15.08.42, Biow, On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy

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Michael Levin

The Medieval Review 15.08.42

Biow, Douglas. On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards. Hanley Foundation Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. 328. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4671-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Levin
The University of Akron

Jacob Burckhardt's seminal book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, now over a hundred and fifty years old, still casts a long shadow on Renaissance Studies. While most modern scholars believe that Burckhardt got all or much of it wrong, his ideas about the Italian Renaissance still inspire (or provoke) valuable insights to this day. One of the latest examples is Douglas Biow's new book, which takes a fresh look at one of Burckhardt's main concerns, the idea of "the individual" in Renaissance Italy. While Biow disagrees with many of Burckhardt's assertions on this topic (for instance, that the Italian Renaissance marked the "birth" of the modern individual), he also argues that many modern scholars have gone too far in dismissing the entire idea of Renaissance individual identity. In his effort to re-establish individualism as crucial for sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance culture, Biow displays deep knowledge of Italian Renaissance literature, humanism, philosophy, and art.

More specifically, Biow focuses on the centrality, and performance, of individual identity for a wide variety of Italian Renaissance men. As he writes, one of his dominant themes is "the importance of being an individual in light of the period's conceptualizing of male identities" (9). Throughout the book Biow emphasizes how men strove to self-identify both as members of a social or professional community, and also as unique individuals. Biow acknowledges that he opens himself to criticism by excluding women from his study, but as he points out, most of the literature of the time was written by and for men. He also suggests that the issue of manliness was particularly problematic for Italian men in the sixteenth century, given the political subjugation of Italy and the increasing demands of court culture. Biow thus explores the theory and practice of how to be a man in the late Italian Renaissance, using three different lenses: the rise of professionalism, the cultural ideal of being a "maverick," and the prevalence and symbolic meaning of men wearing beards.

The first two chapters (or "reflections," as Biow describes them in his chapter titles) focus on the importance of male professional identity in the Italian Renaissance. Biow begins by contextualizing the increasing importance of professionalization in the sixteenth century, by connecting it with the ancient Greek and Roman concepts of techne and ars--complex conceits that combined theoretical knowledge of art with mastery of a physical craft. Through the ancient and medieval periods, professions that involved physical labor tended to be denigrated, but this begins to change in the Renaissance; furthermore, Biow argues, "for the first time since the classical period we witness a sustained, full-fledged theorizing about the [professional] practices in question in significant discursive form" (40-41). A remarkable number of Italian Renaissance men, from different social classes, published works describing the theory and practice of their craft. Biow analyzes many of these professional manuals that so typify the writings of the period, from the famous works of Castiglione, Cellini, and Machiavelli, to more obscure texts such as a 1540 treatise on metallurgy by Vannoccio Biringuccio. Biow points out the inherent, and intentional, paradoxes of these works. On the one hand, these texts purport to teach the techniques required for professional success, whether one is a courtier, a goldsmith, or a prince; along the way, each author also champions "the social and cultural value of the art he professes to teach" (38). On the other hand, these same authors deliberately mystify their professions, implying that truly extraordinary masters of their craft, such as the authors themselves, possess some kind of innate greatness that cannot really be taught to others. Either you have it or you don't, and often the writers don't define what "it" really is. (Castiglione, for example, insisted that a successful courtier must possess sprezzatura or "effortless grace," but never explained how to acquire it.) These texts are thus what Biow terms "ego documents," which emphasize the authors' elite status, and more importantly, their unique, individual style.

