Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The 19th-Century Construction of the Renaissance

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The 19th-Century Construction of the Renaissance

Article excerpt

The 19th-century construction of the Renaissance Review of: Katherine Wheeler, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture, Farnham England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2014, 194 pp, 19 b. & w. illus., £60.00/$104.95 hdbk, ISBN 978-1472418821

By now we all know that the study of history says as much about the present as it does about the past. The study of the past is always culturally and politically imbedded thus complicating any understanding. And yet it seems that the historians of the Italian Renaissance are the last to catch on. Renaissance heroes and masterpieces are often accepted wholesale as if their study and celebration has nothing to do with the period in which they are revered. Because of this, books that deal with the historiography of the Renaissance are always welcome additions to the field. Katherine Wheeler's Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture is no exception.

The nineteenth century bore a particular obsession for the Italian Renaissance (with the period of 1860-1910 marking, according to Wheeler as the 'high tide' of this obsession). There was plenty of historical fiction, an abundance of amateur history, emerging serious scholarship, organized tours, detailed guidebooks, and a population of Anglo-Americans that settled in cities such as Venice, Florence and Rome so as to have the Renaissance close at hand. For these communities cafes, restaurants and newspapers catered to the living while cemeteries served the dead.

The presence of the Anglo-American community in Italy is important to the discussion at hand as Wheeler's book tracks the perception of Renaissance architecture in Great Britain between 1850 and 1914. The increasing professionalism and education of the architect coupled with the history of Italian Renaissance architecture were intertwined and ultimately influential on the community living in Italy.

This book is at once a study of the architecture profession and the history of Renaissance architecture in 19th-century England. It is a good introduction for readers interested in either topic. As Wheeler notes 'The gradual establishment of the canon of Renaissance architectural history was an outgrowth of the core importance of history to both the rise of architectural professionalism and the advent of formalized education.' The image of the Renaissance architect was inextricably linked to the creation of university programs for architectural education. So, not only did the study of the Renaissance influence design in England on all scales - from furniture to urbanism - but it also influenced the design of the architect himself (and yes, this was a male world).

This volume has particular relevance today as the Italian Renaissance continues to influence young architects many of whom spend a semester studying a canon of masterworks in Italy. The paradigms that guide their study are largely 19th century in making. The self-conscious analysis of why Italy has remained important to the profession begins in this book.

As Wheeler notes, the Renaissance is fluid-both in terms of definition and time period. This certainly lasts to the end of World War II at least (long beyond the time outlined by Wheeler) and depends on the media being defined as well as the national perspective from which the definition is being made. The Renaissance in Spain for example is later than that in Italy, in Italian painting before that of Italian literature and so forth. It is helpful to remember that the Renaissance does not mean one thing, but depends more on who is using the term, when, and where. Perhaps most importantly, the Renaissance was not a term that was ever used in the Renaissance itself. Giorgio Vasari referred to the period as Early Modern in the title of his famous book chronicling the lives of the artists. Given this, any scholar or student of the Renaissance should really be interested in when the period was constructed - and herein lies the importance of Wheeler's volume. …

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