Friday, 12 October 2012

Categorising Renaissance art: Or cavete titulos*

‘any classification or any signpost in the landscape is welcomed for its help in the mastering of an unstructured reality’ 
E. H. Gombrich, “Norm and Form: The Stylistic Categories of Art History and their Origins in Renaissance Ideals”, in his book Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, I (London: Phaidon, 1966), 82–83

This lecture was the first of our term of Current Approaches to the History of Art. It’s interesting to note that it is also the earliest and first in chronological terms. Using the terms High Renaissance and Mannerism, Dr Caldwell sets out to explore the labels and divisions that, though they have their roots in the 16th century, were set in stone in the modern era. She was also to examine how we came to categorise label artistic styles and be aware of its artificial subjective disciplines.

Before coming to any discussion she pointed out that labels are helpful in establishing a common artistic language, so when someone writes about The Renaissance we ‘all know what they mean’. However there are certain points that should be raised. If labels are the product of a particular point in time,

1. Where did they come from?
2. What are the connotations?
3. What are the limitations?

Before applying a label we should be aware of the background and be able to answer these questions.

I opened with a quote from EH Gombrich who Dr Caldwell describes as succinct and intelligent in his discussion of the importance of labels and basics and why we classify things. Man is a classifying creature and we are good at defining, grouping and distinguishing things, but when we do this, how do we divide them up and put them into boxes? It can create a narrative that leaves out lots of stuff.

We then came to the term High Renaissance; it’s already an evolution of ‘Renaissance’ which has a long history. The Grove Art Dictionary defines it as a

Term generally used for periods that hark back to the culture of Classical antiquity. […] it is most often used to refer to that era in Europe, beginning approximately in the 14th century, in which a new style in painting, sculpture and architecture was forged in succession to that of Gothic and in which, in a broader cultural sense, the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age was made

Renaissance or rebirth was used by Giorgio Vasari, when he discusses how he wants to be ‘useful and helpful to our own artists […] and they will be able to understand more readily the process by which art has been reborn and reached perfection in our own times’. (Preface to the Lives, 1568) However he doesn’t apply it to art as a period label, but uses it as a way of distinguishing themselves from what went before.

It was in the nineteenth century that the phrase really took hold. Building on the work of other writers, J Burckhardt in his ‘The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Europe’ (1860) was a great inspiration to the way Italy was seen culturally. It reflects a time where history was seen as black and white. There was a particular perception that there was a break between the ‘middle ages’ and ‘renaissance’. Historians felt it was right to compare, look at the differences and describe each by saying what it was not. That is to say the ‘middle ages’ were asleep, the renaissance was an awakening. This polarisation has been extensively revised. But we still know what labels such as Renaissance, middle ages, Gothic, etc mean because of these 19th century ideas.

The addition of High Renaissance to the narrative arc in subsequent writings of art supposedly reflects a few years when 16th century artists reached an apex of ‘classical’ style art before it ‘all went bad again’. Grove says,

This period culminated in the High Renaissance, a brief phenomenon confined essentially to Italy in about the first two decades of the 16th century and supremely embodied in some of the work of that time by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

High renaissance ‘classical art’ is basically art in imitation of nature, centred with balance, poise, symmetry, order, harmony, reason, a suppression of passion. Take Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari which was done in 1504. With those words in mind, Dr Caldwell suggests that this cannot be an example of high renaissance art. Already labels and association of terms with the art are both problematic.

Vasari and his Lives chart the linear artistic progress and the notion that artists build on the achievements of others. Roughly the three periods of time he covers, 13-14th century, 15th and 16th are not defined by any artistic terms. Where 19-20th century art historians might have applied late medieval, early renaissance and mannerism as signposts, he does not.

Briefly – and I don’t want to labour Vasari too much because you can go and read him – he starts with classical art in 5th century BC and charts its decline culminating in the chaos of Constantine’s Arch in 315AD. Raphael distinguished different types of style on the arch but we have to be aware of their use of terms as our terms may differ in meaning. The 4-6th centuries were dismissed as bad because of the non-naturalistic approach. From thereon, with the event of Cimabue and Giotto, there was a gentle awaking because they were producing art in a more naturalistic style.

