The Classical Tradition in Western Art
by Benjamin Rowland Jr.
Harvard, 379, 145 plates (229 illus.) pp., $12.95
During the last sixty years many young students of art history must have dreamt of writing a great book on the continuity of the classical tradition. It is an epic theme: the miraculous discovery in Greece, the long attenuation under the Roman Empire, the near destruction of the seventh century, the artificial respiration of Charlemagne, and the fascinating, unpredictable forms in which the tradition survived into the early middle ages. At this point the student’s ambition may have begun to flag, for the thought of carrying on from S. Trophime to the Farnesina, and then from Poussin and Bernini to Winckelmann and Canova, is altogether too daunting. So the student relinquishes his vast design, and explores one of the many delectable by-ways which branch off the main subject and often prove arduous and complicated enough to occupy him for a lifetime, as Fritz Saxl (to mention one of the greatest) was occupied by Zodiacal signs and calendars. For the subject as a whole is a killer, a minotaur which cost Aby Warburg his reason, and occupied thirty years of Berenson’s life with only the slenderest results. “Lovely and venerable monster what belt could encompass thee, what blade were long enough to pierce thy heart?”
Professor Rowland is no Theseus; nor is he quite a Parsifal. He sets out on his difficult quest with extraordinary naiveté, but without sufficient simplicity of purpose. The plan of his book (if it can be called a plan) is to polish off outstanding or typical episodes in the long history of the classical tradition in sixty-eight short chapters, arranged more or less chronologically. These chapters are often ludicrously short: for example the chapter entitled “Early Christian Art” is three pages long. They also show a deficient sense of proportion: the chapter on Nicola Pisano occupies two pages and two lines, whereas that on De Chirico occupies almost five. As is natural in an attempt to cover such an enormous field they also vary considerably in merit. A few contain good criticism: the Rheims Visitation, the Lanuvium head of Frederick II, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, are all described with real insight. Professor Rowland’s notebooks must be full of useful observations, and the pity is that he has felt bound to pad them out with commonplace generalizations. Of course a book of this kind must be full of generalizations, and all generalizations are open to question. But one or two quotations will show that Professor Rowland’s generalizations are peculiarly vulnerable. Of Pisanello: “His art provides a transition from the particularized realism and formal splendor of the courtly style of the late middle ages to the more generalized ideation of forms typical of the Renaissance of the fifteenth century.” Of the early Quattrocento: “In such a world the old symbolical art which relied on the beauty of unreal, even abstract shapes, had no place…the study of nature, the investigation of the laws of perspective…provided a new and different discipline!” Surely anyone who …