Maia Gahtan

title.none: Tricomi, ed., Contextualizing the Renaissance (Gahtan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0004.005 00.04.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Maia Gahtan, The Walters Art Gallery,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Tricomi, Albert H. ed. Contextualizing the Renaissance: Returns to History. Binghamton Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 2, 230. $65.00. ISBN: 2-503-50849-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.04.05

Tricomi, Albert H. ed. Contextualizing the Renaissance: Returns to History. Binghamton Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 2, 230. $65.00. ISBN: 2-503-50849-9.

Reviewed by:

Maia Gahtan
The Walters Art Gallery

Contextualizing the Renaissance: Returns to History, edited by Albert H. Tricomi, is an interdisciplinary set of essays that addresses topics in history, methodology, literature and the visual arts. The volume is comprised of a selection of papers delivered at the Twenty-Eighth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies held at Binghamton University (1994). Divided into three sections, it includes contributions by the five plenary speakers and five narrower papers chosen from the 150 participants, with a substantive introduction by Tricomi. Four of the ten essays examine Elizabethan England, while the other six cover the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy. All of the essays present engaging arguments in the field of cultural history and share an acute awareness of historical and methodological issues. Tricomi's introduction explains the importance of contextual readings and intelligently summarizes each of the contributions with an eye to how the scholars' methodologies may be more broadly applied. According to Tricomi, the studies have been included together 1) to demonstrate the different ways in which modern scholarship on Renaissance topics contributes to historical studies and 2) "to access the results" of those contributions. Tricomi concludes that "no settled epistemology undergirds literary, historical, and artistic-historical studies in our time" but that "we are witnessing the ascendency of a historicized mode of criticism" which "finds no significant meaning outside a contextualized history". As a group, the articles show how history-- Renaissance and modern--is in constant dialogue with the literary and visual arts. They also show how the literary and visual arts may help elucidate, and even record, aspects of history not easily documented by other forms of evidence.

The articles under the first rubric "Literature and History as Critical Practices," are the most varied and in many ways the most generally accessible to scholars of Renaissance culture. The first essay, "Writing the History of the Present: Contextualizing Early Modern Literature" by Jean E. Howard concentrates on two female characters present in some of Shakespeare's histories: Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearshot. Occupying a marginal yet fundamental "independent" space, they represent a new type of woman gradually being created (and frustrated) within the emerging modern nation state. Howard uses Shakespeare's plays as historical evidence, an interesting approach that might have been enhanced with the addition of more comparative material to help determine how representative- -indeed how "real"--Doll and Quickly can be taken to be.

Margaret Mikesell discusses women's historical position from a different point of view. "The Place of Vives's 'Instruction of a Christian Woman' in Early Modern English Domestic Book Literature," shows how Vives's 1523 treatise differs from those of his successors by emphasizing chastity over marriage/obedience and citing examples from classical and Early Christian literature over Biblical ones. Mikesell provides both generalizations about the genre as well as specific analyses of later Protestant manuals. Ultimately she shows how the transformation of this genre reflects the cultural and religious ideals of the times. An expanded version of her study might also have included some real historical examples so that those ideals could be compared to existing practices.

From the point of view of cultural practice stands Sarah Hanley's "Mapping Theory in History: Conceptual Cites and Social Sites in the French Monarchic State." Beginning with women's protests against the French constitutional documents "crushing" women's rights written in 1789 and 1791, Hanley offers a legal background to both the protesting tracts and the constitutional documents themselves. Citing two case studies and other evidence drawn from contemporary legal philosophy, she demonstrates consistent trends in the French legal system that allowed husbands to preempt wives' cases for marital separation by creating new legal cases charging adultery against the wife. She also documents the growing resentment of these unfair legal practices over the course of the Early Modern period. Unlike Howard and Mikesell, she bases her arguments on historical events, avoiding difficult and uneasy connections to philosophy or fiction.

