The 17th-century antiquary John Selden spent his life deciphering Greek inscriptions and interpreting Near Eastern myths. No scholar of his time had more experience with the historical study of material remains; no one knew better how easily a modern intellectual can read too much into an ancient object. As he remarked one day, ‘It was an excellent question of my lady Cotton, when Sir Robert Cotton was magnifying of a shoe, which was Mose’s or Noah’s, and wondering at the strange shape and fashion of it: But Mr Cotton, says she, are you sure it is a shoe?’
The 20th-century art historian Martin Kemp has spent his life reconstructing the techniques with which Italian Renaissance artists analysed and represented the natural world: the science of art, as he once called it. He has a deep command of the specialised literature, and no one knows the achievements of his fellow art historians, or their besetting errors, better than he does. He has now posed his colleagues a question as simple and deadly as Lady Cotton’s: do they know what purpose the paintings and documents they study were meant to serve? Behind the Picture suggests that some of the subtlest and most influential modern students of the Renaissance have devoted great energy, enthusiasm and intelligence to picking up, not the wrong end of the stick, but the wrong stick entirely. This provocative book directs itself against some of the main trends in art history since World War Two.
Almost fifty years ago, Erwin Panofsky stood up to defend the Renaissance before a gathering of scholars at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was the climacteric of the ‘revolt of the medievalists’, the movement whose followers argued that the Middle Ages had already made all the intellectual innovations that Burckhardt ascribed to the Renaissance. St Francis, not Petrarch, discovered Nature; scholastic philosophers like Nicole Oresme, not Leonardo da Vinci, devised the principles for a new natural science; Hugh of St Victor, not Pico della Mirandola, celebrated the dignity of man.
Panofsky proved more than equal to the occasion. He knew medieval art and thought as well as any specialist, but refused to give up on the Renaissance. What made it both special, and different from what went before, was ‘decompartmentalisation’ – the falling of boundaries that had previously separated both individuals and their pursuits. In the Middle Ages, artists had been craftsmen, practitioners of mechanical arts with no claim to intellectual expertise. In the Renaissance, these humble guild members became learned men in their own right. Artists like Leonardo claimed that they understood the principles of vision and perspective, the rules of human anatomy, even the nature of consciousness, more profoundly than any mere student of older texts. The painter who worked directly on nature with his hands challenged the superiority of the scholar, who approached nature through the mediation of ancient philosophers. The sculptor who studied the material remains of ancient art and architecture, detail by detail, could know the ancient gods more intimately than any mythographer. The Renaissance artist became the first claimant to the new sums of the genius – the dazzling, tragic figure of the creator, raised to immortality by his kinship with the Creator of the universe but inevitably haunted by the destructive power of Saturn. His achievement and predicament were given unforgettable graphic form by Dürer in Melencolia I.
Only an art history that recognised the claims of Renaissance artists to a new status could do justice to the innovative nature of their work. From the Thirties to the Sixties, Panofsky, Gombrich, Edgar Wind and many others created an art history of exactly this kind – one that directed much of its attention to the erudite programmes Renaissance artists had realised in both religious and secular painting. The pioneers of what came, misleadingly, to be known as Warburgian art history found that the way to Botticelli and Correggio lay through quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. They ransacked late Neoplatonists and early Fathers of the Church, ancient texts and Renaissance commentaries for the sources for mythological and Biblical scenes. Departments of art history resounded with references to Pauly-Wissowa and the Patrologia latina. The learning thus assembled, often by émigré scholars who had read more Greek and Latin at the Gymnasium than a modern classicist reads at university, was solid and deep. But how much did it really have to do, Kemp asks, with the intentions and experiences of a painter working on a scaffold or at an easel? How much light did the old interdisciplinary art history really shed on what painters and patrons thought they were doing?
Historians of Renaissance art are talking once again about decompartmentalisation, but the term now describes the method, rather than the object, of their studies. In the new art history, neither the Middle Ages nor the Renaissance finds many passionate defenders (except at the annual medievalists’ Walpurgisnacht in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the 13th remains the greatest of centuries). Both periods serve instead as examples of class, gender and racial hegemony, to be dismantled, not savoured, by the critic.
Art history in its sharp new key, Kemp argues, represents less a way of studying past visual achievements than one way among many to uncover past ideological biases. The gods it ritually invokes more often include the canonical French theorists of the Sixties and Seventies than the German and Italian founders of traditional art history – much less the Neoplatonists and Church Fathers. The evidence discussed – like that discussed by Wind and Panofsky – is as often verbal as visual. Much of it comes, however, not from ancient or Early Modern sources but from very recent works of criticism and theory – from the anointed deep thinkers who appear with the same frequency in critical works on literature, film and rock videos. The distinct methods and arguments that once made clear why a given piece of work belonged to art history, rather than a department of history or English or that land of intellectual Cockagne, cultural studies, have melted into air. In this new kind of art history, interdisciplinarity means ignoring no discipline which can help to show that Renaissance art served political and ideological agendas no longer acceptable to the right-minded academic.
