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Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation.

Edith Balas. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995. 52 figs. + x + 196 pp. $40.

Broadly speaking, three larger positions with regard to the iconography of Renaissance art can be detected over the years: interpretations that see layers of meaning of the most intricate erudition, often defined by Neo-Platonic hermeneutic wisdom; an inclination to find contemporary political themes buried in the imagery; and a rejection of elaborate meanings altogether in favor of the artist's expressive intentions and the artist's educational possibilities. One may, of course, imagine diverse combinations of the three. I lean toward the third, which puts in question the eventuality that most of the artists with whom we engage had the cultural wherewithal to control heavily esoteric, usually Latin or Greek, texts. Trained as artists and not humanists, they probably did not have much stamina in devoting time away from the studio reading cogitating philosophical issues. Balas opts for the first, and, of course, she is in excellent company (e.g., de Tolnay and Panofsky) when it comes to the problem she attacks.

Although it continues a line of approach that arguably offers today's readers and viewers few rewards, there are imprecisions throughout this well-produced book, beginning with its very title. The subject is the iconography of the Medici tombs, not the entire chapel; otherwise, we might have found reference to W. E. Wallace's "The Lantern of Michelangelo's Medici Chapel," a fascinating article that appeared in the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorische Institutes in Florenz in 1989. Among other things, Wallace has shown that Michelangelo designed instead of a more customary ball, a marble polyhedron of grand elegance and, possibly more to the point here, of potential meaning. Other lapses or omissions include the failure to take up R.C. Trexler's and M. E. Lewis's very demanding essay, "Two Captains and Three Kings: New Light on the Medici Chapel" (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 1981), which engagingly deals with the very subject that Balas proposes to treat. One might also wonder about certain remarks, as that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was a "minor Medici" (26). He was not only terribly rich but the patron of Botticelli, as Balas knows well, but also of Michelangelo.

Balas makes puzzling statements like "Michelangelo shared patronage of Cardinal Riario with Lorenzo Bonincontri (1410 [sic]-1502)," whom she calls an eminent astrologer. What is the implication here? Balas does drop hints of Michelangelo's astrological commitments (e.g., "knowing as he did the mystic powers of the stars") but leaves them dangling, as it were. Another slip is the reference to the well-known Picture Chronicle, referred to as Cinquecento prints, though they are really of the Quattrocento. The point is that the confidence of the reader is undermined literally from the very beginning when she graciously thanks a very much alive well-known specialist whom she refers to as deceased.

JAMES BECK Columbia University
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Author:Beck, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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