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Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian.

Rona Goffen. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. viii + 521 pp. + 80 col. and 120 b/w pls. index. illus. bibl. $39.95. ISBN: 0-300-09434-5. Honorable mention, the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Book Prize for 2003-04.

Rona Goffen's study of the masters of the sixteenth century focuses on the competition among them to produce the greatest works of art. As Goffen shows, the rivalry among their patrons was no less intense and often flamed the fire. Using contemporary sources including importantly letters, the author is able to reconstruct what went on behind the scenes--including the dirty tricks--in the frenzy of collecting that began in the late fifteenth century and gathered momentum in the decades that succeeded. Goffen has been able to exploit the fact that, for the first time since antiquity, there were concentrations of artists and patrons in close communities, and communication between those communities, as well as printed records like that of Giorgio Vasari informing us of what was being said at the time.

The author begins by reminding us that the very essence of the Renaissance lay in the desire to revive and surpass classical antiquity, and she shows how fundamental competition was, starting with the contest sponsored by the Florentine civic authorities in 1401 for the commission for the Baptistry doors. Sometimes individual, sometimes regional, sometimes with the living, sometimes with the dead, competition inspired the artists to surpass one another. Only Michelangelo remained aloof in Goffen's scheme, indebted only to nature and classical antiquity. He is characterized as "protagonist," to whom all the others responded as antagonists.

We are made aware of the seminal importance of Isabella d'Este's studiolo in Mantua and Alfonso d'Este's camerino in Ferrara as the locus where works by rival painters would confront one another. We see how much emphasis was put on having an original from the hand of the master at this stage, a concern that will diminish as the century goes by and collectors and artists become more interested in invenzione, even at the expense of execution.

It would have been impossible to keep the focus exclusively on incidents of rivalry, so this turns out to be a study of relationship and interactions among artists. Less selective than one would have expected, it traces in detail the careers of each of the artists it takes as its focus: those in the title, plus Bandinelli and Cellini. Other artists like Giovanni Bellini and Sebastiano also figure prominently. Its tight focus on the "stars" of the early Cinquecento means that the book can be used in a semester-long course covering the entire Italian Renaissance as the text for the second half.

This book is the antithesis of Alexander Nagel's recent study of Michelangelo (Michelangelo and the Reform of Art [2000]). Absent entirely is any concern with these works in terms of their function or their subject. There is no hint here of the kind of angst that Nagel reveals Michelangelo suffering throughout his career when confronted with a sacred theme. This is the story told from the point of view of the artists' search for worldly fame and recognition--art as a business.

The focus on agon as a leitmotif leads, however, to anomalies. The portrait of Michelangelo as Heraclitus in Raphael's School of Athens (reproduced on the back cover) is discussed and interpreted at length, but no other aspect of the fresco is. By the same token, Michelangelo's unwillingness to take on the commission for the Sistine vault is put in the context of the machinations of Bramante, who wanted Michelangelo to fail--or at least alienate the pope by refusing the commission--to make his fellow-countryman Raphael's accomplishment in the papal apartment look all the better. But not a word of description is devoted to the Sistine frescoes themselves. The author is driven to marginalize the most significant achievements of the artists she discusses while highlighting the sometimes trivial court gossip that surrounded them. The usefulness of the book for students who are not familiar with the works is thus diminished. The volume is handsomely produced, with plentiful high-quality colorplates and usefully indexed with concepts as well as names.

Goffen's choice of focus enables her to feature the major stars and to ignore the lesser lights who were not major players in the artgame of the sixteenth century. It is a solution to the problem of contemporary art history: how to address these objects not just as cultural artifacts but as works of art, and for this we can be grateful.


Temple University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Hall, Marcia
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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