Old art historians like Panofsky assumed that the art they studied had a permanent value independent of its historical origins. New art historians reduce the art they study to little more than an expression of the social and political conditions in which it arose. The older hermeneutics of admiration contrast sharply with the newer hermeneutics of suspicion. But in some ways, Kemp argues, both sets of scholars have fallen into the same sunken road on the way to attack Renaissance art. Both have depended on their own forms of learning and responsiveness to art, instead of disciplining themselves to work out exactly what intellectual and technical resources the artists of the past inherited and used.
Kemp has never denied that Renaissance art calls for an interdisciplinary approach. Trained as a scientist, he has brought as wide a range of skills as any historian to bear on the science of art, from Brunelleschi to Leonardo and beyond. He passes with ease the hardest of all tests for the historian of Renaissance art: he writes about the discovery of perspective without becoming either obscure or pretentious (and offers his own elegant legible diagrams to clarify his views).
Kemp would draw a sharp distinction, however, between his own approach and those of both iconographers and new historians. By dissolving paintings into elaborate philosophical, theological and political programmes they have made it seem that the central task is to present an analysis that no 15th or 16th-century painter or intellectual could conceivably have reached or understood – one that cannot even be cast in the language used in Renaissance painters’ studios. Worse still, they have subordinated visual objects to the verbal documents that supposedly elucidate them – as if texts were somehow so clear, accessible and stable that they can provide absolute points of reference for the interpretation of images. In fact, as Kemp insists, both paintings and documents have come into being in the service of particular needs and ends, and only a precise historical study of the functions which both once served makes it possible to understand them as their original makers and consumers did. Though Kemp repeatedly draws conclusions from visual evidence, he sees the verbal materials as the place where exploration should begin.
Anyone who lived in a Renaissance court would have heard much articulate commentary about paintings and painters. Painters and their friends knew that ancient artists had engaged in technical contests and had discussed their work with informed and un-informed critics. Even the great Apelles, who hid behind his pictures so that he could hear them freely discussed, accepted a cobbler’s criticism of his rendering of a sandal – only to erupt in fury when the artisan criticised his drawing of a human figure, telling the cobbler to return to his last (a richly ambiguous tale which gives Kemp his title). Renaissance painters and their patrons tried to revive this tradition of lively discussion. Kemp devotes considerable space to the sophisticated new language of 15th-century art talk, as it appears in the treatises of Cennini and Alberti, the bitter, vivid poems of Michelangelo and the magnificent, ruinous mass of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting.
Like Panofsky, Kemp sees this literature as showing that some artists wanted the status of learned man, as creators capable of ‘invention’ and ‘fantasy’ – two terms the period meanings of which he carefully reconstructs. No wonder, then, that Leonardo not only asserted the virtues of painting, but denigrated those of other arts like poetry – or that Mantegna showed as much zest for collecting noble titles and high-style housing as for hunting down ancient inscriptions. Renaissance artists engaged in a battle for intellectual and social status: a battle which they had to fight not only with other artists, but also with all the other service providers in tights who struggled to reach the ear-trumpet of every Renaissance prince.
Yet Kemp also cautions against believing that these treatises state Renaissance artists’ views about their tasks and status. The pioneering manifestos by Cennini and Alberti, for example, seem to be addressed to artists. But the authors’ actual books – the material objects – were presentation manuscripts, designed for study by courtly and aristocratic patrons, rather than for practical use by painters. Historians should not assume too readily that these little treatises reflected – or even formed – a consensus among the artists themselves. Their existence certainly cannot, of itself, justify extending the new aspirations of Albert or Leonardo to all 16th-century artists – especially if most of their readers were consumers, not producers, of the new art.
