The Medieval Review 16.12.12


Rose, Marice and Alison C. Poe, eds. Receptions of Antiquity, Constructions of Gender in European Art, 1300-1600. Metaforms, 3. Boston: Brill, 2015. pp. xvi, 468. $181.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-90-04-27874-5 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Natasha Amendola
Monash University, Australia
natasha.amendola@monash.edu

Receptions of Antiquity, Constructions of Gender in European Art, 1300-1600 commenced as a session chaired by the editors, Marice Rose and Alison C. Poe, at the 2013 College Art Association Annual Conference. Several other scholars then added to the collection to create a volume of twelve essays. The editors are to be congratulated on collecting and publishing such a range of essays so quickly. It is part of a series published by Brill, Metaforms, dealing specifically with classical reception. This is a topic with burgeoning scholarly interest as the influence of social and cultural issues on representations is understood. Art in the context of this book is visual, including painting and sculpture; this latter category is extended to engage with gardens, a locus for many of the sculptural items discussed in the essays. Each essay places gender at the forefront of the discussion, but the approaches to the topic are quite varied. For this reason, it was probably sensible for the editors to structure the text chronologically. There are, however, some regular themes or topics covered by some essays. For example, the first two essays introduce the role of the feminine as mediator between the material world and redemption in the next and several essays deal with gender ambiguity referring to the classical figure of Hercules. This means that although each essay is a separate work, some cohesion is obtained by addressing similar themes.

The first essay is a detailed analysis of the image of personified Fortitude in the Arena Chapel by Mary D. Edwards. This representation of Fortitude by Giotto is clearly female, as would be expected for a post-classical personification, but it also has attributes consistent with Hercules. Instead of interpreting this to mean that Fortitude is assuming characteristics more typical of a dominant male figure, Edwards argues for understanding the allusion to Hercules in an alternate role, one of the male submitting to a female seeking redemption. This argument is scaffolded by revisiting ancient myths, recognising the available sources for the content and the social context for this painting. Furthermore, the essay is followed by two appendices containing the pertinent source material. It is an inspiring opening essay and sets the scene for later interpretations of how gender could be interpreted in the context of classical reception in Europe.

A book on classical reception cannot overlook the importance of Ovid and reworking of his Metamorphoses in the medieval period. The second essay recognises the relevance of Ovid's principal work by providing a cohesive summary of the intellectual arc from Troy, Greece, Rome and finally to France, and this text's role in maintaining the links. This provides the background for analysing the role of the classical figure of Europa. Ashley A. Simone interprets the later European representations of Europa, via French translations of Ovid's text, as fulfilling a pivotal Christian role, as a liminal figure who guides the soul to God. Europa is thus explained as the figural embodiment of the sponsa or bride from the Song of Songs, leading the medieval reader to the sponsus, or Christ. As in the first essay, the feminine is implicated in the redemption of man.

The female body has the potential to be read in other ways, as becomes clear in "A Giant Corrupt Body: The Gendering of Renaissance Roma." This third essay in this series discusses the various meanings of the gendered Roma in the Renaissance, while noting their various similarities to less-gendered representations. The essay's opening quotation by Poggio Bracciolini draws attention to the way aging on the female form has a significance that cannot be so easily managed if working with male bodies; the aging female body points to a potentially fecund past which cannot be repeated. In this instance, the city of Rome no longer has the potential to produce great men. Roma, however, was not always represented in a clear-cut female form, appearing at times with features of both genders. This allows for comparisons to other figures of questionable gender, that is, hermaphrodites, to demonstrate the benefits of intersexual interpretations. Intersexual features of Roma provide fertile grounds for interpreting various aspects of the historical city, especially in dichotomous terms, like "Christian/secular, new/old, progressive/static, living/dead" (127). These have particular significance when considering the reinterpretation of the figure of Roma as the newer city of the Renaissance and beyond came to terms with the old city being revealed among the ruins.

The multivalence of interpretation is an important feature in Stephanie C. Leone's essay, "Luca Signorelli's Veturia Persuading Coriolanus to Spare Rome and Viewers in the Palazzo Petrucci, Siena." Traditionally, this image has been interpreted as a call to individuals to virtue. Leone demonstrates, however, how the image had the potential to engage with a variety of discourses current in Renaissance political thought such as the role of the state/laws; female silence/agency; and social transitions for men and women and the consequent shifts in roles. This is achieved by imagining the painting within its historic room among the other paintings which dealt with similar political and social themes.

Picking up the theme of gender ambiguity already encountered in the essay on embodying Roma, Timothy C. Smith uses the term 'queer' to interpret a painting of Niccolo de Tulda being beheaded. The angle and form of the body echoes the classical Belvedere Torso. Although this figure is generally understood to be male, its incompleteness and identification with the figure Hercules, provides potential to confound simple gender attribution. The presence of this painting in the chapel containing Saint Catherine's head, Smith argues, allows for a conflation of the genders of these two figures. Thus, Saint Catherine can be imagined being beheaded; she becomes the martyr about to join her spouse in heaven.

