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Revaluing Renaissance Art. (Reviews).

Gabriele Neher and Rupert Shepherd, eds., Revaluing Renaissance Art. Rants, UK and Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 2000. xiv + 42 b/w figs. + 241 pp. $84.95. ISBN: 0-75460-169-2.

This collection of thirteen essays is concerned with the cultural and economic value systems that shaped the life-histories of Renaissance art objects. The most interesting articles belong to the strand of inquiry that seeks to close the gap separating anthropology from art history. Jo Kirby's study of pigments, for example, demonstrates that even the "intrinsic" value of an artist's material is determined by circumstance. Ultramarine blue and red lake were dear because of the scarcity of natural resources, the difficulty of their import, and the skill needed to manufacture the pigments. When a Florentine painter journeyed to Venice to purchase a high-grade blue, he was going to fetch lapis lazuli that had been quarried in the remote mountains of Badakhshan (Afghanistan) whence the material traveled to Baghdad, Constantinople, and then to Venice, where a delicate procedure was undertaken to separate pigment from the impurities of the stone. The high cost of superior pigment meant that both painter and client were educated in a particular aesthetic system of color. Likewise, Lorenzo Lotto's characteristic reds required a complex production beginning with insect secretions imported from India that were made into dye for cloth. The expensive pigment was finally extracted from leftover shearings of dyed cloth and bound with a medium to paint such glorious passages as the Madonna's dress in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine for Niccolo Bonghi in Bergamo.

According to Neher and Shepherd, their project of "revaluing" (or reconsidering the spectrum of values attached to works of art) includes looking at women's history and "low" art. In this vein, Evelyn Welch explores the historical biographies of sleeves as they passed from one owner to another. It is well known that sleeves were regulated by sumptuary laws; and it is clear -- from Salome in the Venetian Baptistry to Raphael's Donna Velata -- that sleeves were a women's issue, expressing feminine allure as well as conspicuous wealth. Welch's research on the refashioning of sleeves and their mobility in society is particularly interesting. She seems to follow Arjun Appadurai's precept that in analyzing the trajectories of "things in motion" we discover their meanings. We learn that the gifting of sleeves and cloaks frequently transcended the barriers of social caste and even of secular (dress) versus ecclesiastical (altar) display. In a general way, her findings support Pierre Bordieu's theory that even when gi ft giving appears most disinterested, the act was never truly divorced from economic knowledge. As Dennis Romano has shown, in a pioneering article in this journal (RQ XLVI 4 Winter 1993), Renaissance gifts involved reciprocity that solidified allegiance in social relationships; they were important for what they did as well as what they were.

Household Madonnas represented a substantial cultural production in Renaissance Italy, and Jacqueline Musacchio looks at these devotional objects from the point of view of the consumer. Drawing upon the inventories of the Magistrato dei Pupilli, she finds that Madonnas, as commodities, could be classified as Venetian, Greek, Spanish, French, or as copies of celebrated icons such as the Madonna of Loreto. Among other details presented here it is fascinating to imagine Alessandro Gondi gloating over the low price he paid for a beautiful Madonna from the confiscated estate of Piero de' Medici.

Charles M. Rosenberg's spirited contribution on Alfonso d'Este, Michelangelo, and "the man who bought pigs," shows the way mainstream intellectual capital could be subverted by local knowledge. Duke Alfonso d'Este, proud of his collection of Titians, had longed for a work ("any work") by Michelangelo since visiting him on the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel in 1512. When in 1530 Alfonso finally sent an agent to Florence to receive Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan, the emissary disparaged the painting as "una poca cosa," thus infuriating Michelangelo, who ordered the provincial dim-wit out of his house. The Ferrarese agent, it seems, was better at evaluating commodities such as pigs or grain than in discerning the signature difficolta of Michelangelo's hand. Alfonso never got his painting, and it is no accident that the reporters, Vasari and Condivi, were the premier advocates of the Florence-Rome paradigm of disegno. Despite its rather awkward title, Revaluing Renaissance Art offers some interesting insight s on the evaluation of knowledge and things in Renaissance Italy.
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Author:Bergstein, Mary
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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