Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2018
D. Medina Lasansky, ed. The Renaissance: Revised, Expanded, Unexpurgated Pittsburgh: Periscope, 2014. 640 pp.; 126 ills. Paperback $35.00 (9781934772256)

This collection of essays has attracted little attention since its publication in 2014, an oversight that should be remedied. Through nineteen essays and nine photo essays edited by D. Medina Lasansky, The Renaissance: Revised, Expanded, Unexpurgated places the early modern past and the postmodern present in dialogue with one another and examines the ways in which the Renaissance has been appropriated and received in Anglo-American popular culture. As Lasansky notes in the introduction, the Renaissance has never been more popular: from the video game Assassin’s Creed to Botticelli Olive Oil and The Da Vinci Code to the various televised incarnations of the Borgias, the Renaissance still sells. More than simply a history of reception, this volume demonstrates that the past is deeply implicated in the construction of the present and that postmodern methods and discourses have much to offer our study of the Renaissance.

The essays are organized into sections covering such themes as sex, copying and the authority of art, conspicuous consumption, and tourism. Each section begins with a brief photo essay that examines modern and postmodern interactions with the Italian Renaissance, including performance art by Andrea Fraser, the birth of fine Italian dining in the nineteenth century, the collecting habits of Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Adolf Hitler’s tour of Italy, among others. Gloria Kury’s short excursus on The Da Vinci Code stands out for its ability to connect its protagonist Robert Langdon’s grail quest to the art historical practice of iconography. Both search for a unifying narrative structure to explain works of art that are rarely the product of a singular discourse or intention. At times, the relationships between essays, or between longer essays and the shorter photo essays, seem only glancing. Yet this seems to be purposeful. In the introduction, Lasansky notes that the book is intended to resemble a website in its open-ended and tangential approach to the material. This structure is generally successful, as one ponders the connection between Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collecting of Renaissance art and the collection of Italian buildings at the Venetian resort and casino in Las Vegas.

The strongest essays in the volume interrogate the interrelationships between past and present, using contemporary frames to understand the past and examining the way in which the Renaissance continues to hold sway in modern popular culture. Cristelle Baskins explores the paragone between art and television via the popular HBO show The Sopranos, which included a fragment of Jacopo Carucci Pontormo’s Visitation in Tony Soprano’s bedroom. Baskins thoughtfully illuminates the ways in which both the painting and its reproduction dramatize modes of viewing and interpersonal relationships. Brian Curran and Andrea Raymond examine the role of the so-called Pasquino sculpture in Roman public life from the sixteenth century to today. In the age of social media, Pasquino became a site of crossover between the digital and physical realms as the notes posted at his feet began take on the characteristics of blogs. Denise Costanzo convincingly argues that the Palazzo Medici was the McMansion of its time. Today employed as the exemplar of princely magnificence, in the fifteenth century its excessive cost, imposing size, and mashup of historical styles and motifs were instead seen as gauche and arriviste. Lasansky similarly examines bourgeois architectural taste at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Deplored by art historians as inaccurate and lowbrow, the Venetian brings together key monuments from the Italian city in a sterile and photogenic indoor atmosphere. As Lasansky deftly argues, the selection and spatial compression of monuments corresponds to the experiences of most tourists in Venice, who similarly hop from site to site with little note of the larger urban context. Moreover, Lasansky notes that the choices made by the Venetian planners and architects also mirror the teaching of art history, wherein we choose noteworthy or exemplary monuments and pull them out of context in order to bring them into our classrooms.

The use of the Renaissance art as a tool for writing history is also a major theme of the volume. James Saslow investigates the ways in which Michelangelo and his David were deployed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as part of the project of constructing gay cultural history and social identity. Anne Higonnet similarly examines the historiographic role of a Renaissance artist by investigating the role of Raphael in nineteenth-century artistic production. Contrary to Walter Benjamin’s well-known argument on artistic aura, Higonnet argues that mechanical reproductions of works such as the Madonna della Sedia participated in the formation of a cult centered on the artist, setting the stage for modern museological practice, which prizes easel painting over fresco. While Kury’s postmodern writing style is an outlier in the volume, her first essay is a thought-provoking meditation on the relationships between art history as a discipline and the oft futile search for genuine examples of artistic genius and period style. Kury reminds us that as teachers and scholars we are engaged in reproducing a unified Renaissance that never truly existed.

Many of the essays remind us that the past has a long reach, and that examining early modern and modern practices side by side can illuminate both disjunctions and similarities. Ian Moulton investigates the afterlife of Baldassare Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura in the acting of classic Hollywood personalities such as Fred Astaire and John Wayne, who appeared to effortlessly enact masculine grace and bravado. During the 1950s and 1960s the easy nonchalance of earlier eras gave way to modern “cool,” which was defined by rebellion against social norms rather than adherence to them. Sarah Benson argues that the roots of contemporary study abroad programs originated in the Renaissance, when students from England and the continent came to Italy in order to grow both intellectually and culturally. She examines the ethics of tourism and international study, reminding us that American students are as likely to transport practices abroad as they are to encounter new ones, and that in both the past and the present the virtues of edutourism have been inseparable from its vices.

Some of the essays appear prescient, as they envisage changes in the field or in popular culture that have come to pass since the book’s publication in 2014. For example, Maria Galli Stampino calls attention to the field’s focus on Florence, a landlocked city that does not necessarily epitomize Italian seafaring culture. Stampino’s call to consider early modern Italy within the larger Mediterranean basin is prophetic; one needs only examine tenure-track job descriptions in the last few years to see that her goal is slowly being accomplished.

In a few of the essays the comparisons between modern and early modern modes of making and thinking are less illuminating. In a second essay on pilgrims’ graffiti at the sacro monte of Varallo, Lasansky makes only a tenuous connection to modern popular culture. The essay itself is quite interesting, but it does not seem to sit as comfortably in the collection as many of the other entries. In her second essay, Benson struggles to draw parallels between Marcantonio Raimondi’s salacious prints, known as I Modi, and the advice issued by women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan. Her attempt to analyze women’s experiences of the Modi is laudable, but the idealized, generic body types and acrobatic sexual positions seem aimed less at instructing women eager to please their partners than in providing maximum visibility of the sexual act and the graceful torsion of figures, no matter who was looking.

Excepting Curran and Raymond, few of the essays engage with the internet or social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This seems like a missed opportunity, particularly given the focus of social media on the artful shaping of identity. And, unfortunately, Tumblr phenomena such as Ugly Renaissance Babies and wtf Renaissance were only just emerging as this book went to print. Given Lasansky’s likening of the collection to a website, it is also unfortunate that no e-book version exists. Finally, the volume is plagued by typesetting errors and a few factual inaccuracies.

However, these are minor quibbles with what proves to be an engaging and thought-provoking volume. Not only do the essays demonstrate that the Renaissance remains relevant today, they highlight the ways in which the present is always involved in a creative dialogue with the past. The essays also force us to examine the relationships between our classrooms and popular culture. However much we may rail against Dan Brown, we, too, teach a survey of the past that elides differences and presents the Renaissance as a self-contained and unified period. Instead, this volume reveals “The Renaissance” to be a project that we are always in the process of creating, whether we are writing articles, teaching Sandro Botticelli’s Birth or Venus, or binge watching the latest episodes of The Medici: Masters of Florence

Maria Maurer
Assistant Professor, School of Art, Design and Art History, University of Tulsa