Meticulously researched and insightfully argued, Christopher Wood’s Forgery, Replica, Fiction. Temporalities of German Renaissance Artresponds to the decades-old debate over how we define what is Renaissance about northern Renaissance art. Despite many attempts to resolve the question, mostly by applying a different label or shifting geographic and political boundaries, the problem remains that northern art is viewed through a theoretical prism rooted in the Italian Renaissance. Packed with visual, as well as countless epigraphic and textual examples, Wood’s book rewards the intrepid reader of its over four hundred pages with a new paradigm for understanding what happened in Germany in the sixteenth century.
The book is divided into seven chapters with titles that signal either topic or methodology. The first chapter, “Credulity” sets the question of why German humanists knowingly invented historical fictions. The chapter opens with Conrad Celtis’s description of sculpted druid portraits, a bemusing mistake on the part of one of the most esteemed scholars and antiquarians of the German Empire. The modern reader, expecting historical accuracy, may assume that humanists simply were practicing a literary conceit, but Celtis’s invention signals a vastly different approach to visual and literary culture, where time is more indefinite than irrelevant. Age and authenticity were not important to Celtis and his contemporaries; rather, objects manifested meaning only in the present. Objects, images, and even buildings became referential artifacts that pointed back to a desired origin that was often artificially constructed.
The purpose of the book, Wood explains, is to make sense of repetition, of forgeries and of relics within a culture in which the “new regime of print” (13) shifted the meaning and reception of artifacts and artworks. The book thus also posits a new, far greater role for the advent of reproductive media, especially woodblock printing. Wood traces how artifact changed into artwork by questioning the notion of a singular original. The expressly reproductive nature of the print as “perfect replica”( 17) reinforced the fact that it was transmitting information rather than standing in as a functioning substitute for a ritual object. This, in turn, gives rise to the perception that forgery is a negative thing and introduces the modern concept of the original work of art, a concept that goes a long way in explaining the rising supremacy of painting.
Until quite recently, art historical tradition favored certain media, especially painting, and this bias marginalized the vast visual record of portraits, tombs, monuments, and even better studied media, such as prints and printed books. By posing the question differently, Wood returns these understudied works to the purview of the art historian and resets the theoretical framework for considering them. In considering issues of temporality, Wood also examines the development of archaeology. Renaissance archaeology, closely tied to antiquarian investigations, struggled with the issue of how to treat ancient objects, which were viewed as statements of fact, even when their author was derived from erroneous evidence. How modern scholars then understand the deliberate falsification and misreading of artifacts becomes central to Wood’s project, as he charts the shift from art as evidence to art as poetic fiction.
In the second chapter, “Reference by Artifact,” Wood proposes a theory of substitutability, where one artifact could easily stand in for another as long as its meaning was held intact. Therefore, creativity on the part of the artist was unimportant; rather, the most important aspect remains its iconographical type. Discussing ” replica chains”, Wood counters the formalist view of replicated artifacts that George Kubler famously proposed in his 1962 book, The Shape of Time. Rather than refuse meaning within objects, Wood proposes a substitutional hypothesis, where objects refer back to an original precisely because of a perceived meaning and a hoped-for effect. It is difficult for us to imagine a sort of collective amnesia, where our notion of a fixed, historical past is replaced by categories, such as ” old” or “very old.” Yet Wood proposes his substitutional theory as a way of discussing the pre-modern view of temporality without discounting its legitimacy or complexity.
Replication of such ritual artifacts as icon paintings begins to shift with mechanical replication technologies in the fifteenth century. The use of prints to reproduce sacred images reduced human error but also revealed how the premechanical, painted, cult image presupposed an implicit agreement to disregard questions of authenticity and age. The early modern concept of artistic originality developed against a backdrop of substitutional reference, where one painting had to stand in for another because of its function as relic or palliative. Wood also discusses the issue of replication and what he terms a “substitutional chain” in reference to architecture and typology. For example, the many replicas of the Holy Sepulchre built in Germany needed to resemble each other more than they needed to resemble the actual, historic, structure, so that they could all adhere to a recognizable referent.
In Chapter Three, “Germany and Renaissance,” Wood examines mostly textual and printed sources, especially related to the propagandizing of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, in order to re-examine the long-debated issue of defining a German rebirth. To German humanists, there was no need for a rebirth, because they did not believe there had ever been a fall. The negative view of the Middle Ages in Renaissance Italy was due to the many northern invasions and imperial interferences. In Germany, with actual time irrelevant, Constantine, Charlemagne, and the Ottonians were all Roman, tied directly to the present, yet not dependent on accurate chronology or sequence for legitimacy.
Because political traditions – and often architectural structures such as churches – seemed to have been translated seamlessly from a Roman past, Germans began to envision a parallel translatio artium within Germany as well. In other words, if Roman traditions had survived in political institutions and building styles like ” Romanesque,” then their art also forms part of that continuous chain, not in need of a revival because it had never been lost. In the end, Wood claims that the printed image, as an accurate conveyor of fact, breaks the substitutional chain. By explaining too much, embellished with inscriptions, they revealed an underlying ambiguity about the print as actual relic.
In detailing the reasons for the deliberate manufacture of ancient texts or “retrospective” portraits of long dead historical figures, Chapters Four, “Forgery,” and Five, “Replica,” reveal the beginnings of an interest in style. Wood assembles documents, inscriptions, tomb sculpture and countless stories that reveal skepticism and credulity concerning historical evidence. Forgery of documents, of relics, and of ancient epitaphs was not viewed as deceitful so much as a means of restating a truth that must have existed in the past. Tomb sculpture, especially, functioned as a label rather than as an authentic marker of time and manufacture, so stylistic differences become especially intriguing.
Realistic detail served the purpose of claiming authenticity for portraits of long-dead historical figures. Wood discusses both religious and political examples of the “rhetoric of realism,” such as the emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund portraits (1510-1511) commissioned from Albrecht Dürer by the city of Nuremberg or the oft-reproduced profile of Christ, an image based on the fictitious Lentulus Letter. By Chapter Six, ” Fiction,” this verism, coupled with exuberant surface detail, allows fictional medieval heroes like King Arthur to be included in the bronze congregation of imperial ancestors that guard the Innsbruck cenotaph of Maximilian I. The elaborate specificity of physiognomy and costume conveyed the sense that Arthur was copied from a reliable source, making him a real historical figure to authenticate Maximilian’s moral and dynastic claims.
Incredibly nuanced and thought-provoking, Wood’s book realigns the field and opens up new issues for Renaissance studies. Despite specialized epigraphic and typological examples, Wood nonetheless powerfully reassesses the relationship between art and the Reformation. Claiming that many young artists around 1520 may have welcomed the decline of altarpiece painting, Wood posits that the Reformation increased interest in new media, e.g. prints, and in new subjects, such as pagan mythology and allegory. Artists greeted the new era as opportunity rather than as the end of livelihood.
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh