The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist / Art, Theory, and Culture in Sixteenth-Century Italy: From Techne to Metatechne

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FRANCIS AMES-LEWIS The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 322 pp.; 50 color ills., 100 b/w. $40.00

ROBERT WILLIAMS Art, Theory, and Culture in Sixteenth-- Century Italy: From Techne to Metatechne Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 243 pp. $49.95

Contemporary scholars of the Renaissance operate within the shell of a 19th-century conception of the period, which is now mostly invoked in order to be discredited. The period acquired its modern definition through narratives of spiritual and intellectual rebirth or renewal, of the centrality of scholars, writers, and intellectuals in public life-when culture, as Jacob Burckhardt conceived it, superseded the "powers" of religion and the state. Figures such as Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo were allowed to speak for a broader totality of historical experience. In the wake of Burckhardt and Jules Michelet, art was pressed into the service of such mythmaking, and it appeared to offer powerful visual and material testimony to the ascendency of humanism and to the transformation in consciousness that was its telos. In the apparent collapse of such confidence, what can the term "Renaissance" now usefully mean, other than as a hollowed-out (and probably misleading) synonym for "Early Modern"? The alternative has been a healthy pluralism of historical approaches, mostly centered on the local, the microhistorical, the normally tradition-bound world of religion, marriage, and the family-but perhaps at the price of a certain conceptual disunity, a lack of synthesis, and an absence of dialogue among the practitioners of the multiple byways of the field. Exorcizing the myth of the "Renaissance Man," however necessary, has also had serious consequences for the understanding of the relation of art and intellectual life. Humanism takes its place alongside other ways of considering artistic activity in this period-the state, religion, the organization of gender, the market for consumer goods-- and is itself seen as subordinate to and conditioned by these other phenomena. This may mean no more than the fact that just as it is presently inconceivable to us that the world of scholarship and the humanities could ever be central and defining elements of our own culture, so we could no longer think of them as having an important generative role in the visual culture of an earlier epoch. It may also mean that the question of humanism and its relation to art calls out for reconsideration. The singularity of such an alignment might be grasped once more, for its strangeness and remoteness as much as for any connection it may have to our experience or to our modernity.

Both of these books, in varying degrees, suggest a deliberate and specific usage for the term "Renaissance art," making a generally persuasive case for the proposition that it was humanism that provided the most important terms in which art is reconceived and redefined in the period, and that this had a transforming effect on the status of the artist. The authors share an evident debt to Michael Baxandall's Giotto and the Orators of 1971. However, in their extreme differences from each other, both manifest the effects of the disciplinary fragmentation referred to above, notwithstanding the common ground that, given the titles of their books, one might expect them to share.

Williams's book, the more ambitious and the more original of the two, makes large claims for the writing on the visual arts in the Renaissance yet defines its territory so as to exclude discussion of any actual works of art. Ames-Lewis provides an excellent retelling of a familiar narrative, that of the "rise of the artist" in Renaissance Italy, which includes many unfamiliar examples and gives some attention to non-Italians like Albrecht Durer. There is much that is relevant for a consideration of the artist in intellectual culture: chapters on painting and poetry, on the idea of the artist's inventive license, on artists' literacy, their writing and reading habits. …