Reviews -- Only Connect ... : Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1988; Bollingen Series, XXXV, 37) by John Shearman

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JOHN SHEARMAN, Only Connect...: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1988; Bollingen Series, xxxv, 37), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. xvii + 281; 25 color pls., 201 black-and-white ills. $49.50, L35.00.

The book under review is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures, which the author delivered at the National Gallery in Washington in 1988. As such, it is the first systematic approach to the art of the Italian Renaissance from the viewpoint of an aesthetics of reception. Within this function, it achieves what books like Michael Fried's Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley, 1980) or--to cite a recent publication--Victor Stoichita's L'Instauration du tableau (Paris, 1993)--accomplished for image and image theory of the 17th century. The lectures and the book are conceived thematically; that is, Shearman does not guide us through one hundred and fifty years of art history, but rather focuses on certain problems (chapter 1, "A More Engaged Spectator"; chapter 2, "A Shared Space"; chapter 5, "History, and Energy") and on certain media and genres (chapter 3, "Portraits and Poets"; chapter 4, "Domes"). The book has succeeded in preserving much of Shearman's lecture style; its affable and brisk manner is well fitted to create "a more engaged reader."

One should not be deceived, however, by the book's easy, reader-friendly tone. The author does not hold back when it comes to dismissing earlier literature; for example, when he takes to task what he terms "pseudo-iconography," by which he means that widely prevalent phenomenon of rescuing iconology through an integration of all that's valued today, be it social history, feminism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, or what you will. Indeed, it would not be wrong to read the whole opening of this book as a disguised inversion of dominant interests and interpretative strategies. Shearman begins dutifully where the Italian Renaissance began, in the Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, and he does not, thereafter, disappoint the clientele of survey courses. As usual, there follow discussions of Donatello and Verrocchio, of the sculptures of Or S. Michele and the equestrian monuments of Venice and Padua; then come the sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria, then Masaccio inaugurates Renaissance painting, and so on. Here is "canonical" book, in other words; the slides all stand ready in the slide library. Yet if one looks more closely, surprises, caltrops, and hidden provocations lie in waiting. These are indicated now and then by illustrations that do not exist as ready-made slides, and which the author therefore either made himself or had shot for him. One notices them through their bad quality and through their unusual, personal visual angle; they are a protest--raised, alas, not loudly enough--against a professional, or, better said, an institutional photography, one that presents its objects cleansed of conditions and surroundings, and often in an abnormal perspective. Shearman's photographs are sand in the gears of such a visual culture of non-conditionality.

Let us return, however, to the opening provocation. Whereas nowadays Renaissance iconologists enter the Old Sacristy and, blinkered, look upward in order, every year, to write the definitive interpretation of the dome's image of Heaven, Shearman bent over and looked under the table in the middle of the room.(1) What Shearman found there is not totally unimportant, but what really counts is his gesture. In this he stands close to his great compatriot John Ruskin who, like no one else, posed questions of reception aesthetics to his objects, and demonstrated his proofs through often minute details. These he discovered when he clambered too high up the tomb monuments, ascended to the window reveals, and visited the towers and galleries. A famous case is the missing hand of the doge Andrea Vendramin. …