The Endless Periphery: Toward a Geopolitics of Art in Lorenzo Lotto's Italy

The Endless Periphery: Toward a Geopolitics of Art in Lorenzo Lotto's Italy

by Stephen J. Campbell

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While the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance are usually associated with Italy’s historical seats of power, some of the era’s most characteristic works are to be found in places other than Florence, Rome, and Venice. They are the product of the diversity of regions and cultures that makes up the country. In Endless Periphery, Stephen J. Campbell examines a range of iconic works in order to unlock a rich series of local references in Renaissance art that include regional rulers, patron saints, and miracles, demonstrating, for example, that the works of Titian spoke to beholders differently in Naples, Brescia, or Milan than in his native Venice. More than a series of regional microhistories, Endless Periphery tracks the geographic mobility of Italian Renaissance art and artists, revealing a series of exchanges between artists and their patrons, as well as the power dynamics that fueled these exchanges. A counter history of one of the greatest epochs of art production, this richly illustrated book will bring new insight to our understanding of classic works of Italian art.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226481456
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/26/2019
Series: Louise Smith Bross Lecture Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Stephen J. Campbell is the Henry and Elizabeth Wiesenfeld Professor in History of Art at Johns Hopkins University.

Read an Excerpt


Off the Axis

The Renaissance without Vasari

"This [exhibition] on Giovanni Bellini is a patriotic display," begins the catalogue to a 2008 exhibition on the artist at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. "It is so in the most literal sense of the word, because it proposes and exalts and makes comprehensible to everyone the foundational poetic values of our common fatherland." The writer turns at once to the centerpiece of the show, Bellini's great altarpiece of about 1480, made for a Franciscan church in the Adriatic city of Pesaro, temporarily reunited with a long-separated portion now in the Vatican (fig. 1.1). The work is proclaimed to represent the zenith of Italian painting, a point of encounter for the revolutionary art of Bellini's contemporaries — the "Flemish clarity" of the Sicilian Antonello da Messina, the geometry of the Tuscan Piero della Francesca. Yet what strikes the author most is the landscape. "Surrounded by a frame of white marble with polychrome that the sun warms like living flesh, is the castle of Gradara. The castle of Gradara, in the province of Pesaro in the Marches, still exists, and so too exists — at least with respect to the area in the immediate vicinity of the monument — the luminous and irregular landscape, made of crumbling rocks and tumbling hills that Giovanni Bellini has described with such poeticintensity. Amidst the devastation of contemporary Italy, the survival of this piece of the ancient fatherland is most moving."

A work of art functions here as a form of historical memory, even a kind of symbolic restitution or compensation, a way of visualizing cohesion in the face of a prevailing experience of fragmentation — in this case, "the devastation of contemporary Italy." Renaissance art has been specially called on to serve the work of memory in this way, even when a painting like Bellini's is also held to be a capsule of historical transformation and modernization. As the artistic progeny of the southerner Antonello and the central Italian Piero, the Venetian Bellini incarnates "Italian art" just as Raphael, Giorgione, and Titian do. This is especially the case because Bellini's painting was made for a location remote from the major centers. The altarpiece turns a particular site into a "place of memory," as Pierre Nora would call it, a location that persists despite the vicissitudes of history and thus, implicitly, constitutes a guarantee of the continuity and coherence of Italy itself. As a work by a Venetian in the Marches, it is here regarded as full of place, evoking the landscape near Pesaro and (although some scholars dispute this) the still-extant castle of Gradara. A set of differences can be both recognized and transcended; Bellini's work for a site in the periphery, at a halfway point between Venice and Rome, draws the regional (Venetian), the local/provincial (Pesaro), and the "national" into a kind of harmonious axial alignment. The last of these, at least for the duration of the exhibition, was signaled by Rome, where the disiecta membra of the work have been reunited: "The Quirinal Hill, the place where the identity of the fatherland resides ... [in] an exhibition that reflects, as if in a mirror, the haunting beauty of historic Italy."