Biow's analysis of Renaissance professional manuals also adds nuance to our understanding of Renaissance humanism. Biow sharply criticizes several influential modern interpretations of humanism, particularly Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) and Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine's From Humanism to the Humanities (1986). According to Biow, humanism, professionalism, and individualism were all closely related, and of vital importance, in the Italian Renaissance; they were not just social constructs or empty rhetorical devices. Biow also indicates that many Italian humanist writers displayed a complicated relationship with their own humanism. Guicciardini, for example, in his famous Ricordi cited many examples in his text, as any good humanist would, but at the same time he questioned the usefulness of examples. Like the other writers Biow cites, Guicciardini simultaneously claimed to be teaching something, such as the importance of discretion, while also implying that discretion cannot be taught. Biow argues that this paradox typifies the performance of manhood in the late Italian Renaissance.

In the second section of the book, Biow focuses on two examples of Italian Renaissance "mavericks": men who publicly displayed their unique, individual talents and style, by demonstrating mastery of their professional craft while simultaneously defying the norms. While both men were associated with Venice, they also came from different worlds. One, Leonardo Fioravanti, was a physician, world traveler, and showman; the other, Jacopo Tintoretto, was one of the most famous painters of the late Venetian Renaissance. The chapter on Fioravanti reinforces many of the same themes described above. In his treatises on medicine, Fioravanti promoted himself as a medical marvel: despite not having an academic degree, he was able to perform miracle cures. His writings dispensed practical advice, garnered through experience rather than from books, but also advertised his unique abilities; he thus presented himself as "at once inimitable and exemplary" (134). This "maverick" doctor was a man in control of what he did, and of how he wanted to be seen, as demonstrated by the books he wrote.

In chapter four, instead of analyzing a written text, Biow focuses on a particular visual image: one of Tintoretto's lesser-known works, "Jews in the Desert" (1591-92). At the center of this unusual painting are the figures of two washerwomen. Biow speculates about the meaning of these figures, by placing them in the context of the general topos of cleanliness in Venetian culture. According to Biow, Tintoretto was showing off both his artistic skill and his ability to improvise off of a central element of the myth of Venice, the idea of the city's civic and spiritual purity. By ostentatiously placing the image of washerwomen at the center of his painting, Tintoretto "marked his individuality within the context of the collectivity of Venetian culture and its pervasive, sustaining myths" (168). This chapter, while interesting, is not quite as convincing as the previous ones; it feels like Biow (who is not an art historian) is reaching somewhat for his conclusions.

Visual elements are also central to the last two chapters--specifically the evident ubiquity of facial hair among sixteenth-century Italian men. Biow starts with a simple question: why are beards so rare in Italian Renaissance male portraits before 1500, and so common afterwards? Here again Biow's conclusions seem rather speculative. He suggests that in the fifteenth century, the elite men of the Italian city/states went clean-shaven, to distinguish themselves from their rural inferiors; but because of the foreign invasions of 1494, and the increasing importance of hierarchical courtly society in Italy, sixteenth-century Italian men felt insecure, and wearing beards was a way to reassert their masculinity. He also suggests that beards were fashionable because they were markers of self-fashioning; they marked both communal identity (each city and region had its own local style of beard), and individual identity (my beard is my own). All of this may well be true, but Biow does not necessarily prove it (although the many illustrations in this chapter do show an impressive amount of facial hair in late Renaissance Italian art). In the final chapter, Biow returns to firmer ground, with an analysis of the little-known comic play "Candelaio" by Giordano Bruno. This play, Bruno's only major work of fiction, prominently features characters of both sexes wearing false beards, in what Biow calls a "conspicuous staging of the self through role playing" (207). As the characters alternately mask and unmask themselves with beards, it becomes clear that the beards are "symbolically charged objects," suggesting cultural anxieties about masculine identity. Biow may not have all of the answers, but he is evidently on to something concerning the obsession with beards in late Renaissance Italy.

In his epilogue, Biow reiterates the themes of the book, especially his most important contention: that in the late Italian Renaissance, many men truly did think of themselves as "individuals." As Biow himself suggests, many scholars in our postmodern world may find his book naïve or retrograde, but he has marshaled an impressive amount of evidence. Modern scholars of the Italian Renaissance may disagree with Biow, but they will not be able to ignore him.

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