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A Review of Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy
Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style was first published in 1972. Although relatively short it has subsequently been published in numerous languages, most recently Chinese, with a second edition published in 1988. Since publication it has been described in such favourable terms as being ‘intelligent, persuasive, interesting, and lucidly argued’ to ‘concise and tightly written, and being found to ‘present new and important material’. It may have been published as a book with three chapters. In reality it is three books in one.
Baxandall brings together many strands of previous art historical methodology and moves them forward in Painting and Experience. As the history of art was emerging discipline Art came to be seen as the embodiment of a distinctive expression of particular societies and civilisations. The pioneer of this was Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his History of the Art of Antiquity (1764). Baxandall is certainly not the first to consider how an audience views a painting. He is not the first to discuss patronage either given Haskell published his Patrons and Painters in 1963. Lacan created the concept of the ‘gaze’ and Gombrich the idea of ‘the beholder’s share’ before Baxandall published Painting and Experience. Baxandall does describe chapter two of Painting and Experience as ‘Gombrichian’. Baxandall spent time with anthropologists and their exploration into culture, particularly that of Herskovits’ and his ideas on cognitive style. Baxandall’s approach focuses on how the style of paintings is influenced by patrons who commission and view paintings. The patron’s view is culturally constructed. For Baxandall ‘a fifteenth-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship’. This quote is the opening sentence of the first chapter in Painting and Experience; ‘Conditions of Trade’.
Baxandall’s first chapter in Painting and Experience on the ‘Conditions of Trade’ seeks to explain that the change in style within paintings seen over the course of the fifteenth century is identified in the content of contracts and letters between patron and painter. Further to this that the development of pictorial style is the result of a symbiotic relationship between artist and patron. However, this relationship is governed by ‘institutions and conventions – commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social… [that] influenced the forms of what they together made’. Baxandall claims his approach to the study of patron and painter was in no way impacted by Francis Haskell’s seminal 1963 book, Patrons and Painters nor by D.S. Chambers’ Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance.
Baxandall’s main evidence to support the development of pictorial style is demonstrated by the change in the emphasis to the skill of the artist over the materials to be used in the production of a painting as shown by the terms of the contract between artist and client. This is the unique element that Baxandall introduces to the examination of contracts between patron and painter and one that had not previously been explored. He supports this argument by referring to some contracts where the terms show how patrons demonstrated the eminent position of skill over materials. In the 1485 contract between Ghirlandaio and Giovanni Tornabuoni, the specifics of the contract stated that the background was to include ‘figures, building, castles, cities.’ In earlier contracts the background would be gilding; thus Tornabuoni is ensuring that there is an ‘expenditure of labour, if not skill’ in this commission.
Baxandall states that ‘It would be futile to account for this sort of development simply within the history of art’. Indeed to ensure his argument is placed in the domain of social and cultural history Baxandall refers to the role, availability and perception of gold in fifteenth-century Italy. Baxandall uses the story of the Sienese ambassador’s humiliation at King Alfonso’s court in Naples over his elaborate dress as an example of how such conspicuous consumption was disparaged. He cites the need for ‘old money’ to be able to differentiate itself from ‘new money’ and the rise of humanism as reasons for the move towards buying skill as a valuable asset to display.
Herein lies the main difficulty with Baxandall’s approach to identifying the influence of society on pictorial style through the conditions of trade. How would the viewer of a painting recognise that skill had been purchased? Baxandall asks this question himself and states that there would be no record of it within the contract. It was not the usual practice at that time for views on paintings to be recorded as they are today consequently there is little evidence of this. Additionally, there is nothing in the contract that Baxandall presents us with that mentions the actual aesthetic of the painting; expressions of the characters; the iconography, proportions or colours to be used.
Joseph Manca was particularly critical of this chapter in stating that ‘Baxandall’s early discussion of contracts has us imagining a dependent artist who is ever-ready to echo the sentiments of his patrons or public’. We know this is not true. Bellini refused to paint for Isabella d’Este because he was not comfortable painting to her design. Even though Perugino accepted the commission from Isabella he ‘found the theme little suited to his art’.
Baxandall makes no accommodation for the rising agency of the artist and the materials to which they have access as influences on style. Andrea Mantegna’s style was heavily influenced by his visits to Rome where he saw many discoveries from ancient Rome, often taking them back to Mantua. Furthermore, Baxandall does not examine the training that artists received during fifteenth-century Italy to ascertain whether this could be an explanation of their style or how it developed. All of the painters Baxandall refers to were part of workshops and were trained by a master. As such there would be a style that would emanate from these workshops. It was recognised that pupils of Squarcino, including Mantegna and Marco Zoppo, ‘came to have common features in their art’. In 1996 he said ‘I didn’t like the first chapter of Painting and Experience. I had done it quickly because something was needed, and it seemed to me a bit crass’.
