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The Vision of Rome in Late Renaissance France. .

Margaret M. McGowan. The Vision of Rome in Late Renaissance France. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. xiv + 320 PP. + 4 color pis. and 90 h/ w pis. index. bibl. $50. ISBN: 0-300-08535-4.

The influence of Roman tradition on French Renaissance culture is evident in nearly every aspect of it and has been noted by so many scholars that one might wonder why anyone would write a book about it. Margaret McGowan, however, approaches the topic in original ways that do much to add to our understanding and appreciation of it. Rather than simply identifying and analyzing connections between specific aspects of French Renaissance culture and their ancient Roman antecedents, she focuses upon the means by which they were transported to France, whether verbally, visually, or physically. She explores connections between the visual arts and the written word on multiple levels, developing a highly nuanced picture of the ways in which French artists and authors drew on aspects of Roman tradition and incorporated them into something distinctly their own.

Rome attracted a large number of French visitors throughout the sixteenth century. The common experience of nearly all of them when they first arrived there, notes McGowan, was shock. The travelers, at least the artists, writers, and aristocrats whose works she studies, had all grown up reading and listening to the works of classical authors and had imagined Rome in all its ancient splendor. What they found instead was a sprawling expanse of ruins interspersed with the palaces and villas of popes, cardinals, and papal courtiers, as well as fields and pastures. This strange juxtaposition of grandeur and decline, and of things ancient and modern, captured the imaginations of artists and writers in a variety of ways. On one level, McGowan argues, the French were collectors. Kings, princes, and cardinals from the time of Charles VIII's invasion of Italy in 1494 onward, had collected and shipped home tremendous amounts of Roman works of art, chiefly in the form of sculpture, medals, and coins. The buildings, howev er, were less portable, and wealthy patrons commissioned artists and architects to compile massive catalogs of detailed sketches of Roman buildings and architectural fragments. Many of these drawings were subsequently printed, providing later generations with a wide range of choices of architectural features to incorporate into their own projects. The ruins of Rome thus became more than just something to pillage. Rather, McGowan suggests, they inspired French visitors with ideas of the possibility of renewal and rebuilding, incorporating the ancient greatness of Rome into the new greatness of France.

The opening chapters of the book examine the different ways by which French people learned about Rome, specifically through travel, guidebooks, collections of artifacts, and scholarly catalogs and reference works on Roman art, architecture, and traditions. Here McGowan demonstrates that the breadth and depth of French interest in such things was rather greater than one might expect, and presents many of the royal and aristocratic collectors as having more knowledge and aesthetic sense with regard to the arts and classical traditions than one might expect. Francois I and Jean du Bellay figure prominently here, but so do the Cardinal of Lorraine and Anne de Montmorency, and even Charles VIII receives some credit for wanting to collect works of the best quality. Over time, McGowan argues, the French shifted from collecting fragments of the past to organizing and classifying them for their own use.

The remaining two thirds of the book examines the various ways in which French artists and artists drew on what they found in Rome. Beginning with artists and architects, McGowan tries to show how the French used their knowledge and experience of Roman ruins as the inspiration to invent their own ways of reconstructing them, creating their own new styles in the process. While this discussion may not be entirely satisfying to historians of art or architecture, it serves well in terms of setting up her more extensive consideration of French writers in the period. The poet Joachim du Bellay emerges as a central figure here, and McGowan deftly connects significant aspects of his works to the emotional and psychological effects of living in sixteenth-century Rome, and parallels his own approach to Roman literary traditions with what the artists and architects were doing with the examples provided by the physical ruins of Rome. She then turns to Michel de Montaigne, attempting to equate his own idiosyncratic writi ng style with the impression that the ruins of the city made upon him. While she clearly demonstrates a connection of sorts, her interpretation is less compelling than what she says about du Bellay, for whom the Roman experience was clearly more central than it was for Montaigne. Later on, however, when she turns to Montaigne's views of Julius Caesar and his use of Caesar in his essays, her analysis is powerful and draws effectively upon the earlier section. In many ways, her handling of Montaigne parallels much of the rest of the book. Starting with what may seem trivial, McGowan develops creative interpretations that enhance the reader's understanding of French culture in the period.
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Author:Smither, James R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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