The sixth essay by Maria F. Maurer uses social context to offer different ways of reading images of Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë was renowned for having seduced a bull, an action which challenges the early Renaissance conception of passive female sexuality. Three alternate visual interpretations of this event have been associated with the Gonzaga household of sixteenth-century Mantua. Maurer argues for a blurring of the boundaries between licit and illicit sexual practices in these images as they can be seen to both reify normative gender binaries but also celebrate active female sexuality, a potential advantage in a dynastic household.

The gender of the reader is not a factor in April Oettinger's analysis of Lorenzo Lotto's "Venus and Cupid." Instead, the author suggests that the recumbent Venus is a type of Nymph of the Spring and it therefore associated with poetic inspiration. Using very descriptive language...evoking perhaps the idea of poetry which is associated with voluptas in the title of this essay...Oettinger argues for this image as representing not just a celebration of human marriage and the delights of sensual engagement, but also as a representation of the delights of combining Art and Nature.

The longue durée is explored in Patricia Simons' "The Crone, the Witch and the Library: The Intersection of Classical Fantasy with Christian Vice during the Italian Renaissance." The inclusion of Circe, the classical temptress who was able to turn men into swine, highlights how powerful/evil women were not always imagined as old and ugly. Simons points out that there was a discord in representation even in the early modern period when women were being tried as witches; the images of witches as naked, old and ugly did not reflect the reality of the women on trial. She suggests that this distanced the early modern onlookers from developing empathy for the victims even as they burned at the stake.

The ongoing influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses within the medieval and early modern gender discourse is apparent in the ninth essay, "Picturing Rape and Revenge in Ovid's Myth of Philomela" by Hetty Joyce. Various visual representations of the myth are discussed demonstrating the largely absent images of what we may consider to be key features of the story. Instead of depicting the rape of Philomela, which could arguably be read ambiguously, many representations focused on the removal of her tongue; cutting out someone's tongue with a knife cannot be misinterpreted and is clearly an abuse of power. Even the weaving, constructed by silent Philomela to communicate to her sister, is largely overlooked in painted retellings, but can be found in some textile representations, a particular on a valance. Joyce argues that this is a conscious choice on the part of the woman who would have embroidered the scene to present Philomela not as "innocent victim or cruel avenger", but as a creator of peaceful resistance.

Another Italian city represented as a woman in the Renaissance was Florence, the subject of the next chapter, "Figuring Florence: Gendered Bodies in Sixteenth-Century Personifications and their Antique Models" by Claudia Lazzaro. Paired with the essay on Rome, it becomes clear that there was no clear-cut interpretative framework for interpreting the female. As a woman, Florence could be read as conquered or conqueror, as lover and nurturer, or as the fecund progenitor of virility. For Lazzaro, the distinction between the cities of Rome and Florence as read through their gendered representations was the importance of fertility for Florence, especially while under the care of the Medici dukedom.

Ian Verstegen discusses the social role of wives as providers of heirs in sixteenth-century Italy by contrasting representations of Creusa in paintings of the flight from Troy. Unlike other representations of the event in which the idea of flight is paramount, the painting by Barocci of "Aeneas' Flight from Troy" presents a submissive Creusa, bowing out to accommodate the future dynastic needs of her husband. This painting was produced in a social context where women's roles were bound to their ability to link powerful families, but in this situation, a different role was posited. Conjugal piety as represented by Barocci's Creusa, Verstegen argues, reflects the importance of female sacrifice for the benefit of patrilineal inheritance.

The final essay in the series returns us to the garden, this time with our gaze fixed upon the nude statues enclosed within. Katherine Bentz analyses the reception of ancient statuary and the importance of decorum. As more ancient materials were uncovered, particularly around Rome, many used the artefacts to celebrate their Roman identity. Despite their popularity, there were many detractors who believed the preservation of these materials, especially in public spaces, was dangerous. The pagan nature of the subject matter upset some, as did the nakedness of some of these ancient statues. Nudity was problematic due to its ability to inspire desire and thus corrupt, but not for all. Academic interest of both artists and clerics justified the celebration of ancient statuary for some. Women were not necessarily excluded from their vicinity, but the records of collectors, suppliers and garden designers make it clear that men were the imagine audience for these garden decorations.

As is often found with such books, there is variability among the essays, but the overall quality is excellent. There are numerous figures included within the essays demonstrating the care with which each scholar considered the evidence for their claims. All of these figures are listed toward the front of the book. It finishes with a substantive index which I believe is essential in such a varied collection of essays. Each essay is self-contained with footnotes and bibliography making it ideal for those who just want to photocopy one part. The variety of approaches to the topic of gender in the reception of classical art highlights how fruitful this topic is. The overall effect is the demolition of static, prescriptive notions of gender over the period in question and to demonstrate the multivalence of many classical motifs.



Copyright (c) 2017 Natasha Amendola



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