The Florentine Tondo / "Cassone" Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy

Article excerpt

ROBERTA OLSON

The Florentine Tondo

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 408 pp.; 12 color ills., 297 b/w. $145.00

CRISTELLE BASKINS

"Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 278 pp.; 59 b/w ills. $80.00

Italian Renaissance art history has its version of literature's "genre studies"-monographs focusing on particular categories of visual representation such as the altar-piece, the portrait, and tomb sculpture.' The two books under review here are studies of this kind: Roberta Olson looks at tondi-autonomous circular paintings and sculpture-while Cristelle Baskins concentrates on painted cassone panels that once adorned paired chests made for patrician weddings. It is usually assumed in art historical studies that these categories were recognized classifications during the time period and that significant cultural values were invested in the conventionalized formal features and characteristic typologies. In a contribution to a recent volume on the altarpiece, Paul Hills calls attention to some of the problems attending this approach to Renaissance art in an essay entitled "The Renaissance Altarpiece: A Valid Category?" While acknowledging that the altarpiece was a functional category in the period, he points to a significant elasticity in design and designation and notes the absence of any discussion about altarpieces in theoretical writings about art. Furthermore, he cautions that the isolation of a representational genre "privileges paradigmatic relations (altarpiece as member of a class of objects) over syntagmatic relations (altarpiece as part of a larger whole-either the physical one of the chapel and church that houses the altarpiece, or the `mental' one of contemporary needs, beliefs and attitudes). An art history that is to get beyond the stage of cataloguing needs to attend to both paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, and it needs to be rather careful not to box itself within its own categories."2 Hills does not propose that art historians abandon the study of categories, which he considers a valid tool of inquiry, only that these limitations be kept in mind. Another matter to consider is the ideological investment in this approach. Tracking the emergence of new representational forms and the radical transformation of traditional ones in Italy from the 14th to the 16th century is a hermeneutical enterprise intricately linked to perceptions about what is distinct and significant about this historical period. Determinations about artistic categories are fashioned by and, in turn, fashion "the Renaissance"-whether conceived of as a chronological demarcation or an episteme demonstrating pivotal cultural developments. The study of portraiture, for example, negotiates conceptions about the individual, identity, the self, and subjectivity-critical terms in Renaissance historiography. Furthermore, category designations are inevitably graded classifications that are privileged within the disciplinary practice of art history, and they do their job in mapping the cultural terrain. Portraits, altarpieces, and equestrian monuments receive considerable scholarly attention; other kinds of representational objects-engraved armor, ex-votos, and coins-find validation within a lower strata of classification as "ornament" or "material culture."3 One can thus add to Paul Hills's script for effective art historical genre studies the need to reflect on the currency and ideological purchase of the categories under consideration, both within the historical culture and in modern art historical discourse.

Both the tondo and the painted cassone panel were treated in comprehensive, cataloguing monographs early in the 20th century: Moritz Hauptmann's Der Tondo: Ursprung and Bedeutung and Geschichte des italienischen Rundbildes in Relief and Malerei (Frankfurt, 1936) and Paul Schubring's Cassoni: Truhen and Truhenbilder der italienische Fruhrenaissance (Leipzig, 1915, 1923). …