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The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome.

Ingrid D. Rowland. The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xiv + 56 pls. + 384 pp. $65. ISBN: 0-521-58145-1.

This book is primarily about the verbal culture of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Rome. The author discusses a wide variety of texts in both ancient languages and the vernacular -- letters, poetry, drama, oratory, satires, manuals, treatises, text books, musical lyrics, diaries, and so on. But, of course, the emphasis is necessarily on the revival and uses of classical texts in Latin and to a lesser extent in Greek. The work is loosely structured chronologically around the pontificates of Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X, but the approach is largely biographical with the emphasis on humanists, including such well-known figures as Pomponio Leto, Raffaele Maffei, Paolo Cortesi, Battista Casali, Giles of Viterbo, Tommaso Inghirami, Johann Goritz, Gianfranceso Pico della Mirandola, Pietro Bembo, Marco Fabio Calvo, and many others. Two characters in particular crop up repeatedly throughout the text: the humanist Angelo Colocci, especially regarding his research into classical and post-classical weights, measures, and mathematics, and the wealthy merchant/banker Agostino Chigi, mostly concerning his role as a patron of the arts and letters.

Interspersed with the lively biographical sketches are numerous discussions on such issues as humanist education; types of classical culture -- such as Egyptian, Greek, and Roman -- and their varying impacts; the Roman literary academy, its membership, goals, and social standing; the employment and duties of humanists in the papal bureaucracy and for patrons both inside and out of the curia; and the rise of the humanists' and artists' social status and their role as propagandists for papal ideology -- in particular, their construction of the church in the image of a new Alexandria, a new Rome, or a new Athens.

The author also treats the period's types of handwriting (mercantile cursive, chancery cursive, and humanist script); the shift from oratory to print and the rise of the Roman printing industry including printers, texts printed, and print runs; and above all the famous, or perhaps infamous "question of the language" -- i.e., what authors to imitate, how slavishly, and in what language, Latin or the vernacular.

The author's overarching (and, to my mind, obvious) thesis posits that the revival of classical culture in Rome produced an "intellectual paradigm shift... at the turn of the fifteenth century" (jacket copy) evident in the early sixteenth-century's aesthetic standards which were characterized by new "'modi e ordini' (ways and orders)" (1 and passim). Further, as this "renaissance" became ever more slavishly imitative by the likes of Pietro Bembo, it lost both its creativity and connection with reality. Unable to cope with the new reality of the Reformation, Rowland argues, the moment of High Renaissance classicism came to an end.

Rowland's command of ancient and Roman Renaissance texts is superb. She has a keen eye for irony and writes an engaging prose that is both erudite and witty--fully worthy of the classical principles of rhetoric she knows so well. Students will enjoy and learn much from this excellent, well-informed introduction to antiquity's revival.

But the book has less to offer specialists. Its biographical, anecdotal, and fragmented approach offers confident, knowing, and intimate portraits of the period, but ones that are, in my view, deceptively simple and glib. Although the author addresses intellectual, social, economic, political, religious, and military issues, there are few serious and sustained analyses in any of these areas of the period's history. All the great artists of the period are trotted out on stage -- Pinturicchio, Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo -- but it is most surprising and disappointing to read discussions of their art by an art historian that are mostly one-dimensional, uninformed, unproblematizing, and often plain wrong.

Rowland remarks several times on the close connections in the period between verbal and visual rhetoric, but she has a far better eye for texts than for images or buildings. And never, in my view, does she successfully achieve that most difficult of feats -- a multi-faceted, deeply layered, and against-the-grain interpretation of a work of art that simultaneously attends closely to its unique visual qualities, content, and cultural circumstances, as well as to the period's aspirations, anxieties, and conflicts.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PARTRIDGE, LOREN
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Words:701
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