David Quint's "Dueling and Civility in Sixteenth Century Italy" is the most successful of the four essays. Drawing from poetic fictions, rhetorical invectives, treatises, and archival documents, Quint brilliantly weaves an historical narrative about the gradual civilizing of the dual ritual in sixteenth century Italy. He demonstrates how duels took on an increasingly ceremonial character, reflected in and also influenced by literary renditions. In some cases, duels were even fought through invectives on paper instead of on the field. Traditionally the province of a dwindling feudal aristocracy, duels were inextricably linked to personal honor. For this reason, even though duels were condemned by the Council of Trent and therefore became much rarer after the sixteenth century, their spirit lived on in the elaborate legal negotiations that came to replace them. The tenaciousness of the spirit of the duel both in its replacements and in its sporadic late manifestations reflects the continuing need of the noble and would-be noble classes to personally distinguish themselves. In this sense, Quint concludes, the duel never quite became civilized. Quint offers a cultural history in which artistic documents help explain historical phenomena, historical events complement poetic narratives, and literary duels parallel physical ones. Although he does not use the visual arts--perhaps because his attention to rhetoric, is not easily translated to visual representations--this reader is convinced that his analysis would equally illuminate such artistic forms from his chosen perspective, just as it illuminates fictional duels.

The articles under the second rubric, "Rehistoricizing Through the Visual Arts," provide perspectives from the study of the visual arts. The first essay by Keith Moxey, "Motivating History" shows how Italo-centric Renaissance humanist aesthetics had broken down by the 18th century, only to be replaced by a new universalist aesthetic system. Moxey astutely analyzes how Panofsky and others formed the Netherlandish canon using subjective aesthetic principles naively considered "self-evident" and indisputable. Occupying the opposite critical pole is Foucault, who, according to James Byrnes in "Viewing Foucault Viewing Velasquez's Las Meninas'" is a modern self-aware viewer seeking to avoid all historical biases. Nevertheless, as Byrnes demonstrates, Foucault uses visual analysis to fortify his own theoretical agenda about the death of classic art.

The essay by Laura MacCaskey, "Tainted Image/Sacred Image: The Wandering Madonna of S. Maria in Vallicella," analyzes Counter- Reformation art. She investigates the historical circumstances surrounding the choice of subject of the altarpiece of S. Maria in Vallicella, Rome. Probably originally intended to be a Nativity of the Virgin when the church was under the control of Filippo Neri, Neri's successor chose instead to celebrate the church's holy icon. He commissioned Rubens to paint an adoration around that icon, inserting it within the larger panel. Opposition to the public display of this icon (which had once been located in the prostitutes' quarter) led to the commissioning of a second altarpiece by Rubens behind which the icon was concealed. In this way, the icon was literally covered by Rubens' interpretation of it.

Of the three essays under the second heading, only McCaskey's article directly addresses visual art. The other two are analyses of art historical scholarship from a theoretical perspective. Thus the balance in this section shifts from the contextual Renaissance history to how historical issues affect the modern interpretation of Renaissance art. This is an equally valid path of inquiry that perhaps deserves its own section, but one which should not replace essays that illustrate the direct interplay between art and history. As intelligent and insightful as Moxey and Byrnes' essays are, their contributions to this volume would have been greatly enhanced by the addition of other art historical essays on topics in Netherlandish or Spanish art. Even McCaskey's narrower but fascinating contribution concerns the art of Counter-Reformation Rome, and is therefore linked to the other essays on only a theoretical level.

The third and last unit of the book, "New Historicism and Representation" presents essays that share common themes most successfully. All of the essays concern Elizabethan England. They address issues related to the emerging power of the English state and the different ways in which this control was reacted to and represented in literature. Louis Montrose's "Form and Pressure: Shakepearean Drama and the Elizabethan State" documents the uneasy relationship between the theater and the central government. Taking issue with scholars who claim that the theater reinforced the political status quo as well as with those who claim its marginality, Montrose uses the performance of Richard II on the eve of the Essex revolt to demonstrate that the theater was then considered to be a powerful tool of political persuasion, even if it was only intermittently effective. Montrose discusses the circumstances under which Shakespeare's Richard II was performed as means to understanding both contemporary interpretations of the play and contemporary perceptions of the theater.

