Living in an age of museums and exhibitions, and when interest in the history of art is widespread, one easily forgets that until a couple of centuries ago what mattered to critics and the wider public, as well as to artists, was contemporary art. The art of earlier periods that retained its prestige was usually regarded as directly relevant to current artistic practice and taste. This was most obviously the case with classical sculpture, which was eagerly collected and extravagantly admired from the latter part of the fifteenth century, and which, at least until the nineteenth century, was considered as embodying an unchallengeable standard of excellence. But relatively little post-classical art was accorded this kind of respect.
Thus within half a century of the publication in 1568 of the first modern collection of artists’ biographies, Va-sari’s Lives of the Artists, most of the painters whom he discussed were almost universally thought to be of only marginal interest. This was true of all the masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from Cimabue and Giotto to Fra Angelico and Perugino. But even among the artists active after 1500, the period in which the arts, according to Vasari, had achieved perfection, only a small group retained their prestige among artists, critics, and collectors into the seventeenth century. Chief among them was Raphael, whose many works, widely available in reproduction, were regarded as unsurpassed models for the representation of narrative subjects.
Scarcely less influential were Titian and Correggio, who were admired for their brilliant use of oil paint, as well as for their treatment of mythological and religious imagery, while a number of other painters of Venice and northern Italy were also eagerly collected, not least because they worked predominantly on canvas rather than in fresco. Leonardo, who had supposedly died in the arms of Francis I of France, also continued to be admired, but more for his writings on art, which circulated widely in manuscript and were published in 1651, than for his pictures, few of which were known. Michelangelo was generally thought to command great skill but also to be a dangerous model to follow, largely be-cause his preoccupation with nude figures was seen as morally questionable. Most of the other artists of the generation after Raphael, including Vasari himself, were treated with almost complete indifference or even contempt. This was so even in Florence, where, despite the continuing respect accorded to Andrea del Sarto and to some degree to Fra Bartolomeo, after 1600 collectors and patrons preferred the great Venetians or more fashionable modern masters such as Luca Giordano and Pietro da Cortona, neither of whom owed anything to the Florentine tradition.
No dramatic changes in taste occurred until the end of the eighteenth century, when the authority of tradition, in art as in so much else, came under challenge. At this period the sculpture of ancient Rome was increasingly seen as a debased variant of the lost masterpieces of Greece, while the standards that had governed painting ever since 1600, at least in theory, lost much of their relevance, as artists and the public began to admire the so-called primitives, the masters who had preceded Raphael, both for their supposed piety and for their observation of nature and the world in which they lived.
So comprehensive was the change in values that when Heinrich Wölfflin wrote his famous Classic Art in 1898, in which he tried to define the new sensibility that had arisen among artists in Florence and Rome in the early sixteenth century, the period now known as the High Renaissance, he frankly admitted that for most art lovers of his time, including himself, earlier paintings by artists such as Botticelli were far more attractive. Wölfflin was primarily concerned with the emergence of a new style in the work of masters such as Leonardo, the young Michelangelo, Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo, and Andrea del Sarto, and paid much less attention to other parts of Italy, notably Venice, where, he suggested, an analogous development had taken place.
He called the type of art that he was studying classic, not because it was classical—that it was, say, based consciously or otherwise on ancient art—but because it had come to represent an ideal, like the works of writers such as Virgil or Horace, and as such was perhaps more likely to attract respect and admiration than genuine affection. The qualities that he saw as distinguishing it from the works of the fifteenth century included a stress on the main subject and a suppression of irrelevant detail; a preference for large, solemn, and consistently beautiful figures, who communicate their feelings by eloquent gesture rather than facial expression; simplified settings, often with grand architecture; and a search for carefully balanced compositions, often articulated by a rich play of light and shade: in short the kind of art most perfectly exemplified in Raphael’s School of Athens.
Vasari had associated the changes in Italian art that occurred around 1500 with the discovery of ancient statues, which had supposedly shown artists how to surpass nature in their representation of the human figure. As a further possible factor Wölfflin pointed to new ideals of social conduct that were being developed during this period in aristocratic courts. He had less to say about what had happened afterward, although he suggested, very briefly, that this had mainly involved an exaggeration of certain aspects of High Renaissance ideals, largely under the influence of the later Michelangelo.
