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Shaping the Netherlandish Canon: Karel van Mander's Schilder-Boeck.

Walter S. Melion. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 114 pl. + xxiii + 359 pp. $45.

Van Mander's Schilder-Boeck (Antwerp, 1604) is often thought of as the Northern European equivalent to Vasari's Lives (Florence, 1550, 1568). Such parallels are usually quite worthless, but in this case the relationship is one of conscious literary aemulatio: Van Mander's approximations to and divergences from his model were intended to convey an important part of his message, and to the historian they may prove articulate in ways the author and his immediate audience would not have been in a position to recognize. Van Mander has been the subject of some excellent work -- most notably by Hessel Miedema -- and Walter Melion's serious and sensitive study rises to the challenge of that standard.

Vasari's Italian and Tuscan bias was justified, in his own view, by the belief that the perfection of art he had witnessed in his time was based on principles of absolute and universal validity. Even the process of historical development was analogous to that of ancient art, and this correspondence assured him both that a universal perfection had been achieved and that his account of the process was correct. In the second edition he gestured, albeit weakly, toward the ideal of a "universal" history by including summary discussions of ancient art at the beginning and transalpine art toward the end. In assessing Van Mander's relation to Vasari, one might emphasize the continuity of aims, as Miedema does, and hence the catholicity of Van Mander's perspective; the bulk of the Schilder-Boeck consists of three sections, devoted to ancient, Italian, and Northern European art respectively; the last two are of roughly equal length, and all three are integrated by numerous comparisons made across the cultural divides. For Melion, however, Van Mander chose this format to repudiate Vasari, to emphasize not the universality but the relativity of artistic values, and to forge a distinct identity for Northern European art.

An essential feature of this identity is the importance attached to landscape painting. For Van Mander, landscape provided a distinctive kind of visual pleasure: by suggesting deep space and encouraging the viewer's gaze to move freely, it offered an experience fundamentally unlike that of narrative pictures, the istorie paradigmatic for Italian art theory. Another aspect of this alternative esthetic and the critical vocabulary developed to support it is Van Mander's emphasis on the role of color and texture, wel verweren: adapting the common distinction between Venetian colorito and Florentine disegno, he sets up Venetian painting as a more appropriate model for Northern artists. Yet another element in his campaign is the claim, derived from earlier Netherlandish artist-polemicists such as Lampsonius and Lombard, that printmaking is a high art.

Melion's thesis is clearly dependent upon the interpretation of seventeenth-century Dutch painting advanced in Svetlana Alpers' The Art of Describing (Chicago, 1983); at the same time, the new support he offers this interpretation is in some ways more convincing than Alpers' own. Perhaps because he is dealing with an historiographical text, and with a critical language that grew out of humanist rhetoric, there is little of Alpers' boldest and most questionable claim -- that Northern art reflects a radically different episteme, that it is somehow better, more honest, closer to the truth of things, for being uncorrupted by the literary pretensions of the Italians. Melion cannot but represent Van Mander's alternative esthetic as a rhetorical construct dependent upon a subtly selective deployment of commonplaces. In exposing the origins of the notion of an alternative esthetic, Melion certainly reinforces the idea that it played an important role in the seventeenth century, but those skeptical of Alpers' claims will also find here a valuable account of the way in which Northern artists came to a clearer definition of themselves by defining their relation to the Italian legacy.
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Author:Williams, Robert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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