell us - indeed, can they tell us - everything? Of course not, Kemp answers, explaining that there are different kinds of written sources - humanistic texts such as Alberti's volumes, for example, with their ambitions to assert high status for the visual arts, and documents such as contracts, concerned with sundry practical matters (6). Different kinds of sources must be read differently, each "evaluated not only with respect to the kind of information it can legitimately be expected to yield . . . but also with respect to the kinds of questions which it is illegitimate or at least unreasonable to ask of a particular type of written account" (7-8). Kemp exhorts us also to remember "that the sources themselves are as much products of their culture as the artefacts and similarly need to be interpreted within their functional contexts" (256), that is, written sources are predetermined by their literary genres or traditions. Reading Alberti (discussed further on 90-97) or reading contracts, therefore, we must remember to ask of these texts "Why were they written, for whom, and with what effect?" (79). With that advice and $4, you can get an espresso.

Even while agreeing with Kemp's assertions, readers may find little that is new in this book of truisms and (mostly) commonsensical observations. If non-professional readers, including students, are the intended audience, as the book's modest price suggests, they will not require over 300 pages to learn Kemp's platitudinous lessons. Why does he repeat such familiar verities? Because, Kemp laments, in recent scholarship the juxtaposition of art and written source "has become overlain with heavy veils of modern interpretation." Salome-like, Kemp wants to shed these veils to ask "what kinds of things the documents . . . actually are" (vii). Kemp is not the first to pose this question but perhaps the first to compile a book-length answer. His answer is correct - and expected: context is all, or almost all.

Our values are so different from those of the fifteenth century, for example, that we may be surprised to learn that the frame of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks (Paris, Musee du Louvre) cost more than the painting it contained (11, 44-45). Once again, Kemp is correct if trite in his warning that "we should not assume that our priorities necessarily match those of the original patrons" (54). Readers of Paul Oskar Kristeller's seminal essay on "The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics" (published in two numbers of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1951 and 1952) - not cited by Kemp - already know that we cannot take "for granted" the "classification . . . of 'art' itself" (Kemp, 11; also 226-28), because Renaissance people did not define "the arts" to include the visual arts.

Forewarned is forearmed: fifteenth-century Italians did not think as we do. So, faced with various possible interpretations of a painting, for example, how are we to know which is more plausible from the Renaissance point of view? Kemp's sensible if unsurprising answer is that first one must "determine what kind of object the painting . . . was intended to be" (20-22). Various texts may be associated with a painting, and they will have different kinds of information to offer: an inventory will not explain an allegory, or a Neoplatonic text specify costs and measurements, and so on.

In addition to such documents as inventories and Neoplatonic texts, which may or may not be germane in any particular case, Kemp emphasizes two other categories of written sources: ekphrasis and the paragone (27-28). Kemp's claim that ekphrasis "provides one of the main bodies of evidence as to how paintings were viewed" (27) is simplistic and misleading because he seems to have forgotten his own good advice regarding literary genres. Like other genres, ekphrasis too has its traditions, and they are not necessarily bound to viewing actual works of art. An ekphrasis, after all, can be a description of an imaginary work - Homer's description of the shield of Achilles, for a classic example - and in any case, is bound less to viewing than to the competition between painting and poetry. The ekphrastic author does not set out to describe or view a work of art but rather to rival it. Merely (or accurately?) to describe a work of art is to acknowledge the superiority of the visual, to admit defeat in the paragone wars.

Similarly misleading is Kemp's definition of the paragone as "the comparison of the arts" (27). A more accurate definition is "competition" or "competitive comparison," because the point of the comparison is to determine which of the arts is superior in the imitation of nature. (The indispensable source for this subject is Claire J. Farago's Leonardo da Vinci's "Paragone": A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in the "Codex Urbinas", Leiden [1992].)

