Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art

Article excerpt


Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art

New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1997. 209 pp., 40 b/w ills. $75

Patricia Emison's Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art is an intriguing, rather offbeat attempt to address a set of images that in some way seem to defy the qualities of technical refinement, ideality and magnificence usually associated with the art of Renaissance Italy. Aligning herself in a general way with revisionist trends in recent scholarship, she argues for the need to get beyond the historically privileged conceptual models of Albertian theory and Vasarian historiography. In contrast to their emphasis on so-called high-style works, which "reinforce the prevailing political, social, and economic structures" (p. 4), Emison seeks to expose a subculture of "low" or "rough" (rozzo) style. Her project, she says, "is to learn how Renaissance art helped its viewers to visualize the whole world, not the ideal and magnificent parts of it alone" (p. xxx) .

Several subordinate themes circulate through the text and serve to support Emison's larger argument. The first is the importance of graphic media. Prints form the bulk of the evidence she discusses, but she also claims for them an epochal collective role: "The development of print media had at least as profound an effect on the range and significance of European art as any turn toward the culture of antiquity" (pp. xxvii-xxviii). Prints encourage a less formal mode of picture making; at the same time, they can be subtle and sophisticated forms of expression. Another important aspect of the low style in the visual arts is its relation to pastoral poetry; for Emison, such poetry played a central role in encouraging "pictures without action, without place for heroism, pictures more rueful than celebratory" (p. xxv) . She sees it as influencing a shift of emphasis to "less affirmative subjects and compositional norms" (p. xxv), as well as to images less dependent on literary complexity and hence more sensual and immediate (pp. 61-62). The third ingredient in her argument is the claim that the low style is fundamentally associated in some way with women. It is not just that the works of art in question often depict women or sometimes make veiled reference to sexuality; the influence of women contributes to "a redefining of the vocabulary away from strictly heroic norms" (p. xvii); it works "against the hegemony of the heroic ideal" (p. 152) and ultimately against "the idea of art as an expression of authority" (p. xxvi).

The most compelling parts of the book are the discussions of particular images, which, at their best, are probing, nuanced, and insightful-even when they are not entirely persuasive. Giorgione's Tempesta is "a painting about love, without being about the inspiring qualities of love" (p. 66). The woman is "desirable, yet neither particularly pure nor good, no paragon of beauty or grace" (p. 70) . Emison's sensitivity to the subtlety of the picture's expressive coding is shown in her characterization of the two figures, in which, she says, Giorgione "used nudity to exclude the parallel with Madonna and Child and used clothing to avoid mythological reference" (p. 71). "The color, the reference to the threat of storm, the present inactivity of the figures, all imply that this is a picture of what cannot be done in the high style: love apart from its heroic narrative examples, a meditation upon love itself, rather than its protagonists" (p. 69). It registers a historical shift of attitude toward love "as a matter of stormy emotions, even of the ignoble body, rather than of the soul" (p. 75).

A chiaroscuro woodcut by Antonio Tempesta, after a design by Parmigianino, showing a nude man in a landscape (pp. 77-80) is also linked to pastoral tradition. The figure is not simply a nude study, for Emison insists its nudity is "natural rather than classically poised"; the landscape is not a later addition to the design but essential; the bust of a woman, oddly placed in a lower corner, is not an afterthought but a symbol of artifice. …