The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture by Charles Dempsey (review)
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Reviewed by
Dempsey, Charles, The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture (Bernard Berenson Lectures on the Italian Renaissance), Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2012; hardback; pp. 398; 45 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. $39.95, £29.95, €36.00; ISBN 9780674049529.

This work arises from Charles Dempsey's 2008 Berenson Lectures at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. It argues, like Dempsey's seminal work on Botticelli's Primavera, for a re-evaluation of the importance of the vernacular in the Renaissance, proposing a renovatio rather than a rebirth: 'a remaking of the present, its language, arts, and culture, by assimilating … both Latin and Italian, and testing the results against the standards and achievements of the ancients' (pp. 205-06). Renaissance scholarship - from Burckhardt and Panofsky onwards, as summarised in Chapter 1 - frequently concentrates on the primacy of classical antiquity, so it is refreshing to read a case for vernacular texts which does not present them as the country cousins of 'civilised' Latin humanism.

Dempsey has argued for the intersection of art, vernacular and humanist literature, and civic ritual elsewhere, particularly with reference to Botticelli's Primavera, Politian's Stanze per la giostra, and Medicean social engagement in the fifteenth century. Here too he argues by case study, beginning with Simone Martini's Maestà in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico. He sets out how Martini's Madonna conforms to the effictio, or description of external beauty, popularised by Provencal poets. But Martini also drew on French Gothic [End Page 179] sculpture and royal trappings (such as the Angevin crown) and, significantly, the courtly aesthetic of both the dolce stil novo and the laudi of Jacopone da Todi and others. Here we begin to see how traditional boundaries - French versus Italian sources, for example - were porous.

In the second chapter, Dempsey advances his study of Botticelli. He examines Botticelli's idealised female beauties and so-called mythological canvases in the light of popular poetry and classical models' canons of female beauty: Luigi Pulci's wonderful frottola describing the contents of two galleys carrying ladies' wardrobes to a villa retreat outside Florence, for example, and Politian's descriptions of the Venus Anadyomene. I was particularly struck by Dempsey's argument for reclassifying Botticelli's 'mythological' paintings as favole or fables, a term which better captures the full range of their inspiration and limits them less to their classical sources.

The third and fourth chapters move from Florentine civic rituals (e.g., Medicean jousts) to another lively form of public performance, the sacra rappresentazione. The case study here is a set of Latin epigrams describing a cycle of twelve sibyls and some prophets painted c. 1430 for a room in Cardinal Giordano Orsini's palace in Rome. The Orsini paintings were subsequently lost, but Dempsey traces the entire cycle's influence: from manuscript copies of the epigrams (presumably presented as gifts on Orsini's papal embassies), to Florentine Annunciation plays, and to a series of engravings (c. 1471-75) attributed to Baccio Baldini. The comparison between the Orsini and Baldini epigrams and the engravings is fruitful and is made with reference to the appendix, which clearly sets these alongside one another. (If the appendix had also set out the sibyls' speeches from the two Annunciation plays - both tentatively attributed to Feo Belcari by Dempsey, but systematically investigated with different conclusions by Nerida Newbigin in Feste D'Oltrarno: Plays in Churches in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Olschki, 1996) - this would have facilitated the reading.) Dempsey's point is the interconnection of the humanist texts and the sibyls' popular representations, in Florence's squares and churches and in Baldini's engravings.

Some of the connections made here, however, are not as strong as those in the earlier chapters. The costumes of Baldini's sibyls are carefully individuated, for example, as Dempsey shows - but is it really possible to link them to those worn by the sacre rappresentazioni players, when contemporary descriptions of players' costumes are schematic and inventories suggestive but rarely conclusive? The issue seems particularly problematic given Baldini's dependence on a set of engravings by Master G. S. (now in the British Museum, London), as Dempsey himself concurs...