Aside from treatises, contracts and other legal records (concerning guardianships, marriages, dowries) may prove useful to the art historian (33). Of course, none of these sources, literary or legal, can or was intended to tell us everything: "Clearly, there were large areas of the relationship between client and artist that were not likely to be covered by written records" (32). Client and artist spoke to each other, and no one took notes, although letters and anecdotes may offer reflections or "occasional glimpses" into their conversations (32). Such practical matters as partnerships (34), memoranda (42), artists' standards of living (125), and various forms of payment are discussed in general terms. In addition to a fee, or in lieu of such direct payment, an artist might receive living expenses, for example, or marketable goods or property (120). Relating these payments to the services rendered, Kemp concludes that "our modern tendency to assess the aesthetic merits of a work rather than the quality of its materials can cause us to overlook values that patrons took very seriously" (126), including, notably, the value of the materials themselves. This Renaissance "materialism" was analyzed by Michael Baxandall in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, first published in 1972. In The Painter's Practice, Anabel Thomas likewise notes the contractual emphasis on materials - pigments for a painting, the kind of stone for a sculpture, and so on (133, 135, 168-69). It is worth remembering, however, that Renaissance people did not invent this materialism, nor Baxandall, nor Kemp, nor Thomas its study. Abbot Suger (1081-1151), for example, cared intensely about the materials of works of art, arguing that "we must do homage [to God] also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels" (quoted in Erwin Panofsky, "Abbot Suger of St.-Denis," in Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York [1955], 123).

Perhaps the best part of Kemp's book is the third section, "Ideas, The Ordering of Artistry," which begins with summaries of major figures and conceptions, e.g., Plato on the "idea" of the object (80), and the council of Nicea on images (83). Kemp's discussion of Cennino Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook is incisive and original, concluding that the text is not a mere recipe book, as it is generally taken to be. On the contrary, "we may at least suspect Cennino of authorial and social ambitions unusual in a mere artisan" (90).

Kemp is also on target when he cautions us to temper enthusiasm for such texts as Cennino's or Lorenzo Ghiberti's Commentaries with the realization that they were almost unknown to contemporaries. Ghiberti's work, Kemp notes, "survives in only one manuscript and never seems to have been brought to the point where it could be considered as a coherently publishable book." It belongs instead to "the tradition of the zibaldoni" (101). Similarly, Leonardo's so-called Treatise on Painting was known to his contemporaries and immediate successors only in manuscripts. The first printed text appeared in 1651, "a posthumous compilation from Leonardo's scattered notes by Francesco Melzi" (107).

Kemp distills his methodological exhortations for the reader, identifying "three general ways in which meaning was embodied in a Renaissance artefact. The first is by explicit intention, as in the devising of an allegory . . . ; the second is by providing an image which is knowingly a field for interpretation, as when a painter provides a devotional image of the Madonna and Child . . . ; and the third is by the tacit embedding of attitudes, such as the greater acceptability of portraying agedness in men than in women" (167). As to how to find "potential meanings," Kemp identifies "two main strategies: firstly, using contemporary written evidence to define contemporary intentions and modes of viewing . . . ; and secondly, availing ourselves of viewing positions disengaged in time and place to establish ways of looking which are distinct from those that could be articulated in the period itself" (167). Like art, texts and documents, historians themselves belong to their time. Even so, Kemp reassures us, our discussions of the Renaissance are legitimate, that is, historically founded, because "we have in some way inherited the values of the period," and so "we can reasonably aspire to refine our tools to operate increasingly in keeping with values recognizable in the period itself" (262). Kemp makes this sound so sensible that one may think the process is, if not easy, at least straightforward. But it is neither easy nor straightforward, or at least not always so.

Despite his promise to read and evaluate various sources according to their genre, Kemp seems unwilling to stray too far from superficial readings of documents and similar factual records, which are seemingly (but not in reality) immune to interpretation. Kemp defends his conservatism with a cynical condemnation of recent scholarship: "It is in the nature of the academic industry of interpretation that something new needs to be said - preferably a new kind of thing needs to be said - so that even an inherently satisfying and historically rooted mode of interpretation has to be overthrown. But we should not automatically surrender something that works in relation to the documentation in a desperate desire to say something new" (212). Kemp echoes this plaint at the end of the book, condemning the way "the inevitable pursuit of careers in institutional contexts . . . favours a compromised absorption of the 'extreme' views as part of a broadly catholic practice" (281). There is some truth in these discouraging assertions, but even so, we should not reject the additional insights or possibilities of these new approaches, as Kemp seems to suggest. No one would wish to argue with Kemp's plausibility test for any method, namely "that any model should be credible in terms of real people doing real things in real circumstances" (225). But those terms are so vast, and perhaps limitless, as to be unhelpful.