Such an official celebration of Bellini, by the scholar and former cultural heritage minister Antonio Paolucci, speaks to broader, anxious questions concerning the historical experience of place, problems arising at the intersection of history and geography. There is the historical question of what geographic identities like "regional," "national," and "local" might have meant — if they meant anything — to artists like Bellini and to their publics. Since the 1800s, Renaissance art has repeatedly served as the point of departure for the construction and reconstruction of Italian cultural memory and national identity. In one more recent, and blatantly instrumental, spectacle, art functioned as a symbolic resolution of long-standing tensions between deeply sedimented regional identities and the manufactured collectivity of the modern state. In a pavilion of Expo 2015 in Milan, works of Renaissance and later art were pressed into a new formulation of national identity based on food culture and biodiversity. This annex to what was essentially a giant food fair ("Eataly") was hung floor to ceiling with paintings by Lotto, Romanino, Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, Niccolo di Maestro Antonio, and numerous other later artists who have come to personify the local and the "peripheral." Art here performed the end of history, as a narrative no longer of progress and modernization but of highly essentialized and transhistorical regional differences, as much natural as cultural.

It is by means of such an utterly unhistorical artistic geography that the local is aligned with the national, and that artists outside the mainstream centers of Florence, Rome, and Venice — artists who barely receive a mention in Giorgio Vasari's Florence-centric history of art — are given a place. Art is conveniently redefined as a national resource or consumer product, like prosciutto di Parma or Brunello da Montalcino. At the same time, even the reductive dehistoricization that we see at work in the Expo display is oblique testimony to the central problem in Renaissance historiography since Vasari: that the historical problem of describing what happened in Italy between 1300 and 1600 is also a spatial or geographic one. What I mean here is that geography is conceived as a passive ground through which historical processes of modernization have been enacted or implanted. Much as Paolucci recognizes that Bellini's presence in Pesaro means that Pesaro participates in broader currents traversing the peninsula, those currents are always figured as a momentum of unidirectional transformation — the integration of Pesaro into a historical mainstream with a uniform character; the evolution of the maniera moderna; the collective emergence of "modern" Renaissance Italian art. Thus, Marco Zoppo's 1471 altarpiece for the Franciscans in Pesaro (fig. 1.2), produced only a few years before Bellini's work for the same church, could only represent a primitive antecedence with regard to Bellini, and the obsolescence of pictorial models from another provincial center (Padua or Bologna). Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian artist at large in the central Adriatic region who had little interest in his compatriot's formulation of space and light in the Pesaro altarpiece, is necessarily a "late Gothic" practitioner, a purveyor of courtly glamour for a provincial elite, rather than, say, an alternative and intensely metarepresentational vanguardist, performing while unmasking the technologies of pictorial illusion (fig. 1.3).

We are dealing, after all, with a geographic entity where for several centuries the quantity, variety, and survival rate of artistic production are unparalleled in any other region in the same period: not the Holy Roman Empire, not Spain, not the Netherlands, not anywhere in western Asia. The extraordinary variety of Italian art from the Middle Ages onward has long appealed to the mapping and diagnostic impulses of historians, travelers, curators, and connoisseurs. While the need for a more geographically inclusive historical paradigm has been called for since the Storia pittorica of Luigi Lanzi (1792–96), the past two centuries of commentary on the Renaissance have seen the opposite happening.

Modern historiographies have not given up on one of the central terms in Vasari's analytical armory, his view of the Renaissance — explicated in his Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568) — as characterized by the achievement of the (only) maniera moderna. Vasari was specific about what that entailed: it meant that art had progressed to a norm of idealized beauty and order epitomized in the work of Raphael, the artist from Urbino who had dominated art in Rome from 1509 until his death in 1520, and whose many followers disseminated the principles of the "modern manner" to other parts of Italy. Within the half-century after the lifetimes of Bellini, Zoppo, and Crivelli, a normative account of the maniera moderna was emerging, which located the entire momentum of change in at most two or three privileged centers, neglecting or negating prolific and high-quality production elsewhere in the peninsula: southern Italy, the Adriatic provinces, the Alps, and so on.

