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Joseph Manca. Subject Matter in Italian Renaissance Art: A Study of Early Sources.

Joseph Manca. Subject Matter in Italian Renaissance Art: A Study of Early Sources. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015. Pp. 228.

Subject Matter in Italian Renaissance Art: A Study of Early Sources by Joseph Manca is a comprehensive study of Italian Renaissance art and its public. From a wide array of sources such as patrons and art lovers, it is evident that the non- professional people of the period expressed little interest in the complexity of the art they observed. A simple storyline in a painted scene created sufficient satisfaction and fascination for these viewers. They rarely expressed an appreciation of difficulty in subject matter of an art work; in fact observers were sometimes annoyed when they encountered ambiguity or mystery.

For example, the Bolognese humanist Giovanni Sabadino, writing in 1497, described a number of works of art and architecture found in the city-state of Ferrara, and Manca notes that his writing displayed "a certain breeziness" (6). But his goal in writing these descriptions was primarily to flatter the patron Duke Ercole I with accounts of the Duke's magnificent achievements and expenditures.

Lorenzo de' Medici of Florence left brief written statements of his personal opinions regarding painting. His thoughts are significant because his vision is that of a major patron and art lover of the time. In his judgment a perfect painting called for "a good support, a wall or word, or cloth on which the paint is applied; a master who is very good in drawing and in color; and the matter painted [should] be attractive and pleasing to the eye" (9). Lorenzo called for representations of what exists in real life: landscapes, buildings, dancing figures, battle scenes. In another example, Manca presents an interesting discussion, surprising to the modern reader, about Michelangelo's David, revealing that the identity of the iconic statue was unknown to many Florentines. Luca Landucci, an apothecary, recorded it as a marble giant, without any other title or interpretation. A French abbot and a German tourist visiting Florence thought it to be a "grand fantosme," and "an Orpheus" (26-27). Contemporary art historian Ascanio Condivi called the marble David in the Palazzo della Signoria "that statue" (never calling it a David) and noted that it is called "the Giant" ("il Gigante") by everyone and often "the Colossus." Another art historian, known as "the anonymous Florentine" (Anonimo Magliabechiano), noted the impressive size and presence of Michelangelo's David in the Piazza della Signoria, but he did so without remarking on the subject matter of this "giant," "not bothering to tell us that the statue is a David" (57).

In general the viewers of art during the Renaissance period exhibited a casual lack of concern about the complexity of the subjects of art. While art historians of the period--in addition to Vasari, Condivi, and the Anonimo Magliabechiano, Manca names Benevento Cellini and Lorenzo Ghiberti--were keenly interested in style, expression, and color in a scene, they paid little attention to matters of iconography. At times, they even made mistakes and omissions when writing about these subjects in their own works. For example, Manca remarks of Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus, "Vasari simply noted, (erroneously) that the Venus is accompanied by her Cupids and that in the equally famous Primavera, Venus is in the guise of Spring and is being adorned with flowers by the Graces, again a poor record of the subject matter, as the Graces dance and bestow no flowers on the goddess" (65).

Art history of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento focused on style, medium, location, scale and other easily grasped features. Complexities of meaning were absent for the most part from this type of writing and if included, expressed the displeasure or puzzlement of the writer. While the widespread modern belief holds that Renaissance art was complex and full of cleverly coded meaning, sixteenth-century observers offer little support for such beliefs. Giorgio Vasari, the first art historian, supports in his writings the thesis that artists create simple, straight-forward subject matter, and that their public is troubled by any iconographic difficulties presented to them. In no instance does Vasari offer a complex reading of any work of art, not even in his own vita. Renaissance viewers at all levels of sophistication preferred to know exactly what a work of art represented. As for religious art, aside from its decorative qualities, it was intended to inspire the viewer to perform divine work on earth, perhaps also to induce piety. Saints were to inspire awe and reverence while evil figures were to arouse the ire of the populace.

A number of twentieth-century writers have detected several layers of meaning in the Last Judgment of Michelangelo. Vasari's account omitted such an interpretation and concentrated on naturalism, the strength of narrative, and the quality of design. He praised the design of the figures, the beauty of the proportions, and the variety of poses and attitudes. Vasari did not credit Michelangelo's success to learned study but rather to his experience of the real world: "[...] he was always shrewd and observant and he had seen a lot of mankind, and thus he had acquired by contact with the day-to-day world the understanding that philosophers obtain from books and speculation" (72).

In addition to the opinions of individuals on the topic of iconographic interpretation, Manca cites written contracts of the period which show that Renaissance patrons knew exactly what they wanted. These contracts between patron and artist usually provided a description of the desired work and sometimes referred to a preparatory model which was a part of the legal agreement. Manca found no contract that offered layered or hidden meanings; every stipulation of the agreement to be executed was spelled out with clarity.

Finally, Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortigiano, a book which was read and discussed at the highest levels of Italian society in the early sixteenth century, indicates that viewers would discuss and ponder the stylistic characteristics of an artist's work, with subject matter as an afterthought, or at least as something of lesser importance for consideration. Perfection in a work of art was judged to come from the consistency of its visual style; perfection was a purely visual matter, while subject matter was a secondary issue.

Joseph Manca's book explores a plethora of early written sources from viewers, patrons, contracts, and even from the artists themselves. It is a tremendous accumulation of scholarship which will provide Renaissance scholars with a useful resource for their research. It clearly supports the premise that Renaissance art was enjoyed by viewers who preferred art that was easily understood. People of the period appreciated grandeur and style. If erudition existed, if layers of meaning were embedded in an art work, even if the artist discussed his or her ideas with patrons, they simply did not get passed down. Renaissance viewers loved clarity.

Maria Gonnella-Traub, Neumann University
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Author:Gonnella-Traub, Maria
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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