Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 2018
Robert Williams Raphael and the Redefinition of Art in Renaissance Italy Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 314 pp.; 113 b/w ills. Cloth £75.00 (9781107131507)

In Raphael and the Redefinition of Art in Renaissance Italy, Robert Williams has three aims. First, he wants to offer a new account of the achievement of Raphael, emphasizing his expansion of painting’s expressive and conceptual range. Second, he seeks to redefine the Renaissance in Raphael’s image, arguing that Raphael transformed Renaissance art in essential ways that he thinks have been misplaced by recent art historians. Third, he argues for the reorientation of the whole of art history itself, using Raphael to expose the prejudices of the field and the problems in current attitudes toward art and artists. Ultimately, Williams contends that Raphael is the key to a forgotten history of artistic modernism, and that our relative neglect of Raphael in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries stems from our uncritical investment, spurred by commodity consumerism, in artistic individualism. To describe Williams’s book as ambitious is thus to plumb the depths of understatement; the book’s larger goal is nothing less than a reorientation of culture in the most general terms.

In pursuing this bold agenda, Williams takes his inspiration from Giorgio Vasari, who, having described something of the cultural realignments of his own time in his Lives of the Artists, also provides the critical document for Raphael’s attitudes about art and work. Following Vasari, Williams understands Raphael’s achievement as one that represents progress in the development of painting during the Renaissance, leading not only to greater naturalism, but also greater beauty, coordination between media, and the rationalization of artistic work. Following Vasari, Williams thinks that Raphael’s greatest accomplishment is his mastery of pictorial narrative, which in turn facilitated his portrayal of abstract ideas. Through his expansion of what painting can do as a medium, Raphael fully discovers what Williams calls the discursivity of painting.

The bulk of the book explains how Raphael strove to expand this very discursivity, which Williams thinks has two primary dimensions: systematicity and decorum. For Williams, Raphael’s systematicity has to do with the rigor of the rational analysis that underlies his artistic decisions. When judging how to render a detail in one of his paintings, the artist considers the whole panoply of natural and artificial possibilities, selecting the best among them; consequently, his solutions also point beyond themselves to the infinity of choices from which they were culled. Such reasoned systematicity extends even to Raphael’s approach to style (Vasari’s modo mezzano) and constitutes the mixing and matching of the best in the styles of other artists. In this sense, Raphael’s approach to painting is something other than a personal manner, but rather a universal mode, a pattern for others. After reviewing several period theories of imitation, Williams points out how many artists subsequently took up a similar synthetic eclecticism, following in Raphael’s footsteps.

Much of the middle of the book addresses Williams’s other core concept, decorum, which he earlier explained as the legibility of systematicity in an individual representation (11). Here Williams works to define the principle more fully and then understand its larger ramifications. The decorous image is not merely the “proper” one; it is the best image of the thing represented on a variety of levels. In Williams’s view, decorum serves several functions. First, it is an extension of naturalism, reconciling “representation with appearance on the one hand and with conventions, values, and abstract ideas, on the other” (77). At the same time, however, decorum determines a work’s relation to a setting or purpose, revealing a way of looking at the world, a cultural perspective, or a social situation. Finally, decorum designates how a work is made in relation to itself and other artworks, wherein the parts and structure must be congruent or self-appropriate, as in a language, to be comprehensible. In projects like the Sistine tapestries and the Loggia of Leo X at the Vatican, Raphael’s designs become “relentlessly relational” (117). In the Loggia in particular, the multitude of genres (e.g., landscape, grotesques, narrative painting) placed together inside frames shows how the systematicity of painting presents itself in an overall framework that speaks to the similarities and differences in the entire gamut of viewing experience. These observations lead Williams to make a bold claim: that modernism did not overturn the hierarchy of genres established in the Renaissance (as traditionally thought) so much as the Renaissance initiated the work of defining and redefining genres carried forward by modernism.