The vast array of artistic production across a large and culturally highly fragmented region is made intelligible by singling out only those that signal evolution toward some idea of the future, some notion of the postmedieval, something that from the Enlightenment onward was seen to be fundamentally connected with the self-image of the modern historian. As Vasari's modern manner was in later centuries conflated with a "classical" norm quite foreign to the Renaissance, above all with the universal and transhistorical "Hellenic" ideal of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the organizing binaries that have dominated the modern historiography of Italian art began to emerge: classical/anticlassical; center/periphery; modernizing/retardataire. An implacable neo-Vasarian rigidity was set in place following World War II. For scholars like Frederick Hartt, the affirmation of Florentine art as an art of "freedom" was an aesthetic and ideological disenfranchisement of "her enemies" — the courts, and then the courtly art of mannerism. Bernard Berenson had nurtured the enthusiasm of early twentieth-century collectors for the art of Carlo Crivelli, but in Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1952) he wrote that "Crivelli does not belong to a movement of constant progress, and therefore is not within the scope of this work." According to the only scholarly modern survey in English of Italian art in the sixteenth century, Sydney J. Freedberg's Painting in Italy, 1500–1600:

The artistic events that most powerfully determined the history of sixteenth century painting took place in the century's first two decades in Florence and Rome, in the time which, implicitly recognizing the nature of its achievement, we have come to call the High Renaissance. The most extraordinary intersection of genius art history has known occurred then and gave form to a style which, again eliciting a term that is a value judgment, we call "classical"— meaning, in its original usage, "of the highest class."

Freedberg has had no competitors. Could there ever be a general history of Italian art that does not consign most artistic production in the peninsula to the periphery, as his Painting in Italy, 1500–1600 implicitly did? The present book — which can be seen as called into being by the white spaces in Freedberg's frontispiece map, dominated by Florence and Venice and truncated below Naples (fig. 1.4) — will seek to lay out the conditions for such a history, through a series of case studies. What follows is an account of Italian Renaissance art as it might have been seen from points of view other than the Florentine one, as it might have been understood by artists and their audiences in the period 1500–1570 in Piedmont, Bergamo, Brescia, the Marches, Messina, and even in Rome and Venice: the goal is to think of sixteenth-century art — somehow — without Vasari.

Such a goal is, at best, idealistic. Vasari's historical and geographic scheme of artistic progress and modernization, and its domination by artists from his native Tuscany, has been resisted, critiqued, and attacked from the sixteenth century onward. While modern art history might consider itself free of Vasarian notions like the "dark ages," progress in the arts, and the modernity of the Renaissance, his periodizing scheme has proved hard to dislodge. Even more intractable, and more challenging, for modern scholarship is Vasari's geography of art. While in the general preface to the Lives Vasari claimed to offer a comprehensive account of Italian art over three centuries —"to drag from the ravening maw of time the names of the sculptors, painters, and architects, who from Cimabue to the present day, have been of some notable excellence in Italy" — it was clear even to early readers that there were only three places in Italy that finally mattered: Florence, Rome, and — somewhat grudgingly — Venice. In reading the draft for the second edition, his humanist colleague and editor Vincenzo Borghini pressed Vasari to include more material on "Genoa, Venice, Naples, Milan and in sum about the great cities full of works, whether of painting, sculpture, or architecture."

