Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2000
Marcia Hall After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the Sixteenth Century New York and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 349 pp.; 16 color ills.; 188 b/w ills. Paper $18.95 (0521482453)

This important survey of sixteenth-century Italian painting following Raphael’s death in 1520 treats one of the most popular and stimulating periods for recent art historical enquiry. Authoritative and provocative, the author shows a close awareness of previous art historical scholarship and incorporates the latest research into a text covering art from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the Farnese Gallery. This type of survey of Italian painting, while remaining consistently popular in Italy, is particularly needed for an English readership as nothing has been attempted on this scale for the Renaissance since the 1960s.

The book originated in the classroom, as evidenced by its clear structure and direct prose. There is a tendency to concentrate on individual artists, but the larger developments remain always in view. It is an effort that students can perhaps judge better than other scholars, and certainly much of its value rests in the accessibility of the writing and abundant illustrations totaling about two hundred, including a number of general views, particularly to be commended. Equally praiseworthy is the author’s willingness to interlace prints and drawings with the more familiar paintings, as students need constant reminders that such objects are critical visual documents for understanding the art of any period.

The concentration of the book is on Rome and Florence, while avoiding Venice and Naples (and areas further south). In tracing the diaspora of Raphael’s style from central Italy, the author treats Perino del Vaga in Genoa and Giulio Romano in Mantua, but not Polidoro da Caravaggio after the Sack of Rome of 1527, when he headed south. Although there were significant public examples of Raphael’s work there, perhaps the author did not wish to explore the quite amazing style of a Raphael follower who appears, in southern Italy, to have rejected the lessons learned from his master. The text is divided into seven lengthy chapters moving roughly in chronological order, though some difficulties arise, such as the presentation of the art of Florence under Duke Cosimo de’ Medici following the Counter-Reformation in Rome.

The method is distinguished by rich formal descriptions of specific paintings, but the analysis of style is enlightened by the different issues of physical context and contemporary writing about art. Similarly, the role of patronage, iconography and the revival antiquity, i.e. questions that students of the subject will want to know something about, are all fully accounted for in the text. There are, however, some jarring moves from public to private that should be qualified for the reader who may not know the originals, as in the discussion of Vasari’s Immaculate Conception altarpiece for a chapel in Santi Apostoli in Florence just prior to Bronzino’s Cosimo as Orpheus in the Johnson Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, certainly one of the most private and frankly erotic images from this period. Mercifully, the approach is not ideological and there is no obfuscating jargon. The author is at ease when enthusiastically describing the visual force of works of art.

The breadth of argument inspires many original general points that are praiseworthy, as in the integration of Pinturrichio and Jacopo Ripanda into the debate over the antiquarian revival near the start of the sixteenth century that feeds into one of Raphael’s pursuits in Rome. At the other end of the book, the linking of Caravaggio to the debates over religious reform in the Catholic Church rather than emphasizing alone his formal stylistic rebellion, is refreshing. There is also a valuable account of Vasari as a painter as opposed to writer—a subject on which literature is already abundant.

At many points the author of this type of synthesis is naturally at the mercy of specialized literature, and it is perhaps unfair to point out niggling errors, but much text is devoted to some of these. As noted above, Polidoro da Caravaggio is, in general, not especially well treated. There are, for example, some published drawings (74) for his facade paintings in the Morgan Library, the École des Beaux-Arts, and Weimar, among other places. Likewise, the Chantilly drawing of an altarpiece cannot possibly be for the S. Silvestro al Quirinale chapel (78), an image the author interprets at length in spurious relation to its patron, but it was certainly drawn later in Sicily after the Sack of Rome.

Some concerns have broader implications. By treating the period starting ca. 1520 now typically called Mannerism, the traditional dichotomy between the High Renaissance and Mannerist is maintained. The idea of the High Renaissance as a supremely unified period of harmonies and symmetries, counter to which so-called Mannerist art with all its indulgences and eccentricities formed, remains implicit in this and most other books on sixteenth-century art, though it is a model that is ripe for reassessment. Even accepting this premise, and despite many important new insights, the book is not especially groundbreaking in its treatment of broader style terms, and throughout the author depends on familiar labels like “Classic” and “Maniera.” While understandably introduced as a shorthand for large concepts to be easily recalled by students, who are always grateful for dependable, preset containers for individual works and artists, these terms remain a problematic and dogmatic tendency in the literature.

Any new insights produced in this book into the received style terms such as “Mannerism,” while genuine, are of a fairly subtle significance, and the text is basically recognizable to anyone revisiting the literature of the 1970s, when the debate concerning these terms seems to have peaked. Rather than radically rewriting the history of sixteenth-century Italian painting, therefore, the text crystallizes in an easily digestable form the debate as it stood three or four decades ago. The treatment of the ideas of Sydney Freedberg, to whom the book is dedicated, is particularly reverential. Not coincidentally, Professor Freedberg was the last to attempt a grand survey of this type in English. Yet this respect for previous scholarship in After Raphael is somewhat to be lamented because the writer stresses so much more fully the relevance of historical context for comprehending these difficult images, and this seems to be the area through which progress can be made toward a new understanding of the period.

Even though appearing in Vasari’s two editions of the Lives of the Artists of 1550 and 1568, terms like “maniera” are not that conducive to the practicalities of picture making, and his terminology arguably belongs to a different cultural realm. Unfortunately the author avoids confronting the quite devastating essay by J. Stumpel (“Speaking of Manner,” Word and Image 4 1988: 246-64), which effectively challenged the direction of the debates of the 1970s. Usages in contemporary writing of a word that indicates routinely working from memory rather than from the model simply do not justify the use of Mannerism in any positive sense, as has been frequently maintained or implied in the literature. In undermining the use of maniera as a defining term, “classical” could be added to the list, for classicism is a nineteenth-century literary construct. The completely ahistorical use of words like “classic” and “sfumato” for undergraduates is perhaps not so damaging as long as they are always qualified.

Any text with an argument as strong as this one will leave its victims. Here in a desire to promote the primacy of a sculptural style of painting (and so more all’antica) as the dominant one in the period, frequent parallels are drawn between Florence and Rome to the detriment of the former. This can appear artificial and produces some strange statements, such as criticizing Pontormo’s enthralling Borgherini bed panels, which were the artist’s greatest work for Vasari, against Sodoma’s rather unwieldy and monumental fresco of Alexander and Roxanne for Agostino Chigi in the Farnesina (56-57). It may have been more fruitful to elaborate further on the intense artistic rivalry between the painters who practiced in both cities. In general, the discussion about Florence seems less sensitive to the beauty of individual work nor is it as comprehensive: the importance of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s workshop is completely ignored. Certainly it is possible to discover a crisis and decline in Florentine art of the sixteenth century, but not according to the model elaborated here, and, ultimately, the parts of the book dealing with Rome, where Raphael’s style cast its longest shadow, are the most successful and thought provoking.

David Franklin
Curator of Prints & Drawings, National Gallery of Canada