Subsequently, Williams singles out for discussion Raphael’s devotional works and portraits. His discussion of the former is especially interesting, for here he attempts to reconfigure the position of the Renaissance in relation to medieval art. He takes particular aim at the supposedly superior authenticity of medieval image making, an idea that began with John Ruskin. Seeing the emphasis on sensuous immediacy and the extra-rational power of images as part of an elaborate justification of modern commodity fetishism, he thinks that our valuation of medieval art is uncritical and suspect. In Williams’s view, one reason for the continued prevalence of such beliefs is Hans Belting. In his Likeness and Presence (University of Chicago Press, 1993), Belting argued for the iconic function of so many medieval images, while essentially claiming that Renaissance religious art, being more about artistry than devotional function, was insincere by comparison. Whereas some scholars, working in Belting’s wake, have argued that Renaissance religious images have much more in common with their medieval precursors than Belting allowed, Williams defines them rather differently. In confessing the ultimate inadequacy of images to the idea of the divine (by referring to an infinite set of possibilities from which the particular rendition was selected), Raphael’s devotional works, in Williams’s view, are poetic prayers, where artistic and religious content reinforce each other. Williams thus finds company in much recent scholarship, while showing a way beyond the notion that, once the sacred image was no longer a substitute for a venerated original, it could not effectively evoke its prototype.

Having discussed Raphael’s systematicity and decorum, Williams turns to Raphael’s putative invention of a new collaborative process that Williams argues amounts to a rationalization of labor. He considers Vasari’s account of Raphael’s nurturing relationship with the artists in his workshop and compares it to other written evidence and what we today can visually discern from drawings and paintings. In a period of unprecedented conglomeration of workshop labor and alienation of those who did much of the work (artistic and otherwise), Raphael sought in his own workshop to foster an environment where everyone benefited from each other’s input, according to his own talents. Overall, Williams sees Raphael’s approach as more “rational” (and thus more “liberal” in efficiency and productiveness) than previous workshop situations where the controlling artist had less interest in community and collaboration. There is some tension in this argument: while Williams criticizes contemporary commodity fetishism, he is also at pains to show Raphael’s alignment with modern methods of production and conglomeration. However, by attempting to demonstrate that Raphael viewed his painting not as an object for delectation but in terms of its labor value, Williams describes Raphael’s practice as embodying some aspects of the modern critique of artistic genius (Williams evokes both Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol elsewhere in the book). He also relates Raphael’s collaborative efforts to an ethics of personal action.

This reader is attracted by Williams’s suggestion that Raphael’s pursuit of the discursivity of painting through systematicity and decorum added up to something more than it had for his forebears, that the artist’s judgment was so exquisite and replete that its very exercise amounted to a new approach, a real invention. But every reader of this book will have to make up his or her own mind about this and Williams’s other contentions. Indeed, although the book is often persuasive, it sometimes offers readings and analyses that generate as many questions as answers. Some readers may well decide that several of Williams’s arguments are difficult to accept, being matters of subjective judgment. After all, it is notoriously difficult to evaluate the relative truthfulness, beauty, or morality of paintings. And however much he grounds himself in period texts, Williams frequently discusses the “progress” of art in a way that blurs the boundary between historical and personal evaluation.

Art historians often have to tiptoe around the question of artistic quality even as that quality is essential to (or indeed the cause of) their underlying discussions. Williams inspires this observation because his book is so clearly generated by what might be described as the power of Raphael’s painting. But Williams’s book also accounts for a current reputational situation that cannot be considered as anything but perplexing: namely that Raphael, for centuries viewed as the greatest artist who ever lived, no longer enjoys anything like the wide esteem that he did in the past. I myself cannot think of an equivalent phenomenon in any other cultural domain. Whether one ultimately agrees with everything Williams says, he is surely right that this devaluation can only be explained by our failure to make sense of the full parameters of Raphael’s achievement, including his impact on later art. For now, this most original book represents the state of the problem. 

Christian K. Kleinbub
Associate Professor and Chair of Graduate Studies, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University