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Looking at the Renaissance: Essays toward a…
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Looking at the Renaissance: Essays toward a Contextual Appreciation

by Charles R. Mack

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"Not only is this a well-written book, it is an unusually valuable contribution to the field of Renaissance Studies." ---Norman Land, University of Missouri Utilizing a variety of examples from the artistic production of medieval and Renaissance Europe, Looking at the Renaissance presents a holistic interpretation of the origins and characteristics of the threshold period to our modern age. Charles R. Mack illustrates the Middle Ages as a time of fragmentation in which the world was comprehended in piecemeal fashion. However, he states that the Renaissance advanced a unified idea made possible by the resurrection of a melioristic vision of man's role within a Divine Plan. Looking at the Renaissance argues in favor of the now-disputed notion of "historical periods" while continuing to uphold the importance of the antique revival in shaping the cultural character of the age. Mack offers a new contextual approach to appreciating not only the art but also the cultural entirety of the Renaissance period. By suggesting certain key ingredients common to all Renaissance creations and activities, Mack facilitates a better understanding of the revolutionary character of the era. As a compact, yet broadly considered treatment of the era, Looking at the Renaissance would be an extraordinary addition to the library of both scholars and students studying classics, art, culture, literature, and history.… (more)

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Mack offers a series of related essays on the origins and singularity of the Italian Renaissance. He frames the book as a senior scholar's retrospective understanding of the broad contours of his field, offering an interpretation of the distinctive features of its art and cultural context. Explicitly eschewing fashionable theory, Mack discusses what he sees as the overriding emphasis on unity, the 'renovatio' of antiquity, and Italians artists' anti-medievalism. These qualities are in his view the essential, pervasive components of the Renaissance.

The introduction and chapter one are the weakest. Rather than arguing for the faultiness or limitations of specific critical theory applications to Renaissance art, which he suggests obscures the essential components he treats, Mack simply dismisses them and offers instead a somewhat undefined preference for "contextualism." But if you can get past these first pages, the remaining chapters are well worth the time. Mack very astutely analyzes a number of Renaissance artworks, primarily from the quattrocento but some from the cinquecento, too. He very often contrasts the Renaissance work with a late medieval predecessor to underscore the essential differences in artistic temperament and cultural outlook. Mack spends a significant amount of time on the intellectual history of the period, reviewing the Humanists' theories of art and connecting these to specific artworks. He also very ably handles the theological context, providing a convincing assessment of St. Francis of Assisi's central role in changing religious and artistic practice in the late middle ages and into the quattrocento.

The book would make great reading in an introductory course on the Renaissance as it offers a broad view of the period as well as convincing readings of many familiar works, including many architectural works, which is Mack's primary area of expertise (he wrote the major book in English on the rebuilding of Pienza). As an introduction to Renaissance art or as a jargon-free assessment of its major qualities for those not immersed in its historiographic complexities, one can benefit immensely from spending a few hours with this concise, engaging book.

This does not mean that the reader will be convinced by his polemics. The idea of unity is certainly important for the broad Renaissance worldview, but unity did not mean stasis or anti-progressivism. This theme seems slightly misplaced, emphasized but never quite defined or explained.

Overall, this was a pleasurable read, but those expecting a deep engagement with theoretical issues in the interpretation of Renaissance architecture--including the "context" referred to in the book's subtitle--will be disappointed.
  pranogajec | Sep 28, 2011 |
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