There was nothing new in his neglect of the major figures of this period, such as Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and even Vasari, who had been almost totally disregarded from within a generation or so of their deaths. From the seventeenth century on, these painters were often known disparagingly as Mannerists; their work was frequently dismissed as superficial, formulaic, and derivative. Like their immediate predecessors, all these artists rejected the apparent naturalism of the fifteenth century in favor of something more idealized, but it was not exactly the idealism of Raphael and his contemporaries. Pontormo and Rosso favored intense, bizarre colors, conveying heightened emotion less through gesture than facial expression; Parmigianino, like Pontormo, adopted an unrealistic but highly elegant canon of proportion, so that all his figures are unnaturally tall and slender; Giulio Romano and Salviati often imitated in their paintings the absence of depth and the crowded types of composition found in many ancient Roman reliefs; and nearly all these artists displayed their skill in draftsmanship through an obsessive concentration on the human figure, often depicted in extremely contrived poses.
By the 1920s their time had come, as scholars saw in their paintings a deliberate reaction against the prevailing fashion established by the masters of the High Renaissance, a reaction supposedly associated with a crisis in Italian society provoked by a series of foreign invasions that culminated in the Sack of Rome in 1527. Mannerism was seen in a more positive light and a parallel with Mannerism was commonly drawn with twentieth-century Expressionism, which in its turn was often linked to the upheavals of World War I. In support of this view was the fact that one of the leading figures of Mannerism, Pontormo, was by all accounts himself a deeply troubled and neurotic man, whose anxieties were supposedly mirrored in the haunted grief of the figures in his famous Entombment of Christ in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence, while his contemporary Rosso was believed to have committed suicide after making an unjust accusation against a fellow artist.
Chronologically, this interpretation of Mannerism as a troubled reaction to social upheaval does not work very well, since the Sack of Rome came almost at the end of the wars in Italy. These wars had begun with the French invasion of 1494 and therefore coincided with the period of the High Renaissance. Moreover, there were several leading mannerists, such as Giulio Romano or even Vasari, who were confident, successful, and socially conformist, and whose works, like those of their immediate predecessors, were greatly admired by the wealthiest patrons of their time. This hardly fits with the idea that their art was meant to be, or was seen to be, subversive of established aesthetic values. Giulio Romano, indeed, was widely regarded as the artistic heir of his teacher Raphael.
The effect of the revaluation of Mannerism as a distinct style in its own right was to change the prevailing idea of the High Renaissance. Whereas for Wölfflin the High Renaissance had been a style that had developed around 1500 and had gradually lost its coherence in the course of the sixteenth century, now it was increasingly seen as an episode that ended around the time of the death of Raphael in 1520, to be replaced by something different. This idea still survives, particularly in textbooks. But the usefulness of the labels of High Renaissance and Mannerism is open to question, since they reflect the values of the seventeenth and later centuries, rather than those of the sixteenth. If one goes back to the writers of the middle decades of the sixteenth century, such as Vasari or the Venetian Lodovico Dolce, the idea of a clear break in Italian art around the 1520s, a fundamental change in artistic ideals, is largely absent, whereas the notion that there was such a change around 1500, exemplified in the work of the High Renaissance artists, is very clearly present.
The few comments on art that survive from the earlier part of the sixteenth century are largely consistent with these views. In other words, observers at the time were mainly conscious of the qualities that sixteenth-century painters had in common, above all a shared concern with improving on nature, whereas for later writers some ways of improving on nature were thought to be admirable, notably those adopted by Raphael, while others were unacceptable.
In his new book, David Franklin, who has already written an important study of Rosso Fiorentino1 as well as many articles on lesser artists of the period, has set out to challenge the applicability of the terms “High Renaissance” and “Mannerism” to the painting produced in Florence between 1500 and 1550. The format that he has chosen, a series of chapters each focused on a single major figure and his followers, ranging chronologically from Perugino to Vasari, is oddly reminiscent of Vasari’s Lives. An even closer parallel, however, is provided by Wölfflin’s Classic Art, the main difference being that Franklin is almost exclusively concerned with Florence, seeing the ideals that developed in Rome as fundamentally different. Like Wölfflin, he takes it for granted that the most illuminating way of approaching his chosen artists is that of “formalist analysis.”
No one would dispute that one can understand much about the intentions of the artists by considering such qualities as the treatment of drapery, the proportions of the figures, and the character of the poses. But this kind of approach, adopted with supreme skill by Wölfflin and enthusiastically applied to sixteenth-century art ever since, although rather less to other periods, is unlikely to give us the full story. Wölfflin, for example, emphasized the qualities that his chosen artists shared and that distinguished them from their predecessors. He was less interested in defining the ways in which they differed from one another, although it is one of the commonplaces of Renaissance writing on art that painters should develop distinctive personal styles.
