The present volume, part of Intersections, Brill’s interdisciplinary series on early modern culture, contains eleven essays and an introduction with a broad geographic, temporal and material scope. Seven contributions address Flemish or Dutch topics, ranging from Jamie L. Smith’s investigation of the Dutch origins of Jan van Eyck’s famed motto Als ich can, to Jing Sun’s analysis of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Delftware and its borrowings from Chinese porcelain styles, designs, and production techniques.
The essays, arranged in three groupings – Intersections, Method and Identities – alongside the introductory essay by the editors, propose a shifting and sometimes nebulous concept of the vernacular. Each author defines “vernacular” in his or her own way. Most use the term in its traditional sense, referring to local spoken language, indigenous style or even a pseudo-national identity. Others, like Alexandra Onuf, fashion the vernacular as a reflexive critical category. Most ambitiously, James J. Bloom utilizes “vernacularization” to describe a shift in function and social utility rather than a distinct language or style.
The wide-ranging but disjointed introduction compiles still more examples, moving in rapid succession from Leonardo to Aby Warburg, Petrarch, and French Pléiade poets, while refraining from any singular definition of vernacular as understood in the early modern period. The editors instead present this collection of essays as a study of “change … the transformative force of the vernacular over time and over different regions, as well as the way the concept of the vernacular itself shifts depending on the historical context” (18).
Although this phrase certainly describes the varied material compiled by the editors here, the Introduction feels like a missed opportunity to present a more sustained and focused meditation on the term itself, its historical development and various utilizations in the diverse fields of study (linguistics, literary history, art history) partially represented by the authors gathered in the volume. The Introduction also makes limited connections between the assembled essays and very briefly notes some shared insights across the arbitrary section divisions. For example, several essays invoke the supposed historicity of the vernacular as a crucial element in validating local style or practice; another underexplored leitmotif of the volume is the role of the reader or audience’s lived experience in the constitution of the vernacular, distinct from classical or Latin sources, seen as mediated and thus distant or foreign.
The first section “Intersections” is the most clearly defined and cohesive part of the volume. It contains studies that bring together the vernacular as defined or experienced in two or more media, including the visual arts, literature, and music. Two essays take on Italian topics: C. Jean Campbell considers Petrarch and Vasari’s respective praise of Simone Martini as personal and political reflections on local style, while Lex Hermans investigates textual interpretations of Donatello’s Saint George as an icon of Florentine art. In a compelling case study, Jessica E. Buskirk compares the intense mimetic qualities of Hans Memling’s Maarten van Nieuwenhove Diptych to a poetic Salve Regina by Anthonis de Roovere and a polyphonic motet composed by Jacob Obrecht on the same topic, exploring how each work prolongs and elaborates the experience of this prayer to the Virgin, and also exploits tastes characteristic of Bruges’ sophisticated fifteenth-century artistic patrons. Bart Ramakers provides a survey of vernacular self-awareness among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch rhetoricians (including Mathijs de Castelein, Lucas de Heere, and Job van de Wael), tracing their defense of local literary forms and history, as distinct from classical or other modern European traditions. In addition, Ramakers considers how these authors related the practices of poetry and painting in advocating a hybrid approach to the practice of stylistic imitation. Finally, David A. Levine argues that Frans Hals’s distinctive brushwork references the rouw style, as part of a larger patriotic movement to glorify the Dutch language and in particular, its quickness and efficiency.
The section entitled “Method” functions less coherently, as it presents a seemingly unrelated pair of studies: Trudy Ko’s examination of William Baldwin’s 1553 anti-Catholic satire Beware the Cat and Alexandra Onuf’s study of the Small Landscapes, prints published in Antwerp in the later sixteenth century. The editors account for this grouping by describing both works as opposing classical idiom to the lived experience of vernacular language (textual and visual). This pairing unfortunately reduces the complexity of Onuf’s argument, which claims that the Small Landscapes produce a new form of vernacular product, both in style and content; for Onuf, this “vernacular” is tied to an emerging notion of naturalism, as well as the flexibility and adaptability inherent in the adoption of a non-classical idiom.
Onuf’s tracing of the continuing use of the Small Landscapes as “vernacular product” in the Low Countries both pre- and post-Dutch Revolt, presages the volume’s final thematic section, “Identities.” This section brings together studies on the awareness of cultural origins “as the means to fashion individual and geographic identity” (22). Here, Jamie L. Smith identifies Van Eyck’s motto as an approximation of Jacob van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch “so ic best mach” (as well as I can), used in the prologues of his works as a critical validation of poetic practice; Van Eyck, according to Smith, extended this discourse on the vernacular from the realm of texts to the precise pictorial mode that characterized Eyckian oil painting.
One of the most ambitious contributions in the collection is James J. Bloom’s essay, which adds to a growing scholarly chorus undermining the so-called stylistic polemic between “Romanists” and “vernacular” artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder in later sixteenth-century Antwerp. Instead Bloom uses functionality to define “vernacular,” arguing that in a space like Niclaes Jonghelinck’s villa, which housed both Frans Floris’s Labors of Hercules and Bruegel’s Months, the communicative utility of both series and “the social engagements they precipitate,” (337) articulate the vernacular as a social function more than as a reflection of differing stylistic ideals. Bloom’s argument is complex with wide-reaching implications the author will address in his forthcoming manuscript; the version presented here, while engaging, feels at time frustratingly constrained by space limitations.
Also in this section, Eelco Nagelsmit analyzes Sebastiano Serlio’s sixth book on architecture as a negotiation between the Vitruvian tradition and contemporary forms of domestic architecture in France and Italy. In the final essay, Jing Sun provides an incredibly useful survey of methods used by seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Dutch potters to imitate and assimilate Chinese decorative motifs and techniques into “vernacular” Delftware. This essay would easily be assignable to undergraduates, as it clearly presents a rich case study in early modern global trade and its impact on local centers of artistic production.
The editors must be congratulated on assembling such a rewarding group of essays pointing to the fertile potential of the “vernacular” as topic. My wish for a more active editorial hand, perhaps providing a more synthetic introduction and short introductions to each subsection in order to sustain dialogue across and between contributions, is in large part due to the success of individual essays and the often-surprising links between papers concerning different languages, styles, media and time periods.