In Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts across Europe,Marina Belozerskaya is on a mission. First and foremost, she seeks to reclaim for Burgundian arts and culture the central position they occupied in fifteenth-century Europe, rescuing them from the provincial status to which art history had long banished them. Astutely, she recognizes that this requires a second act of redemption: the reversal of the stigmatization that tapestry, embroidery, metalwork, armor, jewelry and other so-called ‘minor arts’ have long endured as a result of the exaggerated exaltation of panel painting. The third of Belozerskaya’s tasks, announced in her title, is predicated upon the first two and to some extent follows logically upon them. She seeks to ‘rethink’ the Renaissance as a pan-European system of multi-cultural interchange, thus displacing the Italo-centrism that still dominates both historical and art-historical writing. A quick flip through any book containing in its title The Renaissance or Renaissance Art will confirm the problem.
The first chapter of Rethinking the Renaissance provides a detailed historiographic overview, from Vasari through to Huizinga (surprisingly, there is only the briefest mention of Panofsky, and effectively no discussion of more recent art history), to explain the origins of the problems she tackles. Chapter two introduces the dukes of Burgundy and their court as an example of princely magnificence and gives a good sense of both the way the Burgundians perceived themselves and how they were seen by the rest of Europe. The multiplicity of art forms that proliferated within the Burgundian milieu is the topic of the third chapter, giving pride of place to those arts that the dukes most valued: tapestry, and the creations of goldsmiths, jewelers, armorers and musicians. Next, in chapter four, comes a thorough accounting of the princely houses across Europe that commissioned works from Netherlandish artists in the Burgundian circuit or otherwise sought to imitate them in material and visual accoutrements. These two last-named chapters are particularly helpful in bringing together in one place a wealth of detailed and fascinating information that is otherwise scattered in bits and pieces through the literature.
Only in the fifth and final chapter does Belozerskaya turn to Netherlandish panel painting, which she correctly, but somewhat dismissively, treats as serving a largely middle-class market at home and abroad: ‘Art of the Masses’ is her subtitle for this section. Despite the extraordinary complexity and craftsmanship of Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, this was not the stuff of princely splendor, just the pale imitation of it for the fifteenth-century nouveau riche. The author is no Huizinga: her enthusiasms lie in exactly those aspects of the Burgundian court that most appalled the doopsgezinde-born scholar. Belozerskaya could be accused of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater in this chapter. Whether commanding high prices and the particular favor of Burgundian nobility or not, Netherlandish painting made a strong mark on the artists and even the courts of the rest of Europe.
The impression one receives in reading Rethinking the Renaissance is indeed of the author as a knight errant, battling the pre- and misconceptions of early-modern scholarship. This resonates particularly well with Belozerskaya’s subject matter, given the chivalric traditions that the Burgundian court adopted in their literature, festivities and visual arts. Their performance and valorization of courtly chivalry stands as a premier example of Renaissance self-fashioning, to borrow Stephen Greenblatt’s term. This is not a quixotic quest; Belozerskaya is not tilting at windmills but jousting with real historiographic, terminological and methodological problems that continue to trouble the field. There is, however, a certain irony to the fact that Northern Renaissance scholars and students are, at least initially, the most likely readers of this book. Historians of Netherlandish art have (for the most part) long recognized the quality, significance and centrality of Burgundian visual culture within Europe, and have wrestled with the concept of ‘the Renaissance’ as it applies to Europe as a whole.
Reevaluating the relative value ascribed to painting over other Burgundian arts, especially tapestry, is a somewhat different story. Despite periodic calls for revision, panel painting continues to occupy the art-historical center stage and shows little sign of being displaced.
The reasons for this are complex and not only a question of misapprehension. Tapestries, which were certainly the premier Burgundian art form, present great problems for reproduction. The combination of vast size, poor condition and an often non-photogenic nature conspire to limit their being effectively displayed in book illustrations, the classroom, and even the museum. As Belozerskaya notes (p. 115), they are best seen shimmering in torchlight and ‘activated by air currents,’ not statically viewed in artificial light. The works of goldsmiths, jewelers, embroiders and so forth pose a different kind of problem. Being often less- or even non-pictorial, they are less obviously conducive to the sustained scholarly discourse on narrative structure, symbolic programs, social coding and other topics that are the bread and butter of much current scholarship on paintings.
The vocabulary of Rethinking the Renaissance is illustrative of this latter issue. Such epithets as ‘brilliant,’ ‘luxurious,’ ‘magnificent,’ ‘ opulent,’ ‘spectacular,’ ‘ sumptuous,’ ‘splendid,’ and their various cognates and synonyms are scattered prolifically throughout Belozerskaya’s text, as she seeks to evoke the aesthetic splendor of the Burgundian milieu. These are used largely (and it should be noted, aptly) as descriptive rather than analytical terms, with the exception of ‘magnificence,’ which Belozerskaya raises as a defining concept for the Burgundian princes and their court, just as it was for princely courts throughout Europe. Here I have a bone to pick. Despite quoting Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics as her epigraph for this chapter, what Belozerskaya seems to have taken from it (as have some many scholars before her) is the idea that magnificence is simply a matter of spending vast sums of money to create an imposing princely presence. This is certainly part of the equation, but Aristotle also speaks specifically of ‘honourable’ expenditures, for which he gives the examples of religious donations and public works. The case may certainly be made that that is just what the Burgundian dukes do, as when Philip the Good commissions tapestries in order to help establish a Flemish luxury cloth industry.
Belozerskaya does not provide much at all in the way of sustained analysis of individual works of art. Instead her argumentative strategy is often enumerative. While it does not always make for the liveliest of narratives, this is in fact one of the book’s great strengths: it will be invaluable as a reference work. Just a few examples will give a sense of the wealth of information that is conveniently compiled in Rethinking the Renaissance: the names of European nobility who visited Philip the Good’s court (p. 63); the themes of the tapestry cycles the Burgundians commissioned for themselves (pp. 106-112) and those of the tapestries the Burgundians gave as gifts (p. 113); the favorite books that Charles the Bold owned, including those he read on the battlefield (p. 69); the Italian princes who had studioli with painted portrait series of uomini illustri, similar to those that Justus of Ghent painted for Urbino (p. 216). Other information is fascinating if a bit difficult to imagine how one might use it, such as the complete list on pages 85-86 of the gemstones that adorned the crown of Valentine Visconti, the wife of Duke Louis d’Orleans. Rethinking the Renaissance is a treasure house, a true thesaurus, of facts and details pertaining to the production, patronage and reception of Burgundian arts in the fifteenth century.
In the final analysis, Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts across Europe, offers a thorough marshalling of evidence that demonstrates just how pervasive Burgundian culture was in the fifteenth century, extending far beyond the old question of the degree to which their court served as a model for those of other princes. Belozerskaya’s writing is clear and usually very lively, though the book does at times read like a published dissertation (which it is). Rethinking the Renaissance will doubtless find its way onto the bookshelf of every scholar of early Netherlandish art, and a much thumbed-through one at that. It should, and one hopes it will, be read by early-modern art historians – as well as scholars in other fields – of all stripes, especially those pesky Italianists.
Mark A. Meadow
University of California, Santa Barbara