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  • The Living Image in Renaissance Art
  • Bernadine Barnes
Fredrika H. Jacobs . The Living Image in Renaissance Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv + 267 pp. + 8 color pls. index. illus. bibl. $80. ISBN: 0-521-82159-2.

That Italian Renaissance art develops from being less lifelike to more is a commonplace. Similarly terms like vivissimo were commonly used by Renaissance critics discussing these works. Fredrika Jacobs's book explores the cultural background of this quest for ever more lifelike images.

There are three main strands running through this book: mythological, critical, and scientific. Of these, the scientific strand is most strongly presented and researched, although in each chapter, the discussion appears late, as if tucked into the background. One chapter thoroughly discusses "anatomy for artists" — dissections focused on muscles and bones as a means to correctly draw the human figure. Michelangelo and his admirers, who founded the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, play a central role in this discussion. Other chapters explore the circulatory system, the interest in abnormal developments as manifested in early collections of curiosities, and mechanics.

Introducing each chapter is an extensive exploration of the critical terminology used to describe aspects of liveliness and\or lifelikeness. Jacobs tries to determine whether phrases like veramente vivissimo are only clichés or "reliable guides" to understanding Italian Renaissance art. In answering this question Jacobs [End Page 499] traces ancient and medieval uses of the terms; more directly relevant are the ideas of Renaissance writers such as Lomazzo, who links the illusion of life in painting to magic and astrology. Others think of artistic creation as analogous to human reproduction or divine creation.

These kinds of analogies are undoubtedly what led Jacobs to key each chapter to a figure from classical mythology. The myth of Marsyas, for example, is persuasively connected to anatomical studies at the academy. References to the myths of Prometheus and Narcissus in later chapters are more loosely connected to the topic at hand; indeed, Narcissus seems to be added only to justify a discussion of mirrors.

This is a wide-ranging book, and one that is sometimes difficult to grasp whole. As the author herself admits, the chapters are to some degree separate studies; the chapters, furthermore, seem to be composed of many other separate studies. These are engagingly written and interesting in their own right, but time and again the reader is left wondering how they relate to actual works of art or artistic practice. The segments seem to be links in a chain that encircles the main question but never quite directly addresses it. For instance, one chapter begins with Vasari's description of the Mona Lisa (which he had not seen) as having a living pulse. This leads to a discussion of the circulatory system, then to the artist-creator as a parallel to the divine creator, then to the five creation "models" based in classical or biblical texts. One of these models is Prometheus, who happens to be depicted in a painting for Agostino Carracci's tomb along with his motto which claims that the sense of life derives from knowledge and superhuman talent. Eventually the discussion returns to Leonardo, where we learn that in fact it is Leonardo's use of sfumato that gives the sense of life. While this is undoubtedly true, it is also rather obvious. Throughout the book there is surprisingly little said about how artists actually worked to achieve their effects, other than by using color or shading.

Some of the images that are presented — of anatomized bodies (including flap-anatomies), genetic mutations, mechanized statues, and busts based on death masks — provide interesting supplements to our knowledge of Renaissance visual culture. However, it is a long leap from these fascinating, but artistically lifeless, images to the pathos of Michelangelo's Piet|$$|Aga or the fleeting expression of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. In the end, Jacobs's book affirms what Cellini said long ago: anatomical knowledge will help an artist avoid mistakes, but will not create the grace that gives the sense of life.

Bernadine Barnes
Wake Forest University


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pp. 499-500
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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