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Only Connect ... Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance.

John Shearman's Only Connect . . . (recipient of the College Art Association's Porter Book Prize) is conversational in tone, reflecting its origins in the auditorium. "Connection" implies both physical surroundings - placement, ambient lighting - and also the cultural environment of a monument and of its beholder, his or her social, psychological, spiritual situation. In this regard, one must distinguish the response of the original audience from the response of subsequent viewers, including ourselves and indeed the author. Finally, Rezeptiongeschichte acknowledges reciprocity: as Shearman reminds us, the "notionally present spectator . . . can have much to do with the shape the work of art takes" (261). Shearman elucidates this premise with a variety of monuments of the Italian Renaissance, including portraiture and altarpieces, tombs and domes.

Readers who have seen Verrocchio's bronze sculpture group of Christ and Saint Thomas in its marble niche on the facade of Or San Michele in Florence will appreciate the validity of Shearman's approach. Recalling the fifteenth-century viewer's familiarity with the Gospels and the spirituality that encouraged identification with the experiences of Christ and the saints, Shearman explains how "the spectator in the street finds himself in the position of the other Apostles, or in other words . . . Verrocchio's subject is completed only by the presence of the spectator in the narrative . . . the relationship between work of art and spectator is now fully transitive" (33).

The author contributes many other useful insights on his theme of "connection," for instance this smart suggestion regarding sequential narrative: "High Renaissance artists began to describe sequence . . . by exploiting the spectator's familiarity with image types customarily used in the next or preceding moments of a narrative; familiarity and expectation may, then, allow the understanding of the 'genealogy of the moment,' an implication of sequence even if it is not an illustration" (82, crediting the quoted phrase to Joseph Koerner).

One might wish that Shearman had done more to explicate such observations and indeed in general to take the reception theory ball and run with it. But Shearman's "reception" is pragmatic, not theoretical, grounded in the sensitivity and acuity of his stylistic analyses. Though offering many incisive apercus, however, the book is marred by occasional errors, illogic, and selective vision.

Discussing Titian's Pesaro Altarpiece, for example, Shearman emphasizes the visual connection with the beholder but neglects or confuses critical theological elements that determine the spiritual connection. We are told that the Infant Christ lifts his mother's veil to take the donors under their protection as in images of the Madonna Misericordia (101). In Madonnas of Mercy, however, it's her mantle, not her veil, that is extended to enfold the faithful; here Christ lifts her veil, which covers his head too, in order to behold St. Francis. Mary's veil was equated with the shroud, and Titian alluded to that tradition in his altarpiece - hence Francis's display of the stigmata and the putti elevating the Cross in the sky. Shearman omits all mention of the putti and cites but disregards the dedication of the altar to the Immaculate Conception. The historian cannot ignore these facts, the one visual, integral to the work of art; and the other historical, integral to its spiritual and theological environment.

Other assertions also seem belied by what is actually represented. By what leap of imagination can Domenico Ghirlandaio's portrait of an old man with his grandson (108-09) and Titian's of Federico Gonzaga be described as portraits within portraits showing a living being (boy, dog) responding to the painted image? Shearman characterizes the dog as "an hyperbole affirming the realism of the image, to the life. . . . Federico's dog, then, should be read as the grandson might be in Ghirlandaio's portrait . . ., as the witness made visible by being relocated in the portrait, reacting to the image within the image and asserting a triumph of Art" (146-47). If so, it's quite a triumph, because this "Art" is capable of patting the dog (as Ghirlandaio's old man can embrace his grandson). Surely both Federico and dog are art - and the liveliness of the dog's action is meant to convince the beholder, not a demonstration of the painted man's convincing the living animal.

Given these kinds of error of fact and dubious visual analyses, the reader may find Shearman's Only Connect provocative and provoking in equal measure.

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Article Details
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Author:Goffen, Rona
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
Previous Article:Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting.
Next Article:Bronzino's Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio.

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