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Story and Space in Renaissance Art: the Rebirth of Continuous Narrative.

The very interesting and challenging subject of continuous narrative in the age of one-point perspective is addressed in this study and set in a theoretical context of some substance. After observing that use of the technique is a post-Giottesque phenomenon, Andrews in a series of four chapters discusses, compares, and analyzes theories of narrative, pictorial time (sequence and memory), space (mathematical perspective and the position of the viewer), perception and "certification," and modes of representation in the writings of Ghiberti (and Alhazen), Alberti, Piero, and Leonardo. Along the way, he also reviews their ideas on the comparison of painting and poetry, painting and music, pointing out their agreement in finding visual beauty in harmonious proportional relationships. The stated purpose of the study is to lay the ghost of "bad taste and lack of simple logic" in the use of continuous narrative, as described by Lessing, Shaftesbury, and later Frey and others. Building on the insights of Gombrich and Pope-Hennessy, Andrews demonstrates with force that, far from eliminating continuous narrative in the Quattrocento, the invention of linear perspective gave it new life and expanded possibilities for narrative expression.

In chapter five, Andrews amplifies his argument with specific fifteenthcentury paintings, two by Italians (Fra Filippo Lippi and Benozzo Gozzoli), and three by northern masters (Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, and Quentin Metsys), all of which represent essentially the same subject. A lively discussion describes how the artists exploit the possibilities of the continuous mode in one particular pictorial field. In each case, it is the arrangement of multiple episodes together, on the picture plane and in the depth of the spatial recession, that draws out and emphasizes different narrative implications.

The idea that increasing success in painting illusions allowed spatial depth to be the true enabler of continuous narrative is followed through the fourteenth and fifteen centuries in the sixth chapter. Indeed, the author makes bold to say that the late Quattrocento and the early Cinquecento were a kind of "golden age . . . an underrated but glorious epoch during which the continuous method was used with increasing freedom and to great advantage." Unfortunately, it is just at this point that Andrews gives no illustrations. He names Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and (of course) Botticelli, whom we are told was "especially partial to the continuous approach." But there are no reproductions, and no analyses. This discussion is followed, rather surprisingly, by a section on ancient narrative and illusionism, which should have come earlier, and another rather skimpy section on the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when representations of the "pregnant moment" seem to have put continuous narrative into decline. These generalizations in turn lead back to Shaftesbury and Lessing, giving historical context to their negative criticisms.

The text is brought to a close with an unfortunate afterword. It was clearly written to bring things to a conclusion, perhaps found to be needed when Andrews's text was turned from a dissertation into a book. It is rambling and repetitious, and a little strange in the sense that it leaves the impression that when the picture plane is not Alberti's window, it might be Alice's looking glass.

The writing style of the book is smooth and sophisticated (although there are too many parenthetical remarks throughout for my taste), and the literary excerpts at the beginning of each chapter are always pertinent and engaging. The all-too-few black-and-white illustrations are mediocre at best. Finally, there is an appendix comprised of seven pages of definitions, and a prose discussion of terms used for types of narrative used by various art historians. Had it been placed at the beginning of the book, between the preface and the introduction, it would have been still more useful.

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Author:Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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