Waldemar Januszczak “unchains” the Renaissance


Renaissance Unchained.png
image: BBC iPlayer

Just managed to sit down to watch the first instalment of Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC, which you can watch on the iPlayer (until it goes out of date, and unless you’re abroad) here. Called The Renaissance Unchained, it’s a four-parter, in which Januszczak is promising to deconstruct some of the great myths and misunderstandings that dominate, he says, in our collective understanding of the “Renaissance”.

Show one set out to destabilise the view that the Renaissance is a strictly Italian phenomenon, that the Italians, beginning about the turn of the 1400s, were solely responsible for art’s “rebirth” following the grim Dark Ages. This rebirth, so the familar story goes, culminated in Michelangelo, the Divine. He took pointed aim at Vasari, whose Lives (1550; rev. ed. 1568), established the very idea of the Renaissance–Vasari after all was the very first, as Januszczak points out, to use the term Rinascimento to describe the phenomenon in art that he charted right back to the time of Cimabue. The problem, as Januszczak made very clear, is that Vasari’s Rinascimento is unapologetically Italian: art was reborn only in Italy, it grew only in Italy and it was definitely perfected only in Italy. Nowhere in Vasari’s great teleological scheme of art’s progress do non-Italians get a look in (except in the ’68 edition which features a brief and rather patronising appendix on “Diverse Flemings”).

Anyway, all this, as the show argued, is a problem. A big problem.

Januszczak intends to fix this problem in his series by showing that the Renaissance didn’t happen only in Italy (even if it was only in Italy that the period was actually termed the Renaissance), and he started in the first show by telling us all about the important advances made in art in Germany and the Netherlands, mainly in the early 15th Century. Januszczak points out quite rightly that when Giotto et al. were making their art in Italy, in the Netherlands the van Eyck brothers were doing seriously revolutionary stuff, ditto Rogier van der Weyden etc. etc. He mentioned their mastery of oils as being a major contributing factor here (doing well to avoid repeating the erroneous view that the van Eycks’ invented the technique), likewise their interest in mirrors, optics, their use of lenses and so on (I couldn’t resist the screen grab above showing Januszczak sporting 15th-Century- style spectacles in front of Jan van Eyck’s Canon van der Paele Madonna!).

This was all good and quite right. And just before I say anything else, I’ll confess that I happen to be a fan (generally speaking) of Januszczak’s absorbing style, which is not too serious yet not at all patronising, and I am grateful for the fact that he is highlighting a serious bias in popular understanding of the Renaissance period (obviously, as a “Northern Renaissance” person, I see this as being a noble endeavour).

Eyck, Canon van der Paele
Jan van Eyck, Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-6, oil on panel; Groeningemuseum, Bruges

That all said, I have, perhaps predictably, some gripes.

First is the implication that Januszczak is the very first person to notice this bias, stemming directly from Vasari, in our understanding of the Renaissance period–“I’m arguing…”, “I want to show… “, “I am suggesting…”, that sort of thing. This, however, is quite unfair and misleading. A great deal of work has been done in recent times which has highlighted the many problems inherent in Vasari’s account of the Renaissance, which includes the many omissions. And this work  hasn’t limited itself to highlighting just the author’s Italocenticism (which, in any case, should more properly be his Tusco-centicism, since for Vasari the Florentine the Renaissance happened on the banks of the Arno). Many have asked, to give just a particularly pertinent and important example:”where are all the women?!”. This is to say, really, that it might have been nice to have acknowledged, somewhere, that there is a great deal of scholarship out there that already problematises Vasari’s account on a number of serious levels. (Indeed any one of our undergrads could have told you this, such is the emphasis placed on understanding and debunking Vasari’s account of The Renaissance in modern art history!)

Second–and this leads on from the first–I didn’t really appreciate the implication that all art historians fall for Vasari’s claims, and toe the Vasarian line, hook, line, and sinker. Especially annoying, perhaps, was Januszczak’s repeated observation that, because of Vasari, art historians refer to Jan, Rogier and company as the “Flemish Primitives”. He used this observation to draw attention to the lingering influence of Vasari: Giotto is a Renaissance Genius; Robert Campin a “Primitive”. Two points/problems. 1) Not many art historians (that I am familiar with anyway) make much (serious) use these days of the term “Primitives” to describe the age of Campin and the van Eycks. Netherlandish Primitives as a term enjoyed its heyday in much earlier times, about the turn of the 1900s. 2) That said, I’m not really convinced that the term “Netherlandish Primitives” was ever meant disparagingly anyway. The scholars that used the term “Primitives” were often not those that sought to show that Vasari was right, after all, and that northern European art is implicitly inferior to Italian. Obviously some might have done. But conversely, many others that used the term Primitives were precisely those that were instrumental in the excavation, study and critical re-appraisal of “Early Netherlandish Painting” (a term that came to replace Netherlandish Primitives, with its altogether more positive overtones–it is no coincidence that Erwin Panofsky’s 1953 magnum opus is thus titled Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin and Character).

In other words, I thought it was a bit unfair to say that all art historians are bewitched by Vasari, believe him, extend uncritical credence to his account, and that all us art historians (including us scholars of northern European in particular) consequently still go around talking about the Netherlandish Primitives!

With a bit more reflection, I also didn’t much appreciate the suggestion that van Eyck etc. produced art that was better than what was going on in Italy. I don’t think this the place for making value judgements. They’re different, that’s true, but that’s not the same (or shouldn’t be) as saying that one is better than the other.

I don’t mean for these words to sound unfair. I’m pleased, as I said, that Januszczak has chosen to use his tele platform to highlight the great art that was produced in the Netherlands from 1400 to 1600 (and before and beyond). But what I am saying is that, perhaps inadvertently, Januszczak did a whole bunch of scholars a disservice by presenting some of his main ideas in the way in which he did.

In the next episode Januszczak is threatening to delve into the world of Bosch… I wait, with interest and trepidation in equal measure, for that one.



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