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  • The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep, and Dreams
  • Norberto Massi
Maria Ruvoldt . The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep, and Dreams. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii + 244 pp. index. illus. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0–521–82160–6.

Although impeccably researched and well-written, with valuable notes and an exemplary bibliography, scattered with interesting premises and observations, The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep, and Dreams leaves the reader with an aftertaste of dubious conclusions and untapped opportunities, as though interesting material had been misquoted, misplaced, misused, or misunderstood. The first objection comes with the early statement in which we read that what is sought is "flexibility of meaning rather than simple fixed solutions." Granted, this is a book about cultural history and not a mathematical [End Page 603] treatise; still, one longs in vain for a grain of historical accuracy in a sea of polyvalent meanings. If you add to this the fact that practically every statement or opinion is preceded by a "may be," a "can," a "seems," or a "perhaps" you end up with an interesting but ultimately frustrating book which offers a plentiful supply of ideas and meager harvest of acceptable convictions.

The book is divided into five chapters, each one to be read as an independent entity or as a preface to the following one. Ruvoldt's chapters function like stepping stones that lift the reader in a progression to a higher level of discussion. The main assumptions of the first chapter, used in the structuring of arguments to follow, is that Renaissance intellectuals believed that sleep and the melancholy character go hand in hand, and that divine inspiration comes while asleep. These ideas have already been known and discussed for quite a long time; what is new here is the skillful use of the iconography of medals to sustain such hypotheses. Evolving from this premise, the discussion then delves into the representation of sleep in painting, where the male, when nude and asleep, may signify male vulnerability and, when dressed, as in the case of the Endymion by Cima da Conegliano, may signify instead, unlike the nude sleeping Mars in the most popular versions of "Venus and Mars," that sleeping intellectuals are not at the mercy of a female power. But, the reader may ask, is Cima's painting an Endymion or a fragment from a traditional "Dream of Scipio"? Too often, interesting statements like that about Endymion are not verified through thorough research, they seem to be pure byproducts of divine intuition (through sleep?). Again, it is quite easy to accept that Renaissance thinkers posited the trope that inspiration visits mortals when asleep; but it is much less convincing that drunken stupor was considered the quickest way to inspiration, Bacchic or not. (Was perchance the research for this chapter financed by Chianti Ruffino?) How to explain, otherwise, that the repulsive satyr seen in Lotto's cover for the portrait of Bishop De' Rossi, whose state is the utmost rendition of debauchery, is here introduced and presented as visualizing the "very nature of inspiration"?

Further expatiating on the binary opposites sleeping/awake, passive/active, irrational/rational, woman/man, the author arrives at the statement, presented as fact, that in the Renaissance the female body is necessarily the signifier of divine furor and of fundamental difference, since "female" stands for the passivity of inspiration whereas "male" is the activity of creation, with the corollary triad of woman-sleep-the irrational. These concepts are certainly interesting; they need, however, to be further elucidated and nuanced, since the greater range of visual and literary evidence does not back a single definitive argument.

The Platonic and Neoplatonic concept that locates the means through which we can transcend flesh (and link our soul with infinite, divine beauty, and its aftermath) in the contemplation of physical beauty is the premise for the next chapter, where the author thus maintains that Renaissance images of reclining women, Venuses and not, were therefore perceived as objects for contemplation. These Neoplatonic premises are so well-known that most of it boils down to a verbal "pestar l'acqua nel...


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Archived 2009
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