Book Reviews -- the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice by Peter Humfrey

By Nagel, Alexander | The Art Bulletin, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice by Peter Humfrey


Nagel, Alexander, The Art Bulletin


The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 382 pp.; 120 color ills., 150 b/w. $60.00

For Jacob Burckhardt, the great tradition of modern European easel painting originated in the Italian Renaissance altarpiece. In its day, the altarpiece was "the most progressive genre in Italian painting," marked by the most advanced developments in the representation of figures, of space and light, and even of landscape.(1) Burckhardt made much of the fact that it was through the metamorphosis of the altarpiece that the rectangular picture, or quadro, became the primary format for panel painting, and then the paradigm for easel painting as such. The history of the altarpiece in the Renaissance was thus a decisive episode within the larger history of European art, and an especially useful laboratory in which to study the rise and eventual predominance of painting over sculpture in Western culture. Burckhardt's altarpiece essay originally appeared together with 'The Collectors" and "The Portrait," all parts of a projected but never completed companion volume to The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt had evidently intended to complement his famous account of the origins of modern individualism and statecraft with a similarly multifaceted account of the rise of a modern culture of aesthetics and art appreciation.

In the past two decades, the altarpiece has become the focus of a field-wide attention not unlike that enjoyed by "the great age of fresco" in the 1950s and 1960s. Peter Humfrey's 1988 English translation and edition of Burckhardt's essay on the altarpiece was itself one of the fruits of this growth in interest, and has been followed in more recent years by two volumes of collected essays based on conferences organized around the subject.(2) Consciously or not, much of the recent attention continues to be motivated by Burckhardt's fundamental interest in the origins of modern European painting: what else could account for the seemingly irresistible attraction exerted by such issues as the rise of the Renaissance a la (the unified, windowlike, picture field), or the rise and role of narrative painting. on altarpieces? The last two decades of research have not only enormously increased our knowledge of specific works and commissions, but have in the process also established something like a standard working procedure for the study of altarpieces. It has become natural to expect altarpiece studies to take the work out of the museum, put it back on its original altar, reconstruct its original environment, and investigate the ways in which it was intended to serve the donor or the commissioning body. These studies have provided a much-needed corrective to earlier approaches that tended to consider altarpieces in aesthetic isolation--that is, according to modes of attention developed for the forms of painting familiar to us from picture galleries. Such studies have argued, either implicitly or explicitly, that the modern conception of easel painting--in which, as Burckhardt himself once put it, the frame serves to reinforce the "isolation of the beautiful from the entire rest of space"(3)--should not be projected back into a period when images were integrated into their setting as functional pieces of ecclesiastical furniture. This historicizing sensitivity to premodern forms of visual art has found an ally in postmodernist museum architecture, most conspicuously in the recently opened Sainsbury Wing in the National Gallery in London, where altarpieces are now displayed above altarlike structures: the arrangement interferes with the traditional galley experience of dose looking and "aesthetic" appreciation, setting the visitor at something like the "liturgical" distance of the altarpiece's original viewing conditions.

The historicizing reaction against the museum's aestheticization of the altarpiece has also, however, tended to obscure the fact that the trend to take altarpieces down from their altars and put them into picture galleries itself began in the Renaissance. …

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