Aspirations to high status, moreover, often outran achievement, at least to go by the documents that record contemporary valuations of the painters’ work, contracts and inventories. Inventories of household goods show that paintings often bore values far below those ascribed, in the same period, to what are now seen as minor arts. Carved semi-precious stones, for example, fascinated collectors like Niccolò Niccoli and Piero de’ Medici. They loved to show off their ability to recognise the value of a neglected piece; Niccoli became famous when he bought a particularly elegant chalcedony for five florins from the father of a Florentine child whom he saw wearing it. Collectors like Piero de’ Medici retired to their studioli, magnifying-glass in eye, to pore over their collection of gems and other antiques, or to show them off to selected visitors. The supply of such objects, though not absolutely fixed, naturally increased far more slowly than that of paintings by living artists. No wonder, then, that their prices long outstripped those of panel paintings by Botticelli or Leonardo. For all the brave words about painting being a liberal art or science, few painters could afford to give up the classic tradesman’s skills of accurate estimation for time and materials that underpinned their ability to make a living. Collectors took a long time to decide that the forms of connoisseurship which applied to antiques – and the high valuations that went with them – should also apply to the work of living artists.
Contracts can show exactly what a painter was told to do by those who commissioned a given altarpiece or panel. They give precise information about prices, costs and materials. But they often confront the investigator with problems of interpretation. For example, they suggest that prices for paintings – even those by a single artist – fluctuated, sometimes wildly, despite the claims of great men like Raphael and Leonardo that they could name and get their own prices. More seriously, some apparently complete files of contracts prove on closer study to be riven with contradictions, especially when they record the successive negotiations over a major commission which took a generation or more to execute, a process that often involved the hiring of subcontractors, the fighting of lawsuits and the redrafting of what had seemed firm plans. The actual planning of any complex work of art – as Kemp shows, using both historical examples and a funny, involved fictional one of his own devising – involved protracted manoeuvres, as patrons learned (or failed to learn) the virtues of flexibility, and artists’ ideas changed as they drew and redrew their design sketches. The document is only the precipitate of a long process which the historian must reconstruct, so far as available forms of evidence allow.
Few Renaissance artists became pure intellectuals emancipated from the economic stresses and hidden injuries of the old craft marketplace. If Raphael and Leonardo sometimes imposed their wills on patrons, most of their colleagues had to wheedle and appease their customers, just as they would have done if they had been selling silk or Flemish tapestries. Isabella d’Este loved and appreciated great paintings, but still tried to fix the subjects and designs of works done for her studiolo, in minute and cramping detail. Only gradually did enlightened patrons come to accept the view that a modern painter’s skill deserved as much attention and respect as an ancient sculptor’s. Only gradually did they come to agree that the individual artist’s unique qualities of eye and hand, rather than the quality of the raw ingredients he used, should determine the value of his work.
As these examples suggest, Kemp does not claim that the documents tell a straightforward, coherent story which could simply replace the older ones. The manifestos, aimed at patrons, written by artists and intellectuals eager to win attention, give one sense of the atmosphere in which artists worked; the inventories and contracts give a very different one. Close attention to the actual form and function of paintings sometimes makes clear which documents are likely to matter most. Fra Angelica’s images of the Virgin, for example, played different roles in their possessors’ religious lives, depending on their placement in church or cloister, open or closed space. Immersion in the economy of Dominican devotional life does more than the study of formal theological treatises to uncover the reasons for their different formal qualities.
No royal road leads to the contemporary meaning and impact of a past work of art. An inventory describes Botticelli’s Primavera as part of a built-in bed in the country house of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. This locates the work in time and space. It also, Kemp argues, justifies associating the painting, in a loose way, with a famous allegorical letter on Venus and the virtues of Humanitas which Ficino sent to the painting’s owner. Ficino portrayed the goddess as offering to teach the difficult young man the code of Humanity. Perhaps, then, one can infer that moral allegoresis was accepted, in the owner’s circle, as an appropriate way to understand ancient myths. But neither document entitles us to assume that Botticelli had in mind as he worked any of the difficult classical texts or complex philosophical programmes that modern scholars have connected with the picture.
Kemp knows that modern studies of past art can highlight features of it to which its own practitioners could not have put a name. He also knows that no new moon can ever restore the ocular virginity of the modern art historian. Sometimes we pay, squeeze through turnstiles, and pass by racks of guidebooks, carrier bags and T-shirts in order to see frescos in spaces originally built to serve as chapels. Sometimes we pay, squeeze through turnstiles and pass through rooms designed like chapels in order to see secular panel paintings in a museum. In either case, we have no hope of recapturing the exact valences of thought and emotion which the works we are seeing originally inspired.
In the end, no research in documents can fully account for the qualities of the visual arts. Historical context clearly seems, however, the one dimension of artists’ and patrons’ experience which the historian can objectively reconstruct – and close study of the facts the best way to begin understanding a work in deeper and less easily verbalised ways. Kemp offers students of Renaissance art the best companion they have ever had through the various kinds of written document they need to use. His astringent criticisms of over-readings, ancient and modern, will refresh readers used to the unexamined eclecticism of normal art-historical practice. But his positive programme seems weaker than his criticism of the alternatives. In particular, he sometimes seems to lapse, when establishing the purpose which a document served, into the kinds of reasoning he criticises in others.
