- Looking at the Renaissance: Essays toward a Contextual Appreciation
Charles R. Mack's book is a slender tome with a big, if conservative, agenda: to formulate a holistic explanation of the Renaissance and a Renaissance period style. It is a well-written book that is composed of an introduction, five loosely structured and enigmatically titled chapters — such as "Virtual Reality," "Means to the End," and "Manifest Miracle," — and an epilogue. Its focus is Italian art and architecture produced between 1300 and 1500, but it pays especially close attention to the academically-well-trodden subject of fifteenth-century Tuscan art and humanist culture. The author does, however, wander beyond the Italian peninsula to contemplate the significance of Columbus's voyages and crosscultural intersections as seen in the work of Northern European artists. The work of several sixteenth-century Italian artists is briefly discussed at the end of the book. The author's approach to the subject of the nature and meaning of Renaissance art is empirical and, despite the subtitle's claim to a contextual approach, he relies largely on Wölfflinian comparisons and discussions of canonical works, artists, and texts that, parts of chapter 5 excepted, give relatively little weight to the importance of their patronage history, original location, or intended audience.
The thesis of Looking at the Renaissance is that, contrary to the challenges the new art history has posed to the division of the history of art into specific periods with well-defined formal characteristics, there was a Renaissance, there is a distinctive Renaissance style, and works produced in Italy (especially in Florence) between 1400 and 1600 best exemplify the period and its style. The text is [End Page 155] peppered with various quotations warning of the pitfalls of a holistic approach to the study of art-historical periods, statements that typically are countered with literal readings of Manetti, Vasari, and the fifteenth-century humanists. Perhaps a more appropriate subtitle for the book would have been In Defense of Periodization.
In each chapter the author reiterates and supports the statement he makes in the introduction that "unity is the hallmark of the Renaissance, and our perception of the period should be guided by seeing the age with a sweeping gesture" (3). Professor Mack previously explored the idea that uniformity is the quality that best characterizes Renaissance art and architecture in his 1987 book Pienza: The Creation of a Renaissance City. In chapter 3 of the text presently under review he does acknowledge Christine Smith's important and very different reading of Pienza as the architectural and urban embodiment of the principal of varietas, rather than of all'antica regularity (Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence, 1400-1470 ), but in later chapters he continues to hold up Pienza as a paradigm of Renaissance formal consistency.
Looking at the Renaissance is aimed at scholars and students alike. The latter will come away from reading this book with the understanding that Italian Renaissance art has a clearly defined visual vocabulary, style, and meaning. What then, would they make of a gilded polyptych by one of the Vivarini, a painted terracotta group by Guido Mazzoni, or Antonio del Pollaiuolo's silver processional reliquary cross for the Florentine Baptistery? Works such as these have no place in Professor Mack's definition of Renaissance art, a definition in which very few of the exceptions that challenge his rule are considered. As far as scholars of Italian Renaissance art and history are concerned, I should think that a number of them, like this reviewer, will question the wisdom of assigning to the period a single, focused meaning. Domestic art, works in media such as metalwork and ceramics, religious ritual, gender, and, most importantly, regional diversity are all aspects of a rich and multifaceted history of Renaissance artistic production that have led many to revise and expand upon the Burckhardt-inspired understanding of...