Susan R. Boettcher

title.none: Mack, Looking at the Renaissance (Susan R. Boettcher)

identifier.other: baj9928.0608.015 06.08.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Susan R. Boettcher, University of Texas at Austin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Mack, Charles R. Looking at the Renaissance: Essays toward a Contextual Appreciation. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. 216. $65.00 0-472-09890-X. ISBN: $24.95 0-472-06890-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.08.15

Mack, Charles R. Looking at the Renaissance: Essays toward a Contextual Appreciation. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. 216. $65.00 0-472-09890-X. ISBN: $24.95 0-472-06890-3.

Reviewed by:

Susan R. Boettcher
University of Texas at Austin

The narrative of the European Renaissance shared by scholars in the Anglophone world has been disintegrating for almost half a century; in fact, Christopher Celenza termed the Italian Renaissance "lost" in the title of a recent book. The synthetic arguments of luminaries such as Ernst Cassirer, Hans Baron, Paul Oskar Kristeller and Charles Trinkaus lie in the distant past. No scholarly unifying view of the Italian Renaissance worthy of sharing with non-specialists has emerged since the early 1970s. Many scholars continue to engage critically with Jacob Burckhardt despite the fact that many of his generalizations have been drawn into question by empirical studies because no similarly compelling synthesis has emerged since the nineteenth century, a problem Celenza also discusses. Hence, any serious attempt to create a consolidating view of this elusive movement will provoke astonishment, at least at first. Yet this is just what Mack, Professor of Art History at the University of South Carolina, attempts to do in this book. Mack's previous publications include books and edited volumes on a surprising array of topics from Renaissance Pienza to watercolors of the last half-millenium to South Carolina pottery to Francis Lieber (a nineteenth-century German immigrant to the United States). Reviewers who praised his book on Pienza mentioned in particular his capacity for drawing disparate materials together into a compact picture. Though the book is an art history, it bases a number of its arguments on these larger arguments about the Renaissance in general. Mack is clearly accustomed to thinking about the big picture.

The book is concise, indeed terse, comprised of only 120 pages of text. The narrative makes resort to some of the most tried and true ideas about the Italian Renaissance, and indeed, Mack relishes the examination and reaffirmation of many common judgments under attack in the last two generations. Mack's largest argument is about the ultimate unity of vision shared by Renaissance art. This vision began in the Quattrocento, was oriented in the present world (as opposed to what Mack calls the otherworldliness of medieval art) and focused on an ideal of naturalism. Originating in Florence, the movement sought models for this ideal in the remnants of ancient past it found all around it. In its religious attitudes, Renaissance art abandoned the barrier that medieval art drew between the object and its spectator, instead using perspective and other visual techniques to draw the viewer into the events of the painting and serve as "the actual instrument through which [one] might attain a state of spiritual rapture" (29). A primary technique used in achieving this task was the evocation of emotion. Different examples demonstrate the unity of Renaissance vision throughout; for example, Renaissance architects continued building structures in the style of their original designs, even when that style had been superseded (as opposed to medieval builders who altered their plans as techniques developed). The quintessential expression of the combination of human power and visual unity is Leonardo's "Vitruvian Man" (c. 1485-90). The unified vision led to a new conception of the artist and his contribution to the artistic product.

As this summary suggests, the contrast drawn here to medieval art, and indeed to the medieval worldview more generally, could not be stronger. Mack asserts: "the medieval mind saw this world as a list of unconnected elements, the harmonizing of which was a matter for heavenly concern; the new Renaissance consciousness believed that God had imposed an order upon this world that could and should be understood and, consequently, represented" (33). It is difficult to fit conceptions of Aquinas's confidence in the reconcilability of the revealed truths of faith with the products of reason or medieval notions of the great chain of being with its ideas about man's intimate connection with all elements of the created and divine universe into this picture. The tenability of this notion is dependent on limiting the alleged theological fusion of the ancient heritage with Christianity to Renaissance neo-Platonism; as soon as we expand our definition of antiquity to include Aristotle we are perforce thrown back into the twelfth century as the location of this rhetorical activity. But Mack is unable to find this intellectual unity of vision reproduced in twelfth century art, charging plausibly that Nicola Pisano's "Nativity" (1260) from the Pisa baptistery, "for all its novelty and overt classicism, remains an assemblage of antique quotations loosely strung together and not a true synthesis of classical past with spiritual present" (33).

