5 - The Bloomsbury Review

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5 - The Bloomsbury Review

The Mirror of the GodsHow Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan GodsMALCOLM BULLOxford University, $40.00 cloth, ISBN 0-19-521923-6Americans are fortunate in their museums, many of whichhave major holdings in the Renaissance. If the vast wealthof early industrialists makes us uneasy, we can at least approveof how they spent some of that money, acquiring old masters toEuropeanize their New World palaces and then bequeathingtheir collections to the public. But to see the works of theRenaissance in situ—the friezes and the fountains, thechurches and the frescoes—we make the grand tour, albeit at aless leisurely pace than our forebears did. Reading travelers preparewith guidebooks, which provide us with identifying andcontextual information about the works we view, although theform (small and portable) precludes extensive discourse on theshaping of these masterpieces.Malcolm Bull’s engrossing new book, The Mirror of the Gods:How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods, is perhapssomething to read before the trip. Bull, head of art history at theRuskin School (Oxford), here takes on the mantle of hisschool’s namesake: Like Ruskin, and for a later generationKenneth Clark, Bull assumes an intellectually curious lay readerand sets about explicating the world and the works of the past.Bull’s breadth of reference can be daunting—he has seen muchmore art than we ever will. His method, however, reassures usthat he lives in the present; while he refers to (and sometimesillustrates) unfamiliar works, he acknowledges that we may bemore interested in his comments on canonical ones. And histone suggests that Bull might make the ideal dinner companion:Whenever he waxes too academic, he deflates himself with atossed-off reference to pop culture. “The story of Io,” heinforms us,is told in the first book of the Metamorphoses. Like a teen movie,it swings from horror to comedy and back, and always has asequel.Bull first lays out the historical conditions thatcompelled a rediscovery: With the conversion of the RomanEmpire, the gods of the ancients were toppled and their templessacked for building stones. By the late Middle Ages, fragmentsof classical piety had been incorporated into thestructures of the Roman city, and more pieces lay beneath itssoil. Indeed, “All over Italy bits of the ancient world were justlying about waiting to be discovered.” But it was easier to integrateold stones than old gods, and Mirror looks at how theChristian world accommodated the overlarge personalities ofthe divine ancients.The unearthing of antiquities, particularly in Rome, providedthe first impetus. Coins, medals, cameos, and intaglios presentedartists with relatively intact classical images, and recoveredsculptures, including the Laocoön group and the ApolloBelvedere, were widely known through prints by the mid-1500s.Illustrated vernacular editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses suppliedboth figure and narrative for Renaissance artists, and earlymythological appropriations appear on cassoni, wooden marriagechests painted with “dramatic stories in which love makesthe difference between life and death.” Mythological narrativesshow up on many household objects, such as storage chests andmajolica, anduntil at least the seventeenth century, tapestries represent the mainsource of classical narrative imagery within a domestic setting.But how did the ancient gods move from the private rooms ofthe prosperous into the public domain? How did Venus becomea rock star? Partly, it seems, by acting like one. Renaissance festivals,especially those honoring noble visitors or celebrating awedding of note, compelled spectacular public display and performance.Pagan gods, with their outsized and sometimesindecorous stories, became the stars of these theatricals. Bulldescribes the bill at one wedding festival:Ludovico Sforza employed Leonardo to design sets for a spectaclethat involved the planetary deities, the Seven Virtues, and theThree Graces.In Venice and in Rome, mythological narratives were enactedduring Carnival, and in Florence, intermezzi—short interludesoften with mythological themes—led eventually to the developmentof opera in the 16th century. “Although necessarilyephemeral,” Bull tells us, the festivals, often accompanied byfireworks, “had a higher visibility than almost any other form ofsecular culture” and introduced the Olympians to a wider audience.Because of their great variety, the ancient gods could becalled upon to play in very different scenarios. Venus dignifiedmany erotic representations (as did that roué Jupiter), some ofwhich circulated as prints; inexpensive and discreet, prints werethe “ideal medium for pornography.” In Florence, where Davidshares the Piazza della Signoria with Perseus and Hercules andCacus, Hercules served two masters: Originally, he personifiedthe Florentine Republic, but later the Medici adopted Herculesas their own. In fountain and garden sculpture, the pagan godsmuscled out biblical heroes, whose earnestness seemed unwelcomein places of pleasure. Moreover, Bull tells us, there was apractical link between horticulture and the world of antiquity.When classical statues were exhumed, they ... usually ended up insomeone's garden ... the obvious place in which to put large, valuable,but usually broken objects.Bull devotes chapters to the iconography of six individualgods: Hercules, Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus, Diana, and Apollo.Although the broad strokes of their stories remain fairly constant,characters and plots assume local meaning. The story ofDanaë, for example, visited by Jupiter as a shower of gold,became associated with prostitution; gathering the gold in herlap, Danaë submits to the god. The moment is captured byTitian for Alessandro Farnese:Originally intended simply as an erotic nude, she was first suppliedwith the features of an identifiable courtesan (presumably the cardinal’sfavourite) and then turned into Danaë. The cardinalclearly expected something that would turn him on, and so whenthe papal nuncio writes to the artist from Venice about the progressof the work, Titian reassures him that the Venus of Urbino willReprinted from The Bloomsbury Review®, Vol. 25, #3. © 2005, Nancy J.D. Hazelton. All rights reserved. May not be copied,reproduced, transmitted in any fashion without the written consent of Nancy J.D. Hazelton; info@bloomsburyreview.com.


look like a nun beside her.In Genoa, Danaë received Jupiter as gold coins, and her storybecame popular with bankers; “one of them,” Bull tells us,“must have liked the story enough to allow the decoration of anentire room to be devoted to it.” But even this indelicate narrativecould be pressed into allegorical service and Christianized:“if Danaë had become pregnant by a golden shower,” surely thiswas an analog to the Annunciation, and in some representations,she awaits the visitation “in chaste expectancy.”In representing the gods and their stories, Renaissanceartists did not efface the original mythologies; rather, anotherstory—of earthly or divine power—was admitted into theframe. Civic rulers or even popes could imagine themselvesHercules or Jupiter or Apollo, and have themselves depictedthus. Some gods lost out to competing Christian iconography:Pluto, for example, appears seldom because “there was limitedvisual interest in classical conceptions of the underworldwhen Christian ones were still so alarmingly vital.” Venus, onthe other hand, associated with Venice because of her emergencefrom the sea, had wider appeal; Bull tells us that “she isperhaps the member of the classical pantheon whose presenceis most constant in western culture.”When you next see Venus, or any of her friends and lovers,keeping company in rooms with saints and clerics, you canthank Professor Bull for explaining how this unlikely camaraderiecame to be. “The return of the gods,” he says,did not lead to their acceptance as deities, or to the rejuvenation ofpagan religion, but rather to a steady increase in the fictive and thefalse.For Renaissance artists, the ancient mythologies and theChristian one supplied dramatic material; perhaps they saw onebelief system as “fictive” and the other as true, but their representationsof both narratives enrich us now.REVIEWER: Nancy J. Hazelton is a theatre historian whoteaches in the Honors Program at SUNY Rockland.Reprinted from The Bloomsbury Review®, Vol. 25, #3. © 2005, Nancy J.D. Hazelton. All rights reserved. May not be copied,reproduced, transmitted in any fashion without the written consent of Nancy J.D. Hazelton; info@bloomsburyreview.com.

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