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The Myth of Florence

Florence: A Portrait

by Michael Levey
Harvard University Press, 498 pp., $35.00

When tourists began to visit Italy in large numbers in the eighteenth century, their favorite destinations were Venice and Rome. If they chose to stop in Florence they wanted above all to see the masterpieces from the ducal collection displayed in the Uffizi, notably ancient statues such as the Medici Venus and paintings produced after 1500, of which the most famous were by non-Florentine masters such as Titian and Raphael. In the course of the nineteenth century there was a gradual change in taste, as visitors began to admire the works of native Tuscans of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as the frescoes of Giotto and his followers, Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the Baptistry, and the paintings of Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio. A decisive step in the establishment of the new attitude occurred in 1853, when Botticelli’s Primavera, which was probably painted in the early 1480s and had previously been kept in the reserves of the Uffizi, was first displayed to the public in the Accademia gallery. In 1859 a museum of medieval and Renaissance sculpture, the Bargello, was opened, and ten years later the monastery of San Marco was transformed into a museum devoted to the works of Fra Angelico.

During the past century and a half Florence has acquired a unique status as the art city par excellence. Some of the works produced there, especially in the decades after 1400, have been elevated to the rank of supreme masterpieces of Western art, unsurpassed in aesthetic quality and historical importance. These works are commonly regarded as products of a society in which the visual arts enjoyed an unparalleled prestige, in which artists rubbed shoulders with scholars and wealthy patrons, and in which the latest works of painting and sculpture were eagerly discussed and evaluated by citizens of every class. Florence is described in countless guidebooks as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” the city in which the transition was first made between the medieval and modern world, a transition increasingly associated, in the minds of many people, with the production of works of art. As Michael Levey writes at the beginning of his new book, tourists now flock to the city to encounter “a unique, narrow but tremendous experience, the explosion of art and culture which we call the Renaissance and which detonated first or most patently in Florence.”

The term “Renaissance” has all sorts of positive connotations, but no very precise fixed meaning. The idea of a rebirth of the visual arts around 1300, especially in Tuscany, and above all through the innovations of Giotto, was established by Giorgio Vasari (or more probably by his editors) in 1550, and it provided a counterpart to the already current notion of the revival of classical Latin as a literary language by a group of scholars known as humanists, who were inspired by a wider interest in the written legacy of antiquity, both Greek and Roman. In the nineteenth century, particularly through the work of Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt, the Renaissance came to be seen as a distinct historical period, marked by wide-ranging changes in attitudes toward personal conduct, toward society, and toward the wider world, which both these historians characterized by the phrase “the discovery of the world and the discovery of man.”

Michelet believed that these changes occurred after 1500, mostly outside Italy, and especially in France. Burckhardt, by contrast, located the crucial developments in Italy, beginning in the fourteenth century and achieving their full flowering in the fifteenth. In his The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, which contains much about violence, individualism, and the growth of secular values, he does not deal explicitly with the visual arts at all. The Renaissance is thus a label that has been applied to something that happened in the fourteenth, the fifteenth, or the sixteenth century, and that involved the visual arts alone or much wider cultural, social, and intellectual developments, and was either confined to Italy or diffused throughout Western Europe.

Increasingly, and especially on the part of non-Italians, the label has been applied primarily to Florence in the fifteenth century, with pride of place given to the visual arts. There are several reasons for this, among them that a great deal of Florentine art happens to have survived, that it is much more accessible than the other cultural products of this period, for example humanist texts or even vernacular poetry, and that in the late nineteenth century Florence was popular among English, American, and German expatriates, who were attracted by its beautiful setting, by the modern amenities introduced during its brief period as the capital of united Italy, and by the still relatively low cost of living there. Many of these visitors believed that the best Florentine art was not so obviously tainted with Catholic superstition as the masterpieces of the Roman baroque, and some of them, such as the art historian Aby Warburg, a member of a prominent banking family from Hamburg, probably felt a marked personal identification with the well-to-do bourgeois patrons of the late fifteenth century, several of whom happened to be bankers.

This was the period most admired in the decades around 1900, when the reputations of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio were at their height. More recently this generation has been somewhat eclipsed by the artists of the first half of the century, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio, whose supposedly revolutionary innovations have become an indispensable fixed point in art-historical survey courses. The Italians, in general, tend to be less enthusiastic about the fifteenth-century Renaissance, partly because they see it as a period in which many of the states of the peninsula lost their communal liberties before passing under aristocratic or even foreign rule, and partly because few of them are inclined to concede such importance to a single element in their artistic heritage, or—unless they come from Florence—to concede to Florentine artists the pre-eminent place accorded them by Vasari.

