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The University of North Carolina Press
Inventing the Renaissance Putto / Edition 1

Inventing the Renaissance Putto / Edition 1

by Charles Dempsey


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Inventing the Renaissance Putto

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807826164
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 06/25/2001
Series: Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Charles Dempsey is Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art at The Johns Hopkins University.

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Inventing the Renaissance Putto

By Charles Dempsey

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2616-4


This book had already been partly written when I received the welcome invitation to deliver the Bettie Alison Rand Lectures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In order to adapt the material to the lecture format, I considerably altered and rearranged my text (which I have in part restored and amplified upon), and I gave the lectures under the hastily chosen and rather cumbersome title, "Renaissance and Renovation in Florentine Art: Classical Tradition and Vernacular Expression." This managed simultaneously to offer rather more, but also rather less, than I intended. As the title implied, with its echo of Erwin Panofsky's classic Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, I had hoped (and still do) that my lectures might be seen as contributing to the larger effort to define the Renaissance itself.

There are perennial problems of period definition that gain in intensity from time to time in historical studies, exciting intense interest and debate for a while and then receding again, not because they have been resolved so much as from temporary exhaustion. Yet, whether actively contended or lying passively dormant, such problems can never be far from any scholar's mind. One example is the question of Mannerism, which has been much discussed over the last forty years, but which recently has been relatively muted as scholars have turned their attention to other things. Another is the more complex question of the Renaissance itself, which, despite Panofsky's defense of the concept, has become downright unfashionable even to mention among social and economic historians (and their art-historical epigones), who prefer instead to speak of the Early Modern period. Yet there is no sign that cultural historians of humanism and scholars of literature and the arts are conceding that the concept of the Renaissance can be so easily and definitively eradicated. Nor do I think it likely that it will be. After all, the conviction that a renewal of learning, literature, and the arts occurred during the two and a half centuries ranging from Dante and Petrarch to Politian and Bembo on the one hand, and Giotto and Simone Martini to Raphael and Michelangelo on the other, is one stated from the very inception of that period in the late years of the thirteenth century. So far as the visual arts are concerned, it is one affirmed by Ghiberti in his Commentarii and Vasari in his Vite. The historical development of the cultural renewal they and many others describe has moreover been filled in-and in the minutest detail-during the passage of nearly half a millennium.

What occurred in that period was the progressive flowering of new linguistic and visual forms of expression that, through mutual interchange-bringing together the new learning with the new literature and art-produced a slowly evolving but measurable change in the ways people perceived the world, and in the very language (whether literary or plastic) they used to describe their experience of it. If in Petrarch and Boccaccio there appear the earliest fruits of the new spirit of humanism, it is, as Eugenio Garin has written, in Politian's Stanze per la Giostra di Giuliano de'Medici that for the first time Italian seems to speak in perfect Latin; and, moreover, in his exquisite epicedion on the death of Albiera degli Albizzi that Latin itself seems to speak perfect Italian. Much the same might be said of Mantegna's Latinity in the Triumph of Caesar, in which, notwithstanding his learnedly antiquarian and rather dusty Romanitas, the artist's performance is also determined by his experience of the contemporary idioms of Squarcione and Donatello, as well as the vernacular trionfi enacted for court festivals and jousts. It is certainly true of Botticelli's expression in the Primavera, in which, as I have suggested in several earlier studies, a philologically refined classical theme is conceived as a species of vernacular poetry, invoking the shared experiences of the present. This book is intended as an extension of that argument. As Pierre Francastel perceived (and Aby Warburg before him), the Primavera is a true "fête mythologique" parallel to the one celebrated in Politian's Stanze. In both works of art classical learning appears in a contemporary, vernacular guise. The result for both poetry and painting was the creation, on the one hand, of art of the highest degree of refinement, classically learned and aristocratic in the extreme, and, on the other hand, a new art that was, by mythologizing contemporary experiences as enacted in the public rituals and civic feasts of Florence, at the same time popular and accessible to all. In a deeper sense, as the Renaissance unfolds over the slow evolution of two centuries, we can trace in the development of art and literature, as classical and vernacular cultures become more and more entwined, the progression of a slow but clear alteration in general cultural coloration, deepening like a stain, that amounts to a cultural, and even psychological mutation. For the ways in which human beings see the world, and represent it, and the ways they put their perceptions into language, determines who they are.

