Botticelli and the Built-in Bed

Anthony Grafton

  • Behind the Picture: Art and Evidence in Italian Renaissance by Martin Kemp
    Yale, 304 pp, £25.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 300 07195 7

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.

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