The central chapter of Painting and Experience is about the ‘ whole notion of the cognitive style in the second chapter, which to me is the most important chapter, [and] is straight from anthropology. This chapter is Baxandall’s idea of the ‘Period Eye’.
Baxandall opens the ‘period eye’ by stating that the physiological way in which we all see is the same, but at the point of interpretation the ‘human equipment for visual perception ceases to be uniform, from one man to the next’. In simple terms, the ‘period eye’ is the social acts and cultural practices that shape visual forms within a given culture. Furthermore, these experiences are both shaped by and representative of that culture. As a consequence of this patrons created a brief for painters that embodied these culturally significant representations. The painter then delivers paintings in such a way as to satisfy the patron’s requirements including these culturally significant items within their paintings. Baxandall’s chapter on the ‘period eye’ is a tool for us to use so that we, the twenty-first-century viewer can view fifteenth-century Italian paintings through the same lens as a fifteenth-century Italian businessman. The ‘period eye’ is an innovative concept that embodies a synchronic approach to the understanding of art production. It moves away from the cause and effect ideas that were taking hold of art historical enquiry in the early 1970s. But how was it constructed?
Baxandall’s asserted that many of the skills viewers acquired when observing paintings were acquired outside the realm of looking at paintings. This is where he examines the economic machinations of Florence’s mercantile community and notes that barrel gauging, the rule of three, arithmetic and mathematics were skills much required by merchants, and these gave them a more sophisticated visual apparatus with which to view paintings. Baxandall believes that the ability to do such things as gauge volumes at a glance enabled the mercantile classes to perceive geometric shapes in paintings and understand their size and proportion within the painting relative to the other objects contained within it.
Baxandall also refers to dance and gesture as further examples from the social practices of the day that enabled viewers of paintings to understand what was happening within them. Baxandall asserts that the widespread engagement in the Bassa Danza enabled the courtly and mercantile classes to see and understand, movement within paintings.
One of the major questions posed by the application of the ‘period eye’ is evidence that it has been applied correctly. Using Baxandall’s approach how did you know if you got it right – is it ever possible for a twenty-first century Englishman to view a painting as a fifteenth-century businessman even with an insight into Italian Renaissance society and culture? The evidence that Baxandall relies on to demonstrate that the pictorial style of fifteenth-century Italian painting developed seems extremely tenuous. Goldman, in his review of Painting and Experience, challenges Baxandall on this by saying that there is no evidence that modern-day building contractors and carpenters are especially skilled at identifying the compositional elements they see in a Mondrian. Likewise, the argument put forward by Goldman can be extrapolated into the other examples that Baxandall uses such as dance being reflective of movement in paintings. An example is Botticelli’s ‘Pallas and the Centaur’ where Baxandall describes it is a ballo in due which Hermeren, in his review, says this is not a useful piece of evidence as most paintings can be described in that way.
The final chapter turns attention to primary sources as Baxandall refers to Cristoforo Landino’s writings on the descriptors used during the fifteenth-century in Italy for various styles seen in paintings. The reason for doing so is that Baxandall claims this is the method through which the twenty-first-century viewer can interpret documents about paintings that were written during the fifteenth-century by those not skilled in describing paintings. With this tool, it is then possible to gain a clearer understanding of what was meant by terms such as aria and dolce. Baxandall uses this approach to interpret the meaning to the adjectives contained within the letter to the Duke of Milan from his agent within chapter one of Painting and Experience.
Although this chapter is detailed and provides a ‘meticulous analysis of Landino’s terminology of art’ Middledorf believes it does little to ‘throw any light on the style of Renaissance painting’. As it is always difficult for words to capture what a painting is conveying this chapter, although worthy, does not provide sufficient information that is of value to a contemporary viewer in entering the mindset of the fifteenth-century viewer. It is unlikely a patron used such language when commissioning paintings. It is also questionable whether this was the type of language that was used amongst artists themselves to discuss their styles and approaches. Of course, there is material from artists of that time that describe how paintings can best be delivered, but even these seem too abstract to be of practical value as per the example of Leonardo da Vinci writing on ‘prompto’.
On publication Painting and Experience received less attention that Baxandall’s Giotto and the Orators. ‘when that book came out many people didn’t like it for various reasons’. One of the main reasons was the belief that Baxandall was bringing back the Zeitgeist. This leads us to other problems identified in response to the question of what kind of Renaissance does Painting and Experience give us. It gives us a Renaissance that centres on Italy in the fifteenth century, on the elite within society as a group and men only. It is a group of people that represents a fraction of society. They do commission most of the paintings hung in public, but they are not the only viewers of it. The full congregation at Church would view these paintings, and they came from all walks of life. For this reason, Marxist social historians, such as T.J Clark, took issue with the book claiming that it was not a true social history as it focused only on the elite within society without ‘dealing with issues of class, ideology and power’.