As readers and viewers we treasure many of these arguments, not least because they resonate positively with the great synthetic moments of previous commentators. Many artistic judgments reflect Alberti, who Mack quotes liberally and with approval throughout. The discussion of the "regenerative impulse" (85) of Italian art demonstrated amply and credibly here owes its rationale to Vasari and his insistence that contemporaries had not only rescued but even more superseded ancient artistic ideals. Emphasis on Renaissance confidence in the perfectability of humanity reminds us of Trinkaus and (insofar as Mack also repeats the "individualism" thesis as applied to artists) Trinkaus's appropriations from Burckhardt. Given these allegiances, Mack's argument is open to many of the charges made by Trinkaus's critics, including his suppression of trends in neo-Platonism that were antithetical to his position. Those who incline more toward continuity views of late medieval and early modern history will find, as Heiko Oberman wrote of Trinkaus, that Mack overstates differences in the views of human potential between the late middle ages and Renaissance. Personally, I find the argument about the Renaissance vision of unity sympathetic, and indeed the focus of Renaissance thinkers on the desirability of unity and efforts toward it (however incoherent and at times self-contradictory) can be traced back into the early Renaissance, although it is much more useful as a hermeneutic tool for understanding the northern Renaissance, upon which Mack briefly touches in his conclusion.

Still, readers will find it hard to forget that important tendencies also militate against the "unified vision" of the Renaissance. Readers aware of the ways in which this vision disintegrated even as it was forming may simply feel compelled to part ways with this analysis. Much of the time Mack extends the unified vision of the Renaissance he describes to his own readings of Renaissance artists who seem to function as independent agents producing a coherent oeuvre. Curiously, Mack dismisses concerns about an apparent fragmentation of Donatello's style which has come to light since the revised dating of the "St John" to 1435 a challenge to his argument but rather as evidence "of a complex personality capable of pursuing divergent approaches in his art" (55). His argument works best for the visual art which is its focus; in interpreting history, Mack finds himself on less certain ground. Indeed, one is frequently struck by the way that this book's readings of non-visual evidence undermine themselves: Castiglione's "Courtier" is taken as evidence of a Renaissance focus on social harmony rather than as a manual for surviving the perilous moments of court life that could lead to an individual's political destruction. Mack links the search for visual unity to the centralizing state of the period, but omits a discussion of widespread Renaissance lamentation about the fragmentation of the Italian city-states and the divided loyalties of its citizens (a particular problem after the French invasion of 1494). Indeed, the states of Europe which he describes as allegedly new locations of personal allegiances were largely territorial political organizations that impeded the activities of "universalizing" political entities like the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy by the sixteenth century.

Such criticisms are interpretive matters; a reader with more actively postmodern or political sympathies than Mack displays here will simply disagree. Other readings offered in the book will be harder to rationalize. Can we swallow that polyphone (even if limited to Italy) polyphony gave way to homophony by the mid-sixteenth century (p. 106)- -what about Palestrina? I was troubled, given the role of Aristotelianism in medieval intellectual history, by the statement that "[t]he Middle Ages had found its authority solely in Scripture" (83); indeed, Renaissance humanism was a major force in creating such an ideal that was only developing in the wake of the western schism and in such a flatly-stated form is more appropriately located in the Reformation. Finally, Mack's desire to link the Renaissance and Christopher Columbus's excursion to the Americas seems overly optimistic. Mack wants Columbus's intrepid journey to witness to a confidence based on Ptolemaic ideals paralleled in the move from two to three dimensions in Italian art--he terms both symptomatic of a "new quest for harmony" (103)--but anyone familiar with Columbus's diaries is aware that he was moved as much by greed as by wanderlust or the desire to demonstrate his navigational skills, and certainly not by a desire for unity.

So while Mack's reading of the Renaissance has its appeals, it also runs into difficulties. Despite these problems, however, the book has a number of remarkable strengths, not least in terms of the coherent prose style and easy accessibility of its argumentation. Indeed, one primary advantage of Mack's analysis lies in its argumentation on the basis of the central canon of Italian Renaissance art; anyone familiar with its central works should be able to follow Mack's evidence without problems. The book includes 78 black and white illustrations. Mack states in the introduction that he tried the text of this book out on his graduate seminars, and one suspects that it would indeed serve well as a reading for discussion. Insofar as it is capable of elucidating significant dispute as well as agreement, it might be especially useful as an upper division undergraduate course reading. Given its compactness and the number of objections that readers will be able to raise to his generalizations, Mack's volume should thus be seen primarily as an erudite reading rather than a definitive synthesis--a reading and a truly big picture that upon reflection will provoke respect for the bravery of its author's vision if not our agreement with every detail of its argument.