In 1435-36 – to take one example – Alberti translated his three books On Painting from Latin into Italian. In what has become a famous dedicatory letter to Brunelleschi, he described his astonishment at the feats of art and architecture he saw on his arrival in Florence in the 1430s: Brunelleschi’s dome, towering over the entire city, the paintings of Masaccio, the sculptures of Ghiberti, Donatello and Luca della Robbia. These works, Alberti explained, in words carefully adapted from the younger Pliny, had caused a revolution in his thinking, teaching him that Nature was not exhausted, that the moderns could achieve what the ancients had failed to do. Modern art proved the legitimacy of the modern world as a whole. In trying to explain the basic principles that painters should follow, Alberti showed how an intellectual could take part in the first artistic revolution of the modern world.
For a long time, interpreters of Alberti took this Italian text as evidence that be really hoped to instruct the artists of his time – much as the critics of 19th-century Paris tried to shape the art being created by contemporary painters. A great many other art historians – from Aby Warburg and his teacher, Hubert Janitschek, down to Michael Baxandall – have drawn glosses on painters’ methods and intentions from Alberti’s text. Kemp questions the plausibility of such arguments. The evidence of the surviving manuscripts shows that only the Latin text attained any substantial circulation. Only three copies of the Italian text are in existence. Was Della pittura, with its letter to Brunelleschi, really a practical guide for artists? Or was it rather a display piece on Alberti’s part, a move in the elaborate game by which he tried to win status as courtier and intellectual? If so, those who connected the text with the detailed analysis of works of art may once again have assumed what they could not prove.
The problem here is simple. One cannot determine the purpose of documents like Della pittura and its Preface, or the needs they served, without referring to the larger genres to which they belonged. And that requires using a wider notion of context than Kemp does. In his prefatory letter to Brunelleschi, Alberti asked the architect and discoverer of perspective to read his work and, ‘if you find something that needs correction there, to emend it’. This request sounds formal, the equivalent of the ritual requests for aid that modern academic authors address to editors and referees, in the firm hope that they will be ignored. In the literary world of early 15th-century Florence, however, such requests were often absolutely serious. Humanists like Poggio Bracciolini did not dare to allow their Latin texts to go into general circulation until more expert readers had ‘emended’ their language and contents. Niccolò Niccoli, who appears in Kemp’s book in his capacity as a connoisseur of gems, was also a connoisseur of texts. Though he thought most of what his contemporaries wrote more fit for the lavatory than the library, he edited the work of Poggio and others savagely and effectively – so effectively that no one wanted to have his Latin writings copied by the summers until Niccoli had gone through them. Alberti himself had friends edit not only his Latin, but also his Italian, writings: for example, his famous treatise On the Family.
When Alberti asked Brunelleschi for correction, therefore, he made a gesture that followed a long-established partern, one that becomes visible as soon as the modern scholar takes into account not only the narrow range of texts long known to be directly relevant to the visual arts, but also the much wider range of similar writings on other subjects produced by the same people at the same time. By asking a critic for his services, the author acknowledged the first reader’s superior expertise in their joint field – as well as his higher standing in society. When Alberti wrote to Brunelleschi, in other words, he explicitly revealed his desire to be taken seriously as a colleague, and implicitly reiterated his real conviction that painting, like rhetoric, was a liberal art. Any professional intellectual of the time would have known how to read this letter.
Did artists, however, take Alberti’s gesture as he meant it? The manuscript tradition suggests that the Italian text did not find much diffusion. The lack of illustrations, in both versions, suggests that neither could really have served as a textbook on its own. But the literature of art tells a slightly different story. Two of the most articulate artists of the century – Antonio Averlino, known as Filarete, and Leonardo – both studied Alberti’s treatise closely, citing and discussing it in their own works on the arts. We do not know whether they read On Painting in Latin or Italian (or had the text read and explained to them by more learned friends). But we do know that both apparently read it much as Alberti’s letter to Brunelleschi suggested it should be read. They took his views quite seriously, acknowledging their relevance to the painter’s notion of his calling and the way he practised it. Evidently, Alberti’s earliest readers saw his work – and his effort to reform artistic practice – as something more than a display piece.
Like Robert Cotton, Kemp sometimes advances interpretations that seem as bold – and as weakly supported by firm historical evidence – as those of his colleagues. On such occasions he may find himself in the position of Apelles, hearing cobblers find fault with the technical details. Like Apelles, however, Kemp can console himself with the knowledge that his critics cannot rival the range, depth and power of his work.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.