A bit of a Renaissance


Until the early 19th century, visiting Italy was the sine qua non of artistic formation, whether you came from France (Ingres, Corot), Spain (Goya), England (Turner) or Germany (Schinkel). It was only when art’s unbroken line back to quattrocento classicism started to falter that the theorists moved in. Jacob Burckhardt in his 1860 book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was the first art historian to use and popularise the term “Renaissance”. Since then, the epoch has been all things to all men. Burckhardt, whose book remains a template, saw the Renaissance as the dawn of the spirit of individuality and of modernity. In the following years, Walter Pater in The Renaissance interpreted it through the prism of fin-de-siècle aestheticism; Freud psychoanalysed Leonardo; in the 1930s, Marxist critic Meyer Schapiro pinpointed the emergence of capitalism in the period. What we do with the Renaissance, then, defines how we see ourselves, which is why this current crop of histories is so mordantly entertaining and illuminating. Holding up a mirror to the cut-throat competition, personality cults and public display of the 21st-century art world, all are portraits of creative rivalry and power play which will be recognisable to anyone observing, to take one example, the recent face-off between Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor over London’s Olympic commission.

more from Jackie Wullschlager at the FT here.