Balancing Acts: Reading Sources and Weighing Evidence in Recent Italian Renaissance Art History

By Goffen, Rona | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Balancing Acts: Reading Sources and Weighing Evidence in Recent Italian Renaissance Art History


Goffen, Rona, Renaissance Quarterly


How does art get made? This fundamental question may have as many answers as there are works of art. The kinds of answers, however, are limited in number. Leaving aside for the moment the ultimate, imponderable answer - which resides in the genius of the individual artist - one may focus on more readily definable, even quantifiable, kinds of answers found in medium and technique, for example; or in visual traditions and precedents; or the specific instructions relating to particular commissions, which may be recorded in such documents as contracts; or the way in which the work was displayed and used; or the more general but equally important considerations of its spiritual or psychological context. These kinds of questions and answers are considered by the authors discussed here.

In Picturing the Passion, Anne Derbes recognizes changes in thirteenth-century Italian narrative paintings of Christ's last days, which she explains in relation to Franciscan spirituality. Many of these cycles are small in scale, crowded into the aprons of historiated Crosses, that is, the area flanking the figure of the crucified Christ. In this way, the monumental, iconic, and timeless image of the Savior is juxtaposed with miniature narratives that place his sacrifice within its historical - that is, temporal - context. Beginning with works of the second quarter of the Duecento, both narrative and corpus demonstrate an increasing emphasis on Christ's suffering. The living Christus Triumphans, his eyes open, expression impassive, and head upright, is replaced by the dead or dying Christus Patiens, eyes closed, expression anguished, and head resting limply on his shoulder in works by Giunta Pisano, Coppo di Marcovaldo and others. Later masters, such as Cimabue, added to the imagery of Christ's suffering by painting the Patiens with a translucent or transparent loin cloth. Revealing Christ's nudity, the diaphanous fabric asserts his humanity, as in earlier Byzantine Crosses (28, 30-31). Passion narratives represent "Christ's humanity with an unsparing directness" (158), depicting his suffering and the grief of his mourners with increasing specificity.

While recognizing the importance of Byzantine models for these artistic developments, Derbes takes issue with Hans Belting's thesis that Italians treated Byzantine works as sacrosanct prototypes (159-60). She argues that "we need to go beyond the assumption that these painters always emulated Byzantine art to ask how central Italians . . . responded to Byzantine art, and why they did, and why, at times, they did not" (15). Derbes considers that the "Byzantine component" in thirteenth-century Passions "may stem, at least in part," from Franciscan missionary activities in the East (24). She also relates Passion paintings to Franciscan writings, including liturgical texts, notably the Office of the Passion by Francis himself (22), and such devotional guides as the Meditations on the Life of Christ. Sometimes these kinds of texts "weave together more than one version of same event, or . . . offer the reader options, recounting first one version, then a second." Dealing with comparable variations in the pictorial narration of the Passion, Derbes examines the similarities and dissimilarities of Italian and Byzantine cycles. Saint Francis's Office of the Passion begins with the Betrayal, the beginning for many narrative cycles as well.

Depictions of the Betrayal also introduce the pernicious subtext of anti-semitism (35, 65, 68, 69, 79-81), visualizing an ugly reality of thirteenth-century life. In 1215, Derbes reminds us, the Fourth Lateran Council ordered Jews to wear badges or special clothing to make them immediately recognizable to Christians (88). The Inquisition was up and running by the 1230s. In 1239, Gregory IX - the same pope who had canonized Saint Francis eleven years before - ordered that Jewish books were be seized in March 1240. In obedience to his edict, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and, naturellement, found "guilty" (89-91,290).

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Balancing Acts: Reading Sources and Weighing Evidence in Recent Italian Renaissance Art History
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