From Massaccio and Mantegna who, with others, explored ideas regarding perspective, depth, the illusion of recession and sculptural form, we build up to the third part of the Lives. With -

Leonardo - Vasari was aware of a new style and a new era; Perfection and the real rebirth with a great interest in the imitation of nature, space, gesture, psychological realism, highly prized art which improved on nature.

Raphael - Concentration on proportion, a harmonious whole, beauty with applied classical ideals.

Michelangelo – for Vasari he was the ultimate genius artist. Using the creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, it is all about the body, proportion, composition, man’s place is equivalent to God’s. The creative intellect of the artist is equal to God in powers of creation and can go beyond, surpassing judgment and nature.

And then we are on to Parmigianino and the interesting ‘Madonna with the Long Neck’. He doesn't distinguish a break but we apply a term to this new style MANNERISM. This is key; the arbitrarily taken years 1500-1520 describe a very short High Renaissance but it doesn't mean Parmiganino. Why? The classical ideals of symmetry, proportion, harmony and balance cannot be applied to his work, eg., the odd shaped Madonna is large in proportion to the angels.

Vasari saw different things in the same art; beauty, invention and innate creative and intellectual sensibilities. The departure from pure imitation was a challenge to mere replication and an attempt to conquer nature. However there is a backlash by later writers against artists like Parmiganino and Bronzino. These later artists are thought to be not based in truth or nature and there is talk of the decline in art. This is a narrow idea of art taken from the language of architecture; ambiguity should not have a place in art

So a concept of what is good and bad art was being set. Writers such as Gian Pietro Bellori (1613–1696) were influential in setting up new academies with the focus on imitating nature and drawing from good models. Emulation was central and the tradition of this follows through to 19th century producing art which was insipid, repetitive, and derivative - this is our art narrative and where the labels come from.


The waters muddy when we start looking at the actual art. Take Raphael, despite the classical perfection his later stuff was more disordered, eg Holy Family (1518). Chronologically this was high renaissance however this is not a rational space, the composition is spread, harder to read and related to Parmaginino’s expanded asymmetrical Madonna. Is this a mannerist painting?? We have started questioning the categories. His St Cecilia (1513) with its elongation of proportions, symmetry. tilted space and the strange foreground beautifully rendered.

Instead of forcing paintings into unnatural categories, where stylistic characterisations don’t even work of the oeuvre of one artist, we can now blur distinctions and say 'this is Raphael isn't it interesting!’ Other examples are Pontorno’s Deposition (1528) which Dr Caldwell describes as mannerist; ‘a useful label’ to ensure a useful common language though she recognises that a variety of art was created and it's hard to put them under one umbrella.

In teaching renaissance art, we normally start in Florence, move to Rome for the High Renaissance and then back to Florence after the sack of Rome in 1527. One current author D Frankin says, for instance we should stay in Florence and see what happened there. Artists are not aware of orthodoxy, or labels, because they create stuff that doesn't fit into handy labels, eg Michelangelo Doni tondi (1504), this painting isn’t immediately recognisable as his. There are interesting distortions, proportions and it doesn't fit into the chronology. And Michelangelo was at the pinnacle. Franklin says there is an understanding at the time that there was something different happening with regards invention. ALL of it is new; Change, innovation and ingenuity.

Labels are created by people in different times, of different tastes and are even taken from non-artistic sources, eg literature, criticism, and applied by people who weren’t artists.

In the modern era, there was a huge reaction against embedded opinions and limiting academies with diminished artistic expression and originality so what is left to do? Modernity was a reaction against that; boredom is insistent on novelty which Vasari’s artists would have recognised instantly.

However Dr Caldwell remains ambiguous. Just because we understand where the labels come from and how they are formulated, we need these labels to understand one another. My view is:


*with thanks to @birdiecanfly and @justgosailing for the Latin

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