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Inventing the Renaissance Putto. .

Charles Dempsey. Inventing the Renaissance Putto.

(Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History.) Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xvii + 277 pp. index. illus. $59.95. ISBN: 0-8078-2616-2.

It might be best to start by stating what this book is not. Although its title might lead some to think it is a coffee-table book featuring those adorable little boys who cavort through Italian Renaissance art, it is instead a series of erudite iconographic essays, which draw deeply from studies of poetry, festivals, psychology, and medicine. This book is also not about children in the Renaissance, for in Dempsey's view putti have little to do with flesh-and-blood youngsters, but rather they represent passing thoughts, panics, uncontrolled desires, and similar psychological phenomena. It might even be said that the book is not entirely about putti, since they only figure prominently in the first three chapters, in varying guises and contexts, ranging from the ornamental to the demonic. Beginning in the third chapter, masking becomes the central theme. At first the discussion is closely tied to putti, who either wear or play with masks, which represent unfounded fears (called "larve" in the Renaissance, it is easy to imagine why they did not find their way into the title). In the fourth and fifth chapters, adults in disguise are the main concern, and, except for some passing remarks about Cupid, the putto fades from view.

A more constant theme in this book is vernacular culture, the courtly "pseudo-feudal" culture that took on a highly refined character under Lorenzo the Magnificent and is reflected especially well in Poliziano's Stanze per la Giostra and in Botticelli's mythological paintings. Dempsey sets these works against a background of jousts, masquerades, demonology, and madness, which leads to some remarkable interpretations. For example, Botticelli's Mars and Venus is here given a surprising reading as "a nightmare of sexual obsession and domination, of a soul possessed and tormented, not just by erotic fantasies, but by the demons of Mars' own moral confusion" (137). The languid Venus is a "demonic phantom," and the children represent "nightmare terrors" (141) who are about to stir up a hornet's nest as they obscenely play with lance and conch shell. These tiny fauns, called panisci (a word related to "panic"), are the key to Dempsey's argument that Poliziano alone could have devised such a program. Such an interpr etation would be easy to dismiss simply because the visual evidence seems so much at odds with it, but Dempsey's argument is subtle and convincing. Still, we might raise the question of whether Botticelli's manner of painting successfully expresses the psychological intensity of this scene. That, in turn, raises the question of how Poliziano conveyed his ideas to Botticelli, since the artist's own creative role is given scant attention.

Other chapters offer similarly intriguing interpretations of Donatello's putti and the masks in Michelangelo's Medici Chapel. Most art historians will be familiar with Dempsey's ideas about Botticelli's Primavera, either from his early articles published in the 1970s or his more recent book, The Portrayal of Love (Princeton, 1992). Here Dempsey carefully identifies the characters' clothing as pageant costumes, sees the nymph Flora as a disguised portrait of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, and expands upon Warburg's hypothesis that the painting reflects Poliziano's Stanze per la Giostra.

However, it is still questionable whether such works of art with their mythologized references to "contemporary experiences as enacted in the public rituals and civic feasts of Florence" would truly be "accessible to all" (xi). Ordinary people surely must have enjoyed the pageantry that informs these works, but to truly understand them in the way Dempsey proposes, they would also have to read very long poems quite carefully, know the political and personal symbolism involved, and sometimes top that off with up-to-date medical knowledge. The physical accessibility and the functions of these objects do not particularly interest the author, nor do the responses of contemporary viewers. What Dempsey does offer is an array of literary and visual sources different from those emphasized by the likes of Gombrich and Panofsky, and he marshals that evidence toward an overall interpretation that sets poetry and civic celebrations in the place of stodgy Neoplatonism (which is not even mentioned in this book). But Dempse y's methodology is not so different from Gombrich's and Panofsky's, and it should be noted that they, too, looked to feste and other popular sources for evidence. The preface to this book suggests that the author wishes to redress the shortcomings of an earlier generation, but the book he has written is more valuable as a contribution to the growing body of research that explores the Renaissance in all its strangeness and complexity.
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Author:Barnes, Bernadine
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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