Vasari acted accordingly, but not without a conspicuous bias against art and artists in these other cities, especially Naples, and without compromising the centrality of Rome and Florence in his account. Already by the 1550s Venice-based writers like Ludovico Dolce and Pietro Aretino, responding to Vasari's prejudicial account of Venice, elaborated "Venice" and "Rome" as rival systems of artistic values, scarcely conceding a place to any others. The net effect of this rising body of art theory and history was a geographic conception of art in which an imaginary axis linking Rome, Florence, and Venice played a crucial hegemonic role. A leitmotiv of the Lives was the principle that artists born or working off the axis needed to relocate — at least temporarily — to the major centers, becoming effectively conduits of the Tuscan-Roman "modern manner," and that in not doing so they were destined for obscurity or irrelevance. Vasari could reasonably claim that Raphael of Urbino would not have become the artist he was without going to Florence at a young age; far more partisan is his insinuation that Titian would have been a better painter if he had left Venice earlier and gone to Rome. In Vasari's terms the "Lombard" painter Correggio, no matter how imposing his work in Parma might be, was fated to remain a provincial, since (according to Vasari at his most misleading) Correggio deprived himself of the vital sources of modernity in art by never visiting Rome. The new Vasarian geography of art saddled many of the artists who will appear in the following pages — notably Lorenzo Lotto, Gaudenzio Ferrari, and Romanino — with a marginal or "provincial" status that would have been unimaginable at the peak of their careers. As styles came to be mapped more rigidly onto centers, and centers were prioritized over regions, Vasari's "modern" geography of art ultimately erased the long-standing culture of artistic pluralism, of the dynamics of transregional exchange and mobility.

It is not enough, nonetheless, to insist that Vasari was prejudiced, ill-informed, or "wrong." Whatever the reliability of its information, the Lives was groundbreaking as an example of historical method, powerful as a narrative of modernization, and essential in ensuring the paradigmatic status of Italy in later European historiographies of art and in collecting cultures to the present day. I am not suggesting that we subscribe to a view of Vasari as promulgating a kind of sinister historiographical conspiracy directed against non-Florentines (and "impure" Florentines like Pontormo). The moment of Vasari also corresponds with other tendencies toward normalization and centralization in Italian culture, in response to political, religious, and other institutional pressures determining the professional lives of artists.

In this chapter, I will address the possibility for thinking against the grain of Vasari's Tusco-centric version of modernity, his sense of geography as destiny. This will first of all mean reconstructing pre-Vasarian attitudes to art and its relation to place, how notions of the particular were conceptualized in relation to a larger entity called "Italy." In the following chapters, I will explore geographic models — art historical and otherwise — that will give a place to ambitious art that is also self-conscious about place, mostly by artists who were omitted from or scarcely acknowledged by Vasari's influential canon.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
John A. Bross
1 Off the Axis: The Renaissance without Vasari
Working with—and without—Vasari’s Lives
Court Centers as World Cities
What Was Italy?
Models for Renaissance Cultural Geography: Dialect Pluralism versus Literary Canons
2 Place, Event, and the Geopolitics of Art
Place in Relational Geography
Place as Event and Performance in an Altarpiece by Lorenzo Lotto
Regionalism and Its Discontents
3 The View from Messina: Lombards, Sicilians, and the Modern Manner
The Questione Meridionale in the History of Art
A Southern Renaissance without Vasari
Cesare da Sesto: Raffaelesco or Anti-Raphael?
Polidoro da Caravaggio’s Radical Late Style
4 Distant Cities: Lorenzo Lotto and Gaudenzio Ferrari
Lorenzo Lotto: An Artist “Out of Place”
Lotto and Gaudenzio: Parallel Careers
From Varallo to Loreto: Landscapes of Pilgrimage
Holding Rome at a Distance: Lotto’s Loreto Network
Excursus: The Meaning of Style
Coercive Geometry
Moti: Emotional Dynamics
Gaudenzio as City Artist
5 Brescia and Bergamo, 1520-50: Sacred Naturalism and the Place of the Eucharist
Eucharistic Heterotopias in Lombardy: Romanino at Pisogne
Moretto and the “Materiality” of Style
6 Against Titian
Artists “Off the Axis”: The Campi, the Carracci, and the Legacy of Correggio
The Afterlife of Titian in Milan
The 1540s: Titian as “Italian” Artist
Ludovico Dolce and the Invention of Venetian Painting
The Placelessness of Titian’s Late Style

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