Waldemar’s still unchaining the Renaissance (or not)


Waldemar .png

Just sat down to catch the latest instalment of The Renaissance Unchained, Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC. We’re on to episode 3/4 now, and all of the previous shows are on the iPlayer. This week’s episode was called “Silk, Sex and Sin”. Important caveat, again, to what follows: I want to declare, right away, that I think we should be grateful that Waldemar is doing his bit, using his platform, to make sure that interest in Renaissance art doesn’t wane. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Mainly, this concerns a general mis-match between what Waldemar thinks he’s doing, saying, and achieving, and what he’s actually doing, what he’s actually saying. The series is supposed to unchain the Renaissance, to give new insights, to speak the unspoken. But it doesn’t.

I didn’t post about last week’s film yet, partly because I didn’t have time, and partly because I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t said before. Show 2 didn’t really seem to have a point: oh here’s Giotto, here’s Simone Martini, here’s Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo etc. etc. And then there was “wasn’t Jesus really ugly in the Renaissance?” I thought this series was supposed to be about unveiling a new side to the Renaissance? Well, none of those artists/subjects just mentioned are by any stretch of the imagination unfamiliar, even to the most pedestrian art enthusiast. To go back to my earlier point about show 1, if we really wanted to consider the untold Renaissance, wouldn’t we want to wonder, for instance, a bit more about such topics as: where have all the women gone? Might we not have spent less time raking over the dead familiar stuff, and spend a bit of time thinking about Sofonisba Anguissola, for example? And might we also not wonder why there aren’t many “Renaissance Women” to speak of in the first place? Waldemar was well up for highlighting that Vasari forgot about things going on outside Italy but what about Vasari’s even worse omission of women. Etc. etc.

At the end of show 2 I was still not convinced that the Renaissance was being unchained. Instead Waldemar simply espouses another potted history of the Renaissance–this is Gombrich’s Story of Art. So far it has featured all the well-known, mostly Italian, blokes (despite setting out to do the opposite), and, actually, all the old clichés. Since show 1 sought, so vehemently, to show that the Renaissance wasn’t an Italian phenomenon (even though everybody already knew that), I found it sort of funny that show 2 was all about Italian men…

Other annoