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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rethinking the Renaissance

Verdun and the Renaissance | Podcast | History Extra

"This really big idea we have of the Renaissance as a rebirth of Classical Knowledge. And a return to the classical ways of making art. That's what the whole idea of rebirth, Renaissance means. And that's a word that was invented by Vasari... specifically to describe this situation that he saw going on around him, where art had basically been dead for a thousand years. The Dark Ages had happened and it had all disappeared, all this knowledge and civilisation that we had. And then suddenly the Italians come along and rediscover it. And there's a kind of triumph of the Renaissance in the art of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael.

Well, that misrepresents the situation in several ways. I'm not saying that some of that didn't go on. Of course there was a rediscovery of Greek examples. And they were in some places influential. But you know, having been around Italy lots of times in my art historical career, I found far more exceptions to the rule than the rules. And there's an awful lot of Italian art that doesn't fit that bill. That was made at that time that has since been either forgotten or ignored or downgraded as a result.

And another storyline that needs adjusting... the Italians were these great heroes of the Renaissance. Of course great great things were done in Italy at the time, but if we focus too much on Italy and if we listen too clearly to Vasari we miss out on some crucial things that were happening in the lands of the barbarians as he calls them.

In other words the Germans or the Flemings... the pioneering use of oil paints. Now oil paints were, they weren't invented in Flanders but they were certainly developed and came to this kind of great fruition in the art of Jan van Eyck in the 1400s and I would argue that the influence, the discovery, the unleashing of oil paints had a far more important and profound influence on the history of art than for example fresco which is what Michelangelo or tempera which was the style of choice in 15th century Italy.

Without oil paints, we would have no Manet, no Impressionists, no Expressionism. The entire history of art would be so different. There would be no Rembrandt, no Rubens. So oil paints, which initially were sort of disregarded by Vasari who's very very snobbish about the contribution of the North and the Flemings, I mean he ignores most of them completely. Oil paints were profoundly important. They changed art in ways that were not usually credited with.

Another thing is optics. I mean glasses were, not invented in Flanders at the time or the Netherlands but they were developed to this extremely kind of high level. Lenses became important. And just on a basic level, artists' working lives were expanded by 50%. If you could still see, past the age of 40 because you could wear glasses, that gave you a much longer career. And again something that was pioneered in Northern Europe...

[On Torrigiano's Saint Jerome penitent in Seville, made of terracotta] It wasn't carved out of marble. So you got to get away from this idea that making great Renaissance art means getting a great block of white marble and somehow releasing this inner figure and all that sort of stuff, which all dates back to Vasari and his mythologising of Michelangelo...

When art history became a university subject it was basically invented by Protestant Germans at the end of the 18th century. They liked to present it too as this thing that was beyond religion almost. There's also this kind of embarrassment about the religious content of Renaissance art, so it was avoided. And I don't want to do that. If you avoid religion and powerful religious impulses in Italian art of the 15th and 16th century, frankly you're misreading it. You're not looking at it properly...

[On Vasari downgrading Venetian art as colour] Venetian art turned out to be much more influential than Michelangelo... sensuality and love of women. It had the most prostitutes of anywhere in Italy. All those things fed into the art and gave it this other quality which went on to be tremendously influential"
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