In his stress on balance, restraint, and lucid spatial organization, Wölfflin was evidently deeply uneasy about Raphael’s very late works, such as the lower part of the Transfiguration in the Vatican or the Saint Michael in the Louvre, which are far more overtly dramatic than the earlier pictures. He largely disregarded Pontormo and entirely failed to mention Rosso, although both artists, born in 1494, were only eight years younger than Andrea del Sarto, whose work he saw as exemplifying the qualities he admired. Nor did he have much to say about new types of working methods adopted by artists, in particular their increasing use of preliminary drawings, let alone possible changes in the attitudes of the general public, such as a demand for new types of pictures for private houses, or even a new interest in comparing and discussing the skills of different artists.
If the attitudes of patrons and artists altered in fundamental ways in the sixteenth century, formal analysis is not likely to tell us much about such developments. And it seems certain that very profound changes did take place. The sixteenth century saw the birth of modern art history, as well as of widespread discussion of the visual arts in vernacular texts, such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and the letters of Pietro Aretino; and it also saw a vast increase in collecting and in the use of paintings to decorate private houses and palaces.
Although Franklin writes that his own formalist analysis is “informed by a close awareness of patronage and context,” his emphasis is very much on style. The decision to devote each chapter to a single artist and his close followers, which reflects the origin of the text in a series of lectures, makes it difficult to understand what happened in Florence decade by decade. It is made harder still by the fact that the approach to the careers of some artists, such as Pontormo, is not chronological. This is a pity, because Franklin knows as much as anyone else alive about Florentine painting during this period, and in this sense the book is something of a lost opportunity to tell the story of what happened. Had he told such a story, he would certainly have had to say much more about Bronzino, who scarcely figures in the text, unlike Vasari and Salviati, who were both several years his junior, and neither of whom before 1550 enjoyed anything like Bronzino’s sustained success in Florence. Franklin would also have had to provide a fuller discussion of subject matter, which is here given rather casual treatment, for example in the account of Sarto’s famous fresco Tribute of Animals to Caesar at the Villa Medici Poggio a Caiano, whose significance is conflated with that of another painting in the same room. He would also have had to undertake a much more detailed examination of the role of individual patrons and collectors.
Franklin may not have produced the comprehensive account of Florentine painting that one might have hoped for, but he does demonstrate very effectively how uncomfortably the labels of High Renaissance and Mannerism fit with the actual achievements of the leading painters, whom he divides more plausibly into two broad currents, innovative and conservative. Among the innovators he places Pontormo and Rosso as well as Sarto, who all developed distinctive styles at much the same period, and who worked together on more than one occasion. To see the first two as an alternative to the third, or as reacting against his achievements, makes no sense of chronology or of the way in which their works seem to have been perceived at the time. Among the conservatives, Franklin gives pride of place to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, who had a highly successful career producing traditional altarpieces throughout the first half of the sixteenth century; and he sees Pontormo and Rosso as reacting against works of this kind, rather than those by painters normally defined as belonging to the High Renaissance.
Less convincingly, he places the blame for what he considers the misunderstanding of the art of the period on the shoulders of Vasari, whose history, he claims, was based on promoting his own artistic agenda, an agenda supposedly formed in Rome rather than Florence. According to Franklin, this in part accounts for Vasari’s very positive assessment of Raphael, a painter, like himself, involved in major decorative projects, with a large and active workshop, and on excellent terms with aristocratic patrons. By contrast, Vasari’s treatment of Pontormo, whom he characterized as increasingly indecisive and uncertain of his aims, and whose work was scarcely relevant to Vasari’s own painting and conception of art, was much less sympathetic. The verdict in Vasari’s Lives on Pontormo’s last major undertaking, a fresco cycle of biblical subjects in the church of San Lorenzo which was destroyed in the eighteenth century, is certainly negative:
It does not seem to me that in a single place did he give a thought to any order of composition, or measurement, or time, or variety in the heads, or diversity in the flesh-colors, or, in a word, to any rule, proportion, or law of perspective; for the whole work is full of nude figures with an order, design, invention, composition, colouring, and painting contrived after his own fashion, and with such melancholy and so little satisfaction for him who beholds the work…. I myself do not understand it.
But this view seems to have been widely shared at the time and later, to judge from the surviving comments of other Florentine writers. And it is difficult to believe that Vasari had quite as much influence on later historians as Franklin would suppose. The cult of Raphael was already fully established well before the publication of the Lives. It survived largely because he invented a visual language for narrative painting, especially in his tapestry cartoons and his frescoes in the Vatican, that was not only easy to imi-tate but also readily compatible with the widespread admiration for an-cient sculpture. In the early decades of the sixteenth century, indeed, Rome, largely because of increasing patronage on the part of the papacy, was a far more important center for painted narrative than Florence, whereas the reverse had been true in the fifteenth century; and, given that it was the most prestigious type of painting, this factor in itself largely accounts for the loss of Florentine primacy.
