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Die drei Grazien. Studien zu einem Bildmotiv in der Kunst der Neuzeit.

Edgar Wind opened his chapter on Seneca's Graces in Pagan Mysteries with the observation that "perhaps no other group of antiquity has so persistently engaged the allegorical imagination" (31). Veronika Mertens's 1991 Freiburg (Breisgau) dissertation, published as Die drei Grazien, seeks to circumscribe the many traditions that animated this remarkably fertile allegory in the early modern period. It is, as Wind's comment implies, a formidable undertaking.

Mertens employs a traditional iconographic approach, relying on categories of representations to organize her subject. The somewhat taxonomic flavor that ensues can be gleaned from her survey of the topic in antiquity. Four significant focal points emerge: the meaning of the Three Graces in natural philosophy, in ethics, as a panegyric, and in the philosophy of the arts. From this introduction there follows a discussion of the Graces in the mythographic manuals and emblem books; the remainder of the text, and by far the most valuable section, is devoted to the Graces as goddesses of both grazia and art. A review of grazia in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts and images is succeeded by a survey of several related topics: Ingenium and Ars, the Graces and the art of disegno, Natura and Ars, the group as a personification of poetry, painting and music, and the Toilet of Venus with the Graces in attendance.

Reading Die drei Grazien in its entirety provides a synoptic prospect that is all too rare nowadays. The author presents textual sources from antiquity to the eighteenth century, and has collated a wide variety of secondary studies. In the process, insights merely alluded to in earlier literature are developed, such as Mertens's productive exploration of the association of the Graces with the personifications of the three arts of disegno - painting, sculpture and architecture. But the Graces captured the imagination of Alberti, Ficino and Vasari among many other thinkers, and in recent years each of these men - and Renaissance art theory as a whole - has spawned considerable activity among both English-speaking and continental academics. While the recent writings of continental scholars such as Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz, Matthias Winner, and Wolfgang Kemp are cited (Mertens's bibliography does not extend beyond 1990), the English-speaking reader may notice considerable lacunae and be discomforted by the author's sometime reliance on older bibliography such as Anthony Blunt's 1940 Artistic Theory in Italy, to the exclusion of more recent studies.

The issue is more complex than whether or not an author has kept up with the scholarship in a foreign language. A 350-page text supported by a 25-page bibliography can hardly be faulted for being under-researched. It is a question instead of academic conventions. Over the past 50 years Aby Warburg's method, perhaps never more magisterially demonstrated than in Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl's Saturn and Melancholy, has developed in two separate directions. In the United States the iconographic approach, especially within the format of the doctoral dissertation, usually takes the shape of a tightly circumscribed examination of a relatively specific topic. In Europe, where Panofsky's more far-reaching term "iconology" has a currency never achieved on American shores, there is the opportunity for the younger scholar to attempt a broader perspective on the chosen subject.

It is a matter then of intellectual expectations. The reader who anticipates a discussion of the Graces within the context of recent wide-ranging reformulations of Renaissance art theory will be disappointed by this volume. But the academic who has either the need or the desire to acquire a sense of the myriad of meanings with which these figures were associated in the early modern period will be richly rewarded. Mertens offers a copious and fruitful picture of this complex allegory.

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Author:Serebrennikov, Nina Eugenia
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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Next Article:The Viewer as Poet: The Renaissance Response to Art.

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