Panofsky's Renaissance and Renascences came out when I was still a graduate student working under the influence of his inspiring guidance and encouragement, for which I shall always be grateful. The book provoked then, as it still does, great admiration for its learning and warm debate over its powerfully argued central thesis. In retrospect it now appears that Panofsky, in common with most scholars of his generation, did not sufficiently acknowledge the place of vernacular culture in his conception of the Renaissance, which he understood to be an almost literal rebirth, or revival, of the forms of classical antiquity. Hence for him there could be no real Renaissance until classical forms of expression (embodying pathos, in Aristotelian terms) had for the first time been truly united with classical content (or ethos). In his view this union did not occur until the last quarter of the fifteenth century, first becoming manifest precisely in the works of Mantegna (in particular the Triumph of Caesar) and Botticelli (notably in The Birth of Venus). However, because his formulation did not take into account that Botticelli's paintings (as well as Politian's poetry) represent not a beginning but rather a turning point, and a crucial one, in a long development traceable from Giotto and Simone Martini (and Petrarch) to its completion in the generation of Raphael (and Bembo), the result was a startling, and indeed eccentric, revision, not only of the dating, but also the very concept of the Renaissance. For there never had been a desire for the revival of antiquity as such, for the literal renaissance of a long dead past (as is implied in the nineteenth-century coinage of the word), but rather an intention to renew the present by ennobling and perfecting its own living institutions, and its own forms of artistic and literary expression (as is implied in the fifteenth-century concept of a renovatio litteris). Lorenzo de'Medici's famous motto, Le tems revient, refers precisely to his own desire to renew vernacular literature and art, in which the experiences of life in the present are expressed by measuring them in relation to, and placing them in rivalry with, the supreme achievements of the great cultures of Italy, both Latin and Tuscan. As he wrote in the letter prefacing the poems gathered together in the Raccolta Aragonese, the new flowering of literature he envisaged was conceived not as a rebirth of the past, but as a renovatio of the present, in exactly the same sense of the renewal of the world each spring (renovatio mundi). In such a way the present found its own place in an evolving history, renewing itself by assimilating and emulating the achievements of the past, and moreover found reliable standards for measuring its own performance by setting this in rivalry with not just one, but both of the great cultures of Italy, as set forth in the traditions of Latin and the vernacular.

Roberti Longhi once wrote that when Primaticcio and Rosso Fiorentino arrived in France they found the forest of Fontainebleau filled with hobgoblins and kobolds, but when they left it was populated instead with nymphs and Satyrs. In fact hobgoblins and Satyrs are cognate beings representing very similar concepts, the former being rooted in popular superstition, and the latter having been refined and even civilized (as Longhi intended to suggest) in classical poetry and literature. These and similar spirits comprise the theme of this book, for which I have adopted the figure of the infant putto as the test case for examining the interaction between vernacular and classical forms of expression in the fifteenth century. I chose the putto because on the one hand the figure is an instance of classical revival, owing its origins in particular to representations of infant Bacchoi on second-century Roman sarcophagi, and because on the other hand it embodies a vernacular concept or interpretation of these tiny genii, which were commonly identified as spiritelli, or sprites. The different meanings and various deployments of the putto in art hence perfectly illuminate the complex interactions between contemporary expression and ancient tradition, nourished by the coming together of the new learning and the new art, that I have outlined above.

In addition, the artistic invention and ornamental deployment of the new figure of the putto-spiritello, which owes its existence above all to the genius of Donatello, constitute a prime example of the initial discovery and instantaneously widespread dissemination of what Warburg named a Pathosformel, that is, a new expressive archetype. His example was the figure of the "Nymph" with agitated draperies and wind-tossed hair, which he recognized as the expressive essence of the liveliness, and indeed forthrightly sexual energies, latent not only in classical nymphs and goddesses, but also, and especially, in Quattrocento Florentine girls approaching marriageable age, who were moreover called ninfe in the vernacular tongue. Another, expressly classical, example-that is to say one in which the pathos of the figure directly expresses its own classical ethos in a way that is certainly not true for the Florentine Ninfa, who, whatever may be her relationship to classical poetic and formal prototypes, is in her character (or ethos) very much a creature of the fifteenth century-is provided by the Laokoon, only discovered in 1506 and immediately recognized as the exemplum doloris par excellence. The recognition of the Laokoon as such an exemplum of a particular Pathosformel was recently documented in great detail by Sonia Maffei in the appendix of sixteenth-century responses to the statue she attached to Salvatore Settis's recent indispensable study, Laocoonte: Fama e Stile (Rome, 1999). Suffice it only to mention Pietro Aretino's identification (followed by Ulisse Aldrovandi) of Laokoon as expressive of il dolore, and his two sons of the pathe of fear (la paura) and death (la morte); and Aretino's consequent recommendation (followed by Giovanni Andrea Gilio) that the image of Laokoon might therefore serve as a model for the agonies of martyrdom. Strictly speaking, Laocoon's younger son expresses the pathos of dying, his head thrown back with parted lips echoing another famous ancient exemplum moriendi, the so-called Alessandro morente. The exemplum mortis proper had already been well established in the previous century on the models of the so-called letto di Policleto and the figure of the dead Meleager on numerous Roman sarcophagi.