Levey himself explains that his book is “not purely an historical account, nor is it offered as an outline of Florentine art through the ages, and still less is it a guide-book. But it partakes of all three categories of approach, mingling them as history and art are mingled in the city.” In practice, it consists mainly of an appreciation of a large number of Florentine works of art, treated chronologically and without any claim to comprehensiveness, blended with a very general account of Florentine history, which is mostly about the city’s rulers, first the Medici family and then the House of Lorraine. By far the greatest part of the text is devoted to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Levey spends little time with the art of the fourteenth century, but his sympathetic treatment of the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo I, Vasari’s employer, and his advocacy of some of the relatively unfamiliar sculpture and architecture of later periods demonstrate his wish to broaden the taste of his English-speaking readers.

Unfortunately, his intentions have to some extent been frustrated by his publisher. In his foreword Levey apologizes for the fact that “my descriptions occasionally deal with works of art which ultimately could not be reproduced within the necessary publishing limitations.” This is an understatement, because he often gives detailed accounts of works, such as Michelangelo’s Holy Family in the Uffizi, which are not reproduced at all, or else reproduced so inadequately as to be virtually invisible, for example Giovanni da San Giovanni’s frescoes in Palazzo Pitti. In a book so closely focused on individual works of art, the inadequacy of the illustrations is particularly regrettable. Levey’s lucid, well-informed, and wide-ranging text deserves better.

Insofar as he uses the term in a specific way, Levey’s notion of the Renaissance is centered on the early fifteenth century, and he certainly subscribes to the idea that it was “an explosion of art and culture,” in that order. In his account historical events, too, take second place to the production of art, which becomes the central activity of the whole of Florentine society. Apart from some brief references to the wool trade and banking in the later Middle Ages, we are never told how most Florentines earned their living, producing the surplus that permitted the construction of so many churches and palaces and the creation of so many sculptures and paintings. Nor do we learn how and when the Medici assembled the vast collections which now fill the major museums of the city, while the fact that for centuries Florence has been a center of scholarship, learning, science, and literature is barely acknowledged.

Yet Levey’s restrictive approach conforms not just to the preconceptions of most foreign tourists, but also to those of many art historians. Florence is almost always given special prominence in general accounts of Italian art between about 1300 and 1600. At the same time, the numerous attempts to discern some close link between the artists of the fifteenth century and the humanists of the time underline a widespread concern to see fifteenth-century Florence as intellectually homogeneous. Likewise, the modern scholarly preoccupation with investigating the careers and personalities of those who actually paid for the art is based on the premise that such people customarily took a strong and informed interest in what they bought. In practice these assumptions are not easy to substantiate. Underlying the claims that are often made about the coherence of Florentine cultural life may be a strong element of wishful thinking.

Let us consider for a moment the most immediately seductive of these claims, that the Florentine artists of the early fifteenth century were engaged in something analogous to the activities of contemporary humanists. From the late fourteenth century onward, a large number of scholars throughout Italy were deeply interested in the recovery of manuscripts of forgotten classical texts. Over the next century or so, largely through their efforts, the canon of classical literature, first in Latin and later in Greek, was transformed, while in the same period classical, rather than medieval, Latin was revived as the pre-eminent idiom of scholarship. This revival of ancient letters, whose original impetus is usually credited to Petrarch, was hailed at the time as a major achievement, and its influence on later intellectual life throughout Europe was incalculable. It is not surprising that historians have repeatedly suggested that Brunelleschi, whose buildings are radically different from the Gothic ones of the previous century, or Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio, who achieved a new degree of naturalism in their sculptures and paintings through their mastery of the human form and their use of the newly discovered principles of perspective, were also inspired by the example of ancient Rome. But the analogy with humanism, though superficially attractive, soon breaks down.

The humanists saw in the texts that had survived from antiquity a repository of knowledge that could be recovered and put to use, as well as a model for clarity of thought and expression. But while humanists and others were certainly impressed by the lifelike quality of some of the figurative sculpture of ancient Rome, there is no reason to suppose that anyone in the early fifteenth century thought that Roman art had a distinctive style, let alone a particularly admirable one. From the relatively few, mostly damaged, and mostly unimpressive sculptures that were then readily accessible, this would not have been an obvious conclusion to draw, even if artists and others had possessed the critical concepts that would have enabled them to do so. So far as Iknow, the first attempt to define the stylistic characteristics of ancient sculpture appeared in Francisco d’Ollanda’s Da Pintura antiga of 1548, a text that even today is available only in the original Portuguese or in a Spanish translation of 1563. At most, some artists might have found in the ancient remains a few hints for endowing their own figures with a greater degree of naturalism.

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