If Franklin is relatively uninterested in the social context of the art that he discusses, Elizabeth Pilliod’s approach could scarcely be more different. The subject of her book is the close relationship between three Florentine painters of different generations: Pontormo, his pupil Bronzino, and Bronzino’s pupil Alessandro Allori, who rather confusingly is also sometimes known as Bronzino. Pilliod’s work, based on meticulous archival research, reveals much about their domestic arrangements, friendships, and personal relationships, but relatively little about their paintings. Like Franklin, she takes Vasari to task for his unsympathetic assessment of Pontormo’s work and personality, claiming that, besides minimizing his role at the Medici court, Vasari went out of his way to characterize him as “melancholic, a loner, strange, bizarre, pusillanimous, fantastic, capricious, and so forth.” But she also takes exception to Vasari’s much briefer treatment of Bronzino, because he left out details of his private life, particularly his complex relations with Pontormo. In one case, Vasari is at fault for saying too much, in the other for saying too little; and his supposed animus is attributed to personal jealousy, as well as to a wish to denigrate the artistic tradition to which both Pontormo and Bronzino belonged, based on individual workshops and master–pupil relationships, in order to defend the values of the new Florentine artistic academy, the Accademia del Disegno.
Both Franklin and Pilliod are not only ungenerous but also unrealistic in their treatment of Vasari. His second edition, the only one that contains the Life of Pontormo, is almost as long as the Bible. Most of the manuscript was evidently sent to the printers in 1564, at a time when Vasari was engaged on the most arduous painting project of his entire career, although a few passages must have been added later. In his autobiography he said nothing about the composition of the second edition, unlike the first, which is much shorter. Yet if he wrote the greater part of the book himself in his spare time from his painting, it would represent by far the most astonishing achievement of any writer on art in the whole of European history. To suppose, as both Franklin and Pilliod seem to do, that working under such pressure he could have thought carefully about every sentence and every fact that he included or omitted is scarcely realistic.
Another way of thinking about Vasari’s Lives is to suppose that he had a great deal of help from other people, in other words that the text was written by several authors, even though, as with all Italian books of the period, only one name appeared on the title page. This would explain why there are very obvious differences in style between individual biographies, as scholars have often pointed out; indeed, Pilliod herself, for example, recognizes that the Life of Pontormo “is as stylistically distinct as it is physically distant from that of Bronzino.” It would explain, too, why much of the text, including the Life of Pontormo, is far more accomplished in language and expression than Vasari’s autograph letters, or than a letter he wrote for publication in 1547 about the relative merits of painting and sculpture.
Finally, it would account for the curious fact that Vasari himself is sometimes identified in the first person, as in his autobiography, but elsewhere, for example in the biography of his friend Francesco Salviati, he is regularly named in the third person. This would be an odd thing for him to have done had he written the entire book himself, or for that matter the biography of Salviati. But, of course, if Vasari was not the sole author, then we cannot be sure that he was responsible for all the decisions about what to include and what to omit, which Pilliod regards as so significant. We should be particularly suspicious about the extent of his contribution to those parts of the book which are most distinguished in style, that is to say the biographies of the most famous artists, including Pontormo and Salviati, as well as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. These are the biographies that are most often read today. They are also the ones that Vasari is most likely to have entrusted wholly or in part to collaborators whose literary skills were greater than his own, and, in some instances, whose knowledge was greater too. This may well have been the case with Pontormo, since during the greater part of his career Vasari himself was absent from Florence; and when he was there, there is little indication that the two men had much contact.
Franklin and Pilliod take very different approaches to art history, the one concentrating on style and the other on social setting. Luke Syson and Dora Thornton have, largely successfully, attempted to combine the two. Objects of Virtue is a study of luxury objects from Renaissance Italy, such as jewelry, majolica, glassware, and medals. Although much prized by collectors in the nineteenth century, these now have a rather minor place in most people’s conception of the artistic production of the Renaissance, since they are seldom displayed with the paintings and sculpture, but tend to be confined to relatively unfrequented galleries of decorative art. Yet when they were produced they were eagerly collected by the very rich, that is to say by the very people who were also decorating their palaces with the latest productions of painters and sculptors.