It is Anthony Colantuono's great merit, as we will see in the following pages, to have identified the infant putto (called tener in Latin) as a Pathosformel for innocent tenderness. We shall see how his vernacular designation as a volatile spiritello, or airy sprite, further suggests the fecklessness and sheer joy of infancy, guileless and as yet unencumbered by any understanding of right and wrong, making of the putto the perfect figuration for all those uncontrollable sensations and irrational physical and mental alterations that constantly arise in the body unbidden, whether induced by a sudden fright, the rhapsodical effects of music, excessive drinking, sexual arousal, or the stunning experience of suddenly falling overwhelmingly in love at first sight. The very name spiritello, moreover, which has no real Latin equivalent, also places the infant sprite securely in the company (as any reader of Shakespeare will immediately sense) of such minor demons of the popular imagination as the hobgoblins and fairies that populated the forêt de Fontainebleau before Primaticcio and Rosso Fiorentino brought the Renaissance to France. It is this that makes study of the putto in his Quattrocento origins so fruitful. On the one hand the figure exemplifies a classical revival, in form and partially in content; and on the other it also expresses in vernacular terms popular concepts and imaginative experiences. At one and the same time learned and popular, formally sophisticated in the hands of artists and poets like Donatello and Politian, it is also immediately apprehensible in its charm and adaptability, accessible to all. It is, as Eugenio Garin once wrote of Politian's description of a rose, umanissima-precisely because of its union of these two terms, traditional and new, aristocratic and popular, learned and familiar, classic and vernacular.

A special case of the spiritello is that of the putto who plays the bogey man, concealing his true identity behind a ferocious Silenus-mask or hiding beneath Mars's armor in order to frighten some equally childish companion. The putto thus disguised has the same name in both Latin and the vernacular, a larva, and his earliest appearance in art is in plaquettes and manuscript illuminations deriving from Roman jewelry and sarcophagi. The meaning of the figure, as is set out in some detail in this book, is more thoroughly humanist in its foundations than is that of the spiritello, but at the same time it announces a theme that is important to the argument of my last three chapters, namely that of masking. These chapters are all devoted to exegesis of the imagery of two works of art, one a painting and the other a poem: Botticelli's Mars and Venus in London, the invention for which was devised by the humanist philologist and poet Politian; and Politian's own vernacular poem entitled Stanze cominciate per la giostra di Giuliano de'Medici. As works of art each develops parallel ideas directly attributable to a single mind, and as performances each exemplifies the expressive powers latent in what began as a lighthearted humanist facetia. The final chapter ends with a consideration of the phenomenon of masking itself-as this appears in the public mascherate invented and sponsored by Lorenzo de'Medici, and as the mask provides the hermeneutical crux for interpreting the realities veiled beneath the beautiful fictions of poetry and art in Laurentian Florence.


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Drawing inventively on a rich body of scholarship, Inventing the Renaissance Putto by Charles Dempsey uses these findings as a point of departure for a fresh and remarkable study. . . . [Dempsey] offers superb 'readings' of Botticelli's 'Mars and Venus' and of Poliziano's wonderful poem, 'Stanzas for Giuliano de'Medici's Joust.'—Times Litererary Supplement

A series of erudite iconographic essays, which draw deeply from the studies of poetry, festivals, psychology, and medicine.—Renaissance Quarterly

A work of scholarship outstanding for its originality in approach, soundness of research, and depth of insight and interpretation. Anyone reading this book, whether specialist or common reader, will view the art of Donatello, Botticelli, and Michelangelo in a new light and with greater understanding.—Hellmut Wohl, author of The Aesthetics of Italian Renaissance Art: A Reconsideration of Style

An intriguing exploration. . . . Dempsey looks at classical texts, renaissance reinterpretations of them . . . and at a whole host of other images, and allows us to see them with new eyes.—Apollo: International Magazine of the Arts

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