The Uses and Abuses of Art History

Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology of Four Habsburg Courts 1517-1633

by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Harper & Row, 176 pp., $20.00

The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe

by Theodore K. Rabb
Oxford University Press, 186 pp., $3.00 (paper)

The Baroque Age in England

by Judith Hook
Transatlantic Arts, Inc, 207 pp., $19.50

“History which ignores art or literature is jejune history, just as a society without art or literature is a jejune society, and, conversely, art and literature which are studied in detachment from history are only half understood.” This ringing declaration of faith (to which I subscribe in full) is to be found in the preface to Professor Trevor-Roper’s new book, Princes and Artists. And, in principle, most art historians will surely welcome the arrival in their midst of a scholar who may be, in his own words, “a plain historian,” but who is also a superlative writer capable of ranging across cultures as well as continents and centuries in the most informative and exhilarating manner.

In principle, yes: in practice, however, they may be somewhat disconcerted by these republished lectures, which are concerned with the art patronage of four Habsburg courts between 1517 and 1633, including those of Emperor Charles V, his son Philip II of Spain, the Emperor Rudolf II, and the “archdukes”—Albert and Isabella—who ruled in the southern Netherlands. Because the issues involved are serious ones, it is worth examining them in some detail; and, at the risk of boring readers, I find it necessary to my argument to begin by pointing out some of the surprisingly large number of mistakes (sometimes trivial and sometimes highly significant) rather than to follow the conventional practice of keeping these to the end and making a brief note about the desirability of correcting them in some future edition.

Titian (the finest painter who worked for Charles V and Philip II) had two sons and not one—this would not matter much were it not for the fact that Titian’s attempts to cope with the dissolute behavior of Pomponio (whom Trevor-Roper has eliminated) tell us much about his own character and circumstances. Titian’s close circle of intimates (the so-called “triumvirate”) consisted of himself, Aretino, and the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino—not Pietro Bembo, and this really does matter. Charles V could not gaze both at Titian’s Gloria and his Last Judgment in his apartments at Yuste as these are merely two different names given to the same picture. El Greco was not employed to clothe the naked figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Caravaggio did not scandalize the Church and infuriate the established art critics—there were no established art critics in early seventeenth-century Rome, and although it is true that a very few of his altarpieces were rejected he was, until the end of his life, ceaselessly being pressed to paint for churches in various parts of Italy. The Jesuits did not “impose their new Italian architecture” on Flanders….

At this stage a critic may wish to return to the preface once more and reread those few words where Trevor-Roper seems to hesitate for a moment before venturing into the realm of art history, “that fascinating but perilous labyrinth of bristling poleaxes and flickering stilettos.” Surely the critic also should hesitate before, with what may appear to be pedantic and unwieldy gracelessness, he…

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