Syson and Thornton have managed to pack a vast amount of information into their book, not just about how these things were made, but about how they were used and displayed, and how the demand for them changed over time. Thus they explain how the changing forms of Murano glassware reflect new techniques introduced by the craftsmen, and then, with quotations from contemporary inventories, diaries, and correspondence, show how collectors responded to these innovations. In their discussion of jewelry, they draw on the few surviving examples and compare these with objects represented in portraits of wealthy women. Their text is unusual in being both learned and readable, and they write with equal authority about prints and drawings, silverware and furniture. But in one rather major respect their account is open to question, and that is in connection with the way in which their owners thought about the decorative arts at the time.
Until about 1530 there is very little direct evidence of any kind about attitudes toward works of art. Most of it is to be found in the writings of artists themselves, but there is also a certain amount scattered in Latin texts written by humanists, the professional students of classical antiquity who made their careers within the Italian university system or in government administration, where their ability to write correct Latin was greatly prized. This second type of evidence was discussed in an influential book by Michael Baxandall,2 who made two main points which are often overlooked: first, that the character and vocabulary of classical Latin, which included very little criticism of the visual arts, placed major constraints on the kind of things that could be written about works of art, and second, that this type of writing was accessible only to those with a humanist training. Syson and Thornton make extensive use of humanist texts, and they seem to take it for granted that views contained in them give good insights into the attitudes of the original collectors of the luxury objects which they describe. Indeed, they often talk about an elite, which supposedly included humanists as well as the very rich, with the humanists as opinion-formers.
Yet it is not clear why the consumers of luxury objects should have allowed their tastes to be formed by people who had limited means to purchase such goods and lacked specialized knowledge about how they were made; and least of all when the written views of the humanists were expressed in a language accessible only to themselves. Part of the appeal of luxury objects is that they allow those who buy them to feel discriminating, although in many cases this discrimination may simply express itself by choosing the most expensive of several items on offer. The idea that a duke would ask the advice of a secretary or schoolmaster (roles which humanists frequently filled) before buying new glassware or jewelry is not very convincing. Sometimes, as we know, rich patrons consulted artists such as Titian, who could have told them if they were getting value for their money and would have been able to judge the skill of the craftsmen involved. In other words, these were experts; and if their views on art coincided with those of humanists (which may or may not have been the case), it would seem reasonable to suppose that this was because the latter had learned from the former, rather than the reverse.
One interesting point that Syson and Thornton make is that those who wrote about luxury objects tended to use the kind of vocabulary already current in discussions of painting and sculpture, praising for example the natural talent (ingegno) of the craftsman and the quality of the design (disegno). Moreover, increasingly the designs themselves were entrusted to major artists, or at least reproduced works by such artists. This is perhaps a consequence of the growing prestige that was attached to art as such, but not necessarily a sign of increasing sophistication in the tastes of consumers.
The marketing of luxury goods as if they were artworks is still a familiar practice today, as one can see with haute couture and “designer” furniture or limited edition cars, and those who are susceptible to this kind of strat- egy are not always very sure of their taste for art as such. This type of purchase offers some of the satisfactions and some of the prestige of artistic patronage without the risks. Things seem to have been no different in the sixteenth century, when we find Pier Luigi Farnese, the son of Pope Paul III, commissioning a very expensive casket of precious metals to be decorated with rock crystals engraved with reproductions of designs by Michelangelo and Perino del Vaga. By then many wealthy patrons were employing leading artists to make decorative designs expressly for them, but Michelangelo had made his drawings as a gift for a friend, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and the crystals had been made subsequently. Pier Luigi only approached Perino del Vaga for further designs because he did not have access to enough compositions by Michelangelo for his project. Perino, to his credit, was extremely reluctant to become involved, suggesting that perhaps even then some artists were dismayed by the crassness of some of their clients.
Syson and Thornton do not suggest that Pier Luigi’s project (which was never realized because he was murdered) was in any way vulgar. Nor do they make much distinction between the purchase of luxury goods and the patronage of painting and sculpture. There is little reason, however, to suppose that the two activities were really seen in the same light in the Renaissance, any more than they are today. Equally, in trying to reconstruct the attitudes of wealthy aristocrats from the writings of courtiers, whether trained humanists or not, a degree of skepticism is in order. With this qualification, Objects of Virtue is a fascinating and original book, handsome to look at and full of unfamiliar material. The authors do not fully make the case that the objects which they discuss should properly be displayed with the high art of the period; but they will persuade many readers that such objects deserve to be enjoyed and admired for their own sake.
December 5, 2002