Book Reviews -- History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past by Francis Haskell

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FRANCIS HASKELL, History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 558 pp.; 20 color ills., 240 b/w. $50.00

The use of history to the art historian is, I suppose, familiar enough to those who work the field; the use of art history to the historian is probably less so. Francis Haskell has contributed notably to the first in a series of engrossing studies of art patronage, collecting, the organization of museums, and more generally the history of taste. Now he has turned his attention to the second matter and written a monumental work which traverses the centuries from Petrarch to Huizinga in order to examine some of the ways that art history and art objects have been employed by historians to understand the past. His book is large, learned, and copiously illustrated; it is also very well written. In bridging the disciplines it will appeal to art historians and to historians in general, but its special contribution is to the history of cultural history. And here it will raise some questions of fundamental importance for everyone who uses or loves the images of past time.

Above all, Haskell is concerned with the tension as he sees it between the aesthetic and historical uses of a work of art. The distinction he would make is one of "quality," and while Haskell admits that the boundary is not always clear, he insists that "aesthetic discrimination must always lie at the heart of any serious discussion involving the arts." As a result he limits himself to the figurative arts and (occasionally) to architecture, deliberately disregarding archaeology. Re allows in a footnote that the notion of quality is itself a shifting historical one; but he insists that it must always be taken into account. This certainly helps to delimit the field, but it poses some difficulties, which--at least for an ordinary historian like myself--may not get sufficiently addressed. The book, not surprisingly, is full of aesthetic judgments, not only about works of art, but also about the historians who have used, or abused, them.

Haskell begins with Petrarch and the antiquaries, and especially with their use of ancient coins and medals. The humanists were obsessed with these relics of antiquity, which seemed to bring them face to face with their admired heroes and which could be used to illuminate the whole life of the ancient world. In keeping with his purpose, Haskell focuses on their concern for the images rather than the inscriptions on them, although he recognizes that the antiquaries were at least as interested in the latter and were making a great effort to relate the two. He does not pay much attention to the epigraphers, from Ciriaco of Ancona, who began to scour the world for inscriptions on gravestones and monuments; or to the antiquaries, from Flavio Biondo, who tried to visualize the layout of ancient Rome from the grander monuments still standing, although they were all part of the same general effort to recover and restore a lost antiquity. Haskell regards the coin collections primarily as anthologies of portraits, and he assembles a wonderful mine of information about how they were collected, displayed, published, and used throughout the early modern period. He speculates helpfully about the difficulty of employing such portraits as historical likenesses, and he offers a swift view of the later literature on physiognomy. He ends typically on a skeptical note: by the end of the seventeenth century, historians and others had begun to doubt the veracity of the images the were admiring. (In this, of course, they were doing no more than their fellow humanists, who had been raising many of the same questions about the veracity of literary descriptions and documents of every kind.) Haskell accepts the notion of Arnaldo Momigliano that the narrative historians of the day continued on the whole to ignore the coins and antiquities, despite the fact that these could supply information on many aspects of ancient life, content to restrict themselves to political narratives modeled on the ancients. …