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German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty.

Jeffrey Chipps Smith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. 546 pp. + 317 b/w illus. $65. [Winner, 1996 Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Book Prize.]

Apart from a flurry of interest among German scholars during the early part of this century, the sculpture of the period embraced by this book has been largely relegated to the margins of art historical scholarship. Smith's carefully researched overview therefore makes an important and long overdue contribution to the discipline, and as the first concerted survey of its subject it is destined to become a basic resource for our understanding of this fertile, complex, and fragmented episode in the history of art. Smith casts a wide net, including religious and secular objects, architectural decoration, fountain sculpture, epitaphs, portraits, commemorative medals and other types of Kleinplastik fashioned for the discriminating collector. Each of these is placed in context according to type and function, considerations of patronage, and other relevant aspects of artistic production. Finally, there are extremely useful biographical entries with bibliography provided of forty-four sculptors in an appendix. As a result the text can serve as a handbook as well as an historical narrative of the period.

The difficulties of accomplishing this task should not be underestimated -- considering that late German Renaissance art evolved, or rather fought its way to fruition, across a minefield of sectarian antagonisms which not only badly eroded the evidence of its own past through iconoclastic destruction, but created an often puzzling form of moral resistance that transformed into a distinctly northern idiom the classical styles and humanist subjects being promoted in Italy at the time. In this respect it is a period in which both traditional and more progressive motives for making and acquiring art were often compromised and distorted. Smith attends to these complexities, providing us a basic structure on which to build further research, and given his reliable attention to detail and historical background this book has already won deserved accolades from specialists in the field.

A review for an interdisciplinary journal prompts consideration in broader historical terms as well, particularly as recent problems of the interrelation of style and literary content, the effects of gender politics, and the meaning of social production for establishing collective sensibilities have drawn scholars in various fields to include the visual arts as a regular part of their venue. In these dimensions Smith offers us a sure footing, though his overall account is unlikely to shake up the field as has Michael Baxandall's Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven, 1980). There are points at which Smith's readings of the more subjective aspects of his subject might benefit from similar reflection.

In particular I have misgivings about Smith's perception of the response to works of art, an admittedly vexed problem that nevertheless holds special implication for the fraught climate of the later German Renaissance. In treating the subtle issue of sacred vs. secular Smith offers a somewhat brittle reading of the historical shift from preto early modern attitudes. For example, in his chapter "Art or Idol?" he notes that, until Kepler, "it was believed that the eye was a passive receiver and that the image was the active agent of sight." This theory of vision, he suggests, "begins to explain the powerful hold that religious representations, and sculpture in particular, had over the devout." Such a model of cause and effect is surely too positivistic, akin to suggesting that because Homer thought the world was flat, those unfortunate Greeks who dared venture beyond the pillars of Hercules actually did fall over the edge!

Explanations of this kind occasionally curtail Smith's interpretation of the affective power of art and obscure certain of the more elusive tastes implied by it. The peculiar intimacy of Kleinplastik (chap. 9) is by any account one of the most aesthetically compelling dimensions of late Renaissance sculpture, north or south of the Alps. The charged eroticism of much of it sits in an odd but definite relationship to fanciful grotesques and astonishing natural historical pieces, for example the protoscientific use of life casts of zoological and botanical specimens. Many of these objects offer an intense tactile appeal that compels possession, and doubtless played to the proclivities of a lavish court culture as much taken with the sensual as it was with the spiritual and the preternatural. Although these provocative interrelations are not readily parsed, they are surely salient to much of this art.

A special virtue of this book is its handsome production, including mainly excellent illustrations, though here one misses the convenience of having size and medium indicated in the captions. The editor must also be faulted for frequent typographical errors.

All caveats must be kept in their place, however, and not allowed to diminish the very considerable substance of Smith's achievement. Surely one of the reasons for this field having been so long neglected is the sheer practical difficulty of investigating it thoroughly, a task that requires attention to archival material, access to objects that are often difficult to examine closely, and a corpus for which photographic study is simply less adequate than it is for two-dimensional media. In this respect Smith has made a contribution of the most fundamental sort. He has mapped new territory of wide scope and gone a long way to clarifying its historical significance, an accomplishment for which we should all be grateful.
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Author:Parshall, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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