Getting the Picture

Only Connect…Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance

by John Shearman
National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press, 281 pp., $49.50

A few years ago I visited the Accademia in Venice in the company of a friend, an excellent painter and highly successful teacher at one of our leading art schools. As we were standing in front of Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin, which covers a large wall, I happened to remark, after a period of silence, how touching I found the lonely figure of the young Virgin standing on the steps of the Temple. “Where is the Virgin?” asked my friend. I couldn’t help asking him how he could possibly have failed to recognize her in the very center of the composition, but he assured me that he never looked at the subject matter; what interested him were mainly the negative shapes resulting from the representations on the canvas.

It was hardly a failure on the part of the painter to obey the injunction “Only connect…”(the title of the lectures under review) that was responsible for this blindness. My friend had simply been conditioned to make inappropriate connections to abstract shapes even when confronted with the evocation of a Christian legend. If there are still lovers of art who are similarly conditioned, this book should present a welcome corrective. It is true that the obsession with formal analysis has long given way in art historical teaching to iconology—an inclination, that is, to connect works of art with philosophical symbolism. But this approach has inevitably led to a bias for secular topics and has proved less rewarding for the study of religious paintings, which form, after all, the vast majority of works of art in the Italian Renaissance.

It is indeed to this field that Shearman’s book makes the most valuable contribution. His discussion of a group of paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, and others which represent the Entombment is a case in point. He is wholly convincing when he reminds us that “never in Renaissance art is it more necessary that we read attentively, and realistically, what is described as happening, narratively and before our eyes; and never is the failure to connect as an engaged spectator more misleading.” In guiding our concentrated attention to the action that unfolds in these compositions the author has taught us to make the relevant connections and thus to see these deeply moving works with fresh eyes.

The author would never claim to be the first to perform this kind of service to his readers. It was only at the turn of our century, when the term “anecdotal” became a dirty word, that close attention to the subject matter was considered infra dig. Though the reaction against this taboo was slow in coming, the author is able to refer to a long list of more recent writings which concern the role of the spectator. (Thomas Frangenberg’s Der Betrachter, Studien zur florentinischen Kunstliteratur des 16 Jahrhunderts, which contains many relevant texts, obviously came too late to be considered.)

In contrast to some of the authors he quotes Shearman …

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