Baxandall also rejects the idea that the individual influences pictorial style given each experience the world in a different way. He acknowledges that this is true but that the differences are insignificant. This is in stark contrast to ‘the Burkhardtian idea that individualism in the Renaissance changed subject matter (the expansion of portraiture, for example)’. Four years before the second edition of Painting and Experience Stephen Greenblatt published Renaissance Self-fashioning, a book devoted to the methods through which individuals created their public personas in the Renaissance.
There are additional problems raised by Baxandall’s method. The evidence that Baxandall relies on to support his theses is literary. For example, in addition to chapter three’s use of Landino’s writings in chapter two made much of the sermons as a source of information through which to build the ‘period eye’ and in chapter one all of the evidence exists within written contracts. This begs the question of how Baxandall’s approach is applied to a society in which the art survives, but the writing does not. For example, the Scythians of Central Asia, where scholars admit there is a lot that will not be understood of this ancient people because they had no written language. It appears that in this instance that Baxandall’s approach is impossible to adopt and herein we see another of its limitations.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in Painting and Experience is any reference to the role that the revival of classical art played in the creation of Renaissance paintings and their style. The Renaissance was the rebirth of antiquity. Burkhardt writes a chapter on the revival of antiquity in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. It must be argued that the revival of antiquity is a contribution to the pictorial style of fifteenth-century Italy.
Painting and Experience had its many supporters who viewed it has an important guide to bringing out the direct causal relationships between artistic and social change. It was met warmly and was influential in disciplines beyond just art history such as anthropology, sociology and history as well as being credited with the creation of the term ‘visual culture’. In 1981 Bourdieu and Desault dedicated a special issue of Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales to Baxandall.
Baxandalls’ analysis of the conditions of trade, despite some shortcomings, has not been without influence. Baxandall refers to money and the payment mechanism in this chapter saying that ‘money is very important for art history’. His focus on the economic aspect of the production of painting garnered favourable reactions from ‘those drawn to the notion of economic history as a shaper of culture’. In the field of sociology: ‘His interest in markets and patronage made him a natural point of reference for work in the production of culture perspective, such as Howard Becker’s (1982) Art Worlds’. However, Baxandall was very critical of this first chapter.
Andrew Randolph extends the idea of the ‘period eye’ to the ‘gendered eye’ in an exploration of how the period eye can be applied to women. Pierre Bourdieu creates the concept of the ‘social genesis of the eye’ which is the revision of his concept of ‘encoding/decoding’ after having encountered Painting and Experience which allowed Bourdieu to ‘place a proper emphasis on particular social activities which engage and train the individual’s cognitive apparatus’. Clifford Geertz was an anthropologist who was able to refine the early structuralist model in anthropology that had been created by Levi-Strauss by incorporating ideas from Painting and Experience. In the field of history of art, Svetlana Alpers applied aspects of Painting and Experience in her book on Dutch art, The Art of Describing and credited Baxandall with creating the term ‘visual culture’. For historians, Ludmilla Jordanova posits that the approach contained within Painting and Experience highlights to historians the importance of approaching visual materials with care and that it can assist in identifying the visual skills and habits, social structure and the distribution of wealth within a society.
Painting and Experience was described by Baxandall as ‘pretty lightweight and flighty’. It was not written for historians of art but was borne out of a series of lectures that Baxandall gave to history students. As we have seen it has had an exceptional impact not only in Renaissance studies and history of art but across many other disciplines too. It has spawned ideas of the ‘social eye’, the ‘gendered eye’ and even gone on to create new terminology in the form of ‘visual culture’. It is a book to be found on reading lists at many universities around the world today. Painting and Experience may have its problems but remains important because it highlights how interconnected life and art have truly become. What Baxandall tries to give us is a set of tools to rebuild the Quattrocentro lens for ourselves; not only through the ‘period eye’ but analyses of contracts between patrons and painters. Along with that and an understanding of the critical art historical terms of the time, Baxandall enables us to identify the social relationships out of which paintings were produced by analysing the visual skill set of the period. We are left wondering whether we have been able to do that. There are no empirical means of knowing whether we have successfully applied the ‘period eye’. We are in fact left to ‘rely on ingenious reconstructions and guesswork’. The visual skills Baxandall attributes to the mercantile classes he believes are derived from their business practices, such as gauging barrels, impacting their ability to appreciate better forms and volumes within paintings is nothing less than tenuous. Not only that but the approach is specific to a single period and has to be rebuilt each time it is applied to a different era. Baxandall’s approach allows for no concept of the agency of the artist, their training or in fact the importance of antiquity to fifteenth-century Italians.
The question remains as to whether it is possible to write a ‘social history of style’. Baxandall has tried to do so but his assumptions and extrapolations and the inability to prove success leave an approach that is too shaky to constitute a robust method.
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