William O. Scott, in his "Reading History, Reading Power, Reading Plays: Graham Holderness on Shakespeare's History Plays," also addresses history and ideology in Richard II (among other plays). He takes the text of the play and Holderness' interpretations as his points of departure. Although Scott's stated project is to assess the merits of Holderness' historical method, he also offers his own new insights into Shakespeare based on internal and external evidence. Much of success of Scott's essay lies in his ability to carry on an active dialogue with Holderness about Shakespeare, an approach that necessarily leads to complex, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions. With Holderness, Scott asks what history meant for Shakespeare. Scott evaluates Holderness' general conclusion that Shakespeare's history plays illustrate the decline of feudalism and the rise of the royal absolutist state. Noting Holderness' desire to present Shakespeare as a somewhat detached observer whose characters reflect their historical personae more than their contemporary counterparts, Scott ultimately embraces a Shakespeare who depicts history and struggles for power in the early monarchy for what they are and not as "ideological mirrors." Scott's essay nicely complements Montrose's for they both address Richard II within the wider context of historical circumstance, historical perception, and ideology. Montrose concentrates on a particular historical production of the play, while Scott focuses on the text.

David Kinahan's "Embodying Origins: An Anatomy of a Yeoman's Daughter, Spenser's Argante, and Elizabeth I" begins with a pamphlet that describes a monstrous infant born of an amoral mother. Kinahan parallels the mother's incestuous relations and her unwillingness to participate in the socially sanctioned marriage rite, to contemporary criticisms of Elizabeth. Because of her lineage and because of her refusal to marry, Elizabeth was associated with a "monstrous body politic." On the basis of this historical situation, Kinahan analyzes Spenser's figures of Argante and Britomart whom he sees as indirectly representing the benefits and perils of Elizabeth's political choices. As Tricomi insightfully notes, both Kinahan and Montrose expose the vulnerability of the Elizabethan state using very different interpretive means.

The success of part three as a unit in some ways shows the triumph of history. The essays work together because they cover the same period and place. If one of the great strengths of the book is the variety of interesting historical points that the different essays make, it is also one if its weaknesses when viewed as a totality. Because the various studies address such disparate topics, they become most comparable on a theoretical level--an uncomfortable situation for a book about the ascendancy of historical contextualization. As the third part of the book demonstrates, issues of methodology are best delineated when circumscribed within an historical and geographical frame. For this reader at least, the broad themes of "history/methodology" and "Renaissance" are not quite enough to make book cohere because the historical circumstances in the different countries are not really comparable and so many different types of evidence is used. More cross-referencing within the individual essays might have helped remedy this. For example, many authors touched on religious issues relating to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation--important historical themes which, if brought into greater relief, might have added further unity to the project (but almost certainly at the expense of the essays' individual arguments).

The wealth of historical materials used by the various authors and the perspicuity of their analyses furthermore invites the question as to why theoretical attention to the type of artistic medium or source being interpreted was not offered. How do we (and/or how should we) approach a poem or a painting or an "invective" as an historical document? How should we read it in relation to a letter describing an event or a philosophical tract? Moxey's essay raised the problem of aesthetic judgment in the visual arts, emphasizing that all such determinations are subjective but also reminding the reader that aesthetic considerations--perhaps according to different criteria than our own--were more involved in the creation of certain types of historical artifacts than in others. In this volume, some of these aesthetic qualities are unfortunately lost in the dearth of illustrations and in translations which replace primary texts--even unpublished archival documents (leaving the reader with no easy means of consulting the original). Oddly, at other points where the original phrasing is of little importance, no translations are provided. This last is a very small point, yet it suggests a certain inconsistency in the book as a whole with respect to how close textual readings and aesthetic considerations may inform contextual historical arguments.

These minor criticisms aside, anyone who reads these essays will be substantially enriched. By "assessing the results" of others, the reader will automatically think more critically about the place of cultural history in his own scholarship-- about how he can make historical context count.,