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Phaethon's Children: The Este Court and Its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara.

Dennis Looney and Deanna Shemek, eds. Phaethon's Children: The Este Court and Its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara.

Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 286. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. xii + 484 pp. index. illus. tbls. map. bibl. $50. ISBN: 0-86698-329-5.

Why Phaeton? According to one version, Helios's miscreant offspring wrecked the family vehicle by crashing into the Po River near Ferrara. This provided local humanists and artists with an offer they could not refuse. From their pens and palettes poured one panegyric after another linking the city and its enlightened rulers with the sun, swans, mourning plaints, and a wide range of poetic and other allusions that issued from this singularly fertile myth. Phaeton's children can thus be understood as a family of motifs, an impressive array of images and concepts that lent thematic continuity to one of early modern Europe's richest civic cultures.

The metaphor takes on another meaning in this book. The children of Phaeton can also be understood, sensu lato, to mean the community of historians, art historians, literary scholars, and other specialists who labor in the vineyard of early modern Ferrara. They are, alas, an unhappy lot. Their grievance is the centuries-long mistreatment of their object of study. Ferrara's usual fate, they lament, is to be ignored. What is worse, when it is noticed it is misunderstood, and often maligned. Part of the blame can be assigned to proximity to Florence, report of whose superior charms has deterred too many innocents from inspecting its old rival. But a wider cast of characters shares responsibility for the neglect of Ferrara. Hence the most disgruntled author in this volume--the venerable elder brother of the tribe, Werner Gundersheimer, whose 1973 Ferrara: The Style of a Renaissance Despotism is still the leading monograph on the subject--takes to task virtually every Anglo-American visitor to Ferrara from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (there weren't many) for not appreciating the town properly. The subtitle of his chapter--"English and American Travelers and the Failure of Understanding"--says it all.

Needless to say, much of this protest--even the Florence-bashing that seems to be everywhere in vogue these days--is served up tongue-in-cheek. Only a churl indeed would complain about the hardships of research within one of the most vital centers of Renaissance Italian culture, and which is still one of Italy's most striking cities. Appreciation of both cultural vitality and urban beauty comes across clearly in this work, which is devoted to exploring diverse facets of Ferrara's political and cultural history from the fifteenth century to its absorption by the Papal States in 1598. (Social history has only one representative in the volume, in the form of Diane Ghirardo's well-illustrated essay on the loci of prostitution in the city.) Among the many subjects treated, three loom especially large: the Este dynasty and its more distinctive traits, ranging from its cultural patronage to the unusually high levels of illegitimate successors to the lordship; local historical writing, both within humanist court circles and by civic chroniclers working in the vernacular; and texts by the stars of the local literary firmament, above all Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso. Taken together, the portrait that emerges is one of a city which, its relatively small size and frequent threats to its independence notwithstanding, managed to distinguish itself for several generations as a major center of cultural creativity.

This book will interest a wide range of readers, even if there are some gaps in its coverage, as its coeditor Dennis Looney readily admits. Too little is said of religion, especially in the wake of Adriano Prosperi's L'eresia del libro grande (2000), an extraordinary biography of the prophet Giorgio Siculo, whose execution in 1551 failed to dampen the enthusiasm of his large local following. There is, moreover, hardly a word said about architecture and urban planning, one of the city's greater claims to fame during the Renaissance, as well as one of the brightest lights in recent Ferrarese studies. Finally, there is little mention of art, although Anthony Colantuono's essay on the more recondite details of the works Titian painted for Alfonso I's camerino is a delightful exercise in the sort of place-specific iconography to which another lover of Ferrara, Aby Warburg, made a memorable contribution in his 1912 lecture on the astrological symbolism of the Schifanoia frescoes. For my money it is the best among many distinguished chapters in a worthy book that will do much to redress the neglect of Renaissance Ferrara--even if the contributions to this volume suggest that Ferrara is neglected no longer.


Universidad Autonoma, Madrid
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Author:Amelang, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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