To be sure, Kemp does not mean to preclude any and all modern (or post-modern?) ways of looking at Renaissance art. On the contrary, he declares his readiness to move "beyond the primary sources [which] involves what is called historical perspective" (257). This leaves us with the 64,000 lire question, however: "If we accept . . . that contemporary sources contain an incomplete expression of the making and viewing of artefacts in the period itself, and that we can usefully look back with historical hindsight, how might we amplify our modes of interpretation in a manner which is not arbitrarily tied to our present assumptions and values?" (257-58). Kemp seeks the answer - but does not find it - in such "diverse strategies" as stylistic analysis, exemplified by Johannes Wilde, or the formal analyses of Sidney Freedberg, related, Kemp argues, to Modernist theory (259-60), and bound to "subjective visual skill" or what Bernard Berenson called "the eye," "which lies at the foundation of connoisseurship" (260). In fact, this connoisseurship is not so different from recognizing a particular author or composer in an anonymous text, or even knowing from style, syntax, and similar elements, that one is reading a transcription of a fourteenth-century rather than a fifteenth-century document, or a medieval rather than an early Christian one. I exclude the evidence of paleography from this example to focus on elements of style. Valla knew how to read this way, and so do modern scholars. If Kemp means to dismiss this kind of analysis, he is wrong. Certainly he seems to disparage the stylistic approach, noting that "It is an endeavor inseparable from the ideas of aesthetic pleasure and being a cultured person" (261).

Kemp himself is not immune to the force of his own aesthetic pleasure, despite his complaint that "[m]odern research has inevitably focused on a few centres which were spectacular for the scale, expenditure and quality of their patronage, and, inevitably, the presence of a major master has ensured special attention to that particular court" (52). This focus means, Kemp concludes, that "our attention [is skewed] . . . towards the exceptions rather than the norms" (52), that is, toward the giants and centers rather than secondary figures and "provinces." Focussing on such masters as Angelico, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, Kemp himself was evidently unwilling to apply these revisionist sentiments in his book.

Who can blame him? Perhaps Anabel Thomas. Thomas hopes that her book, The Painter's Practice in Renaissance Tuscany, may redirect future study: "it limits our view" of fifteenth-century art history, she writes, "to consider only the great artists" of the period. Her view of the period is largely focussed on the Florentine Neri di Bicci (c. 1420-92/93), who "should probably be reassessed in the context of the whole Renaissance art market, rather than by comparison with the relatively few works of the sophisticated elite" (15). After all, "[a]lthough Neri's art often falls far short, in terms of artistic sophistication, of the work of his more famous contemporaries, he was clearly very successful" (xviii).

For Thomas, then, "the painter's practice" is primarily that of Neri di Bicci and his workshop, and "Renaissance Tuscany" means fifteenth-century Florence. Neri's activities are particularly well-documented thanks to the fortuitous survival of his workshop Ricordanze (published by Bruno Santi), including information on commissions, land purchases, the artist's house and shop premises, his assistants and their tasks, his clients, and so on. Indeed, Thomas focuses on Neri in large part because of the availability of this book and other sources to elucidate her discussions of such subjects as the art market and the workshop as a business. Three appendices include: discussions of "Workshop Documents: Account Books, Inventories and Ricordanze"; a useful explanation of currency and the "constant flux" of gold and silver (309); and a consideration of "A Work in Context," namely Neri's Tobias and the Three Archangels completed in 1471 and now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Given the fact that there were many different kinds of workshops in the fifteenth century, as Thomas notes in her preface (xv-xvi), how can one generalize? Or more to the point, how can Thomas generalize about fifteenth-century Florence on the basis of her protagonist, the painter-son of Bicci? Similarly, her rhetorical questions - how does the artist establish his clientele? what are his relationships with patrons? his social and financial status? - probably have as many answers as there are artists who confronted these matters. Thomas's book should, I think, be read with these caveats in mind. The book is most interesting and most valuable when it is most specific, because generalizations may be misleading or irrelevant.

One useful generalization, however, is Thomas's discussion of household fenestration and lighting. Florentine Renaissance rooms, Thomas notes, had "little natural light" (32) because streets were (and are) narrow and windows small and rarely glazed (34). Instead of glass, Florentines used impannate (oiled linen) or carta di babagia (paper). These practical considerations underscore for me the extraordinary expressive power of celestial light in painting and also the artificiality of light in Florentine images as opposed to the Venetian (Venetian architecture, not coincidentally, features larger windows).

