bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Cult of the Renaissance in modern Britain

Posted in British Renaissance interest by bonaelitterae on 1 January, 2010

I share with that simpatico scholar, John Law, a hobby of collecting signs of late modern British interest in the Renaissance. Littered in our nation’s churches, often autonomous or, if signed, by amateur female artists, are paintings, tapestries and other pieces which attempt to recreate the style of Renaissance art. Some can be quite accomplished, others much less so. As I singularly failed to send out Christmas cards this year, what follows is by way of a belated substitute, intended for John’s enjoyment.

A couple of months ago I visited the church of St Michael’s, Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It is one of those churches where nineteenth-century restoration has obscured much of its medieval character: for instance, it is clear that there was once a side chapel in what is now the south transept, since visible in the chancel is one end of a squint, through which the chapel celebrant would have been able to spy the high altar as mass was being performed. It is now blocked in and there is no sign of it from the transept. But what there is, on the west wall, is a small canvas, depicting the Madonna and Child.

Madonna and Child

This, as you can see, does not fall into the accomplished category; perhaps it is best that, in this instance, there is no evidence for its creator. There is no information in the church to enlighten us of its origins; to guess from its appearance, it is surely from the first half of the twentieth century.  What interests me is that its arrangement of the main figures, with a standing red-head child Christ held by His blue-caped mother, suggests a familiarity with the treatments of that theme by Giovanni Bellini (as, for instance, in The Madonna of the Trees in the Accademia), a style which found an earlier northern imitator in Albrecht Durer. However, the gathering of the angels in the background around the two figures suggest that a major or additional influence might have been Andrea Mantegna’s painting of this subject, now in the Brera. If you, though, can think of any other source, I would be most grateful for advice.

What seems most likely, though, is that this painting, like some others I have seen, suggests an interest in Renaissance art which focuses not on the Florentine tradition but instead turns for inspiration to north-east Italy and to the Veneto. Let me cite just one other example: there is an imitation of Perugino’s Certosa Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) close to the Atlantic coastline in the church of St. Materiana, Tintagel; its artist is one of those women to whom I alluded above: her name is recorded as Miss Laura Dickinson. But, so that I do not create the impression that the art of Florence was entirely forgotten by these British imitators, I should add that the same church of Tintagel includes another painting by another woman artist (noted as ‘Miss Florence Cooper’) — it is a lunette depicting the Virgin breast-feeding, based on the image by Botticelli.

Finally, let me add another image, intended to remind us that it is not just in paint that modern imitations occur. The thirteenth-century church of North Moreton in south Oxfordshire includes a remarkable high altar, added in 1867. It is formed with two outsize marble slabs, one on each side of a central panel which is itself a mosaic, depicting the Crucifixion. Precisely which Renaissance depictions the creator of this altarpiece had in mind, I am not sure — Masaccio might provide the inspiration for the general layout (perhaps with a nod to Fra Angelico?), though the body of Christ might suggest the influence (once more) of Perugino. But I leave you with this image and, John, wish you all the best for a 2010 full of hunting for more remnants of Britain’s former love for the Renaissance.

High Altar, All Saints, North Moreton


When was the Renaissance?

Posted in Exhibitions, Historiography by bonaelitterae on 6 August, 2008

When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?

It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.

The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.

The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.

This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.

In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.