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The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture.

The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture, by Charles Dempsey. The Bernard Berenson Lectures on the Italian Renaissance. Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2012. xiv, 384 pp. $39.95 US.

This book records the Bernard Berenson Lectures on the Italian Renaissance that Charles Dempsey delivered at Harvard's Villa I Tatti in Florence. It represents the third book Dempsey has offered on the general subject of the relationship between vernacular culture and art in Renaissance Italy, completing the cycle begun by The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli's 'Primavera' and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1992) and Inventing the Renaissance Putto (2001).

The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture investigates the dynamic relationship between Italian vernacular culture and the classical humanist vocabulary of Renaissance art. The author argues that appropriation of classical forms and ideas was inevitably seen through the lens of contemporary Italian experience, itself often elaborated by other cultural influences, such as the courtly literature of late medieval France. Consequently, the dialogue between ancient models and the Italian Renaissance application or revitalization of those models should take into account how the pictures produced in the Renaissance were appreciated by contemporary observers. Dempsey begins by discussing Simone Martini's Maiesta and how just the glimpse of golden hair around the Madonna's face was evocative of the literature of courtly love and cortesia. Then, he addresses how the erotic lyric tradition informed Botticelli's female figures, particularly the so-called portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (Idealized Portrait of a Lady) in Frankfurt.

The final two chapters deal with the interpenetration of sacre rappresentazioni, ottava rima poetry and the engravings Baccio Baldini made in Florence some time in the early 1470s of images of twelve (two were added to the classical ten) sibyls that once famously decorated the palace of Cardinal Giordano Orsini in Rome (now lost). Dempsey argues that the influence of these celebrated figures affected the costumes of the religious plays and even the characters of the sibyls and prophets who populated them, elaborating the tradition of the ordo prophetarum. The engravings by Baldini consequently contain some of the theatrical effects visible in the plays and the ottava rima stanzas, which Dempsey argues were written by Feo Belcari. They can be shown to have assimilated material from the Orsini palace cycle and the traditional sacre rappreseentazioni identified by Dempsey and others. This complex dialogue among the various iterations of these images of the sibyls and prophets provides for Dempsey an example of how the high culture of a cultivated cardinal in Rome, advised by humanists, could come to animate early religious plays in Florence and inspire a series of engravings, some of which carry misreadings and errors in their attendant stanzas--even misidentifying figures--reflecting the circuitous route by which they reached the engraver's workshop.

To complete his often complex argument concerning the influence and significance of the Orsini palace images, Dempsey has added an appendix in which the series of twelve sibyls is reconstructed with their verses, illuminated by the Baldini engravings which appear on the pages facing the poems. This appendix proved invaluable in illustrating the form and content of the Orsini palace sibyls and how these came to inform the vernacular, even popular, culture of Medicean Florence. Indeed, the inclusion of a great number of illustrations permits the argument to be developed visually as well as descriptively.

This challenging book contributes convincing evidence of the degree to which vernacular and humanist classical culture vitalized one another, operating simultaneously and borrowing significant elements to be used in very different contexts. Dempsey shows that it would be anachronistic to separate Latin (or Greek) humanist culture from the experience of Italians as lived in their cities and towns. Popular entertainments, learned spectacle and high culture in general had very fluid boundaries. The result was occasionally a hybrid of forms and misappropriation of content; but the effect was a more dynamic and inclusive culture open to all observers, regardless of the level of learning. Because these chapters were delivered as lectures, there are some repetitions that would be necessary if these complex arguments were only heard and not read; for the book, these could have been edited down with little or no loss to our appreciation of Dempsey's layered argument and evidence. Nevertheless, any senior student or scholar concerned with the interpenetration of vernacular and classical humanist culture should read this book, as it provides the evidence necessary to prove the subtle and complex vision with which art was viewed, used and experienced in Renaissance Italy.

Kenneth Bartlett

University of Toronto
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Author:Bartlett, Kenneth
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Words:754
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