Like all scholars of Renaissance art, Thomas mines Cennino Cennini's Handbook, quoting at length his descriptions, the artist's materials, tools, and method of preparing a panel (149-55), and the ways workshops were organized and artists trained (64-66). Apprentices, we learn, were not mere "gofers" who went out for cappuccino or were assigned other unimportant errands and tasks. On the contrary, "there is evidence to show that individual members of the workshop force did assume independent working roles and that there was a great deal of relegation within the workshop" (76), and so "lilt is indeed likely that much of what is not attributed to one named master was in fact produced by a number of hands" (77). Probably few scholars would dispute her assertion about collaboration and delegation, and yet it seems to me anachronistic to think of "hands" in this way. One may recall signatures on non-autograph or studio works "by" Giotto in the fourteenth century or Giovanni Bellini in the fifteenth. And one may anticipate Michelangelo's self-mythologizing as a lonely genius suffering cramps on the Sistine Ceiling scaffolding (a subject elucidated by William Wallace).

How, then is an apprentice different from an assistant? Thomas grapples with this seemingly unanswerable question, noting that such designations as fattorino, garzone, discepolo, and dipintore are often used inconsistently (81-88), at least in Neri's shop. Why did church or corporate patrons (e.g., compagnie) chose Neri or any other master? Thomas notes that the contracts drawn for such organizations often declare that the patrons chose this or that artist after considerable thought and deliberation (94) - an apologia, as it were, that an individual (private) patron has no need to express. Citing a contract between Piero della Francesca and the Compagnia dell'Annunziata at Arezzo, Thomas postulates that "one explanation" for such corporate defensiveness "may be that the company was anxious that other individuals should appreciate their discrimination" (94). But precisely what "other individuals" would ever see this contract? Surely the patrons were declaring their discrimination for themselves, their confreres, and their successors as officers in the compagnia.

Contracts are the principal if not the only primary source for Renaissance paintings, but they do not tell us everything and cannot be taken at face value, as historians perhaps know better than art historians. (Julius Kirshner and Thomas Kuehn, among others, have noted the disparity between what Renaissance people wrote in legal documents and what they actually did.) According to Maginnis, Duccio's contract for the Rucellai Madonna, dated 15 April 1285, is "the earliest surviving example of its type" (72). Duccio undertakes "to paint the said panel and to adorn it with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her omnipotent Son and other figures, in accordance with the wishes and pleasure of the said commissioners" (my italics and James Stubblebine's translation in Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School [Princeton 1979], 1: 192-94). The language indicates that there may have been discussions regarding the patrons' "wishes and pleasure," details not specified in the contract. The same thing is true today: the fundamental problem with contracts and the finished product, whether it's the Rucellai Madonna or a modern kitchen cabinet, is that the product is often not in compliance with the written document (Thomas, 9), as Creighton E. Gilbert has warned (most recently in L'arte del Quattrocento, cited by Thomas, 337n. 10; and in "What Did the Renaissance Patron Buy," Renaissance Quarterly 51 [1998]: 392-450). Whatever was written in the contract or for that matter in other directives (namely, programs) might be emended during "a considerable period of discussion and oral communication" (Thomas, 101). Thomas also notes the use of scripte, lists, or addenda specifying particulars - the selection of characters, for example, or their location within the composition, and so on (105). Whether artists' contracts or humanists' programs, for that matter, were honored more in the breach than in the observance, Thomas is right to remind us that "although one may question whether or not the patron's intervention actually affected artists' designs, it is nevertheless clear that they themselves felt they had some role to play in the matter" (105). It is also clear, however, given the frequent disparities between contracts and finished works, that specificity of language is no guarantee that contractual stipulations were followed. Therefore, we may reject Thomas's assertion that "despite occasional exceptions contract documents suggest that very little was in fact left to chance" (131-32). I agree with Thomas, however, when she notes the emphasis on materials (pigments for a painting, the kind of stone for a sculpture, and so on) in contracts (133, 135, 168-69), a subject discussed with considerable insight by Baxandall in his Painting and Experience (listed in The bibliography but not cited in Thomas's discussion of materials). Like the generalizations regarding fenestration and light, those regarding the importance of materials are valid. Otherwise, Thomas is often too hasty to draw general conclusions from specific cases: the information she provides is certainly valuable, but only in the particular. The best way to use her book may be to look up individual masters in the index under "artists." Artists bring us back to the question of how art is made - a question to which only they can provide the ultimate answer. And that answer is in their work: art is its own primary source. Everything else is secondary and peripheral.

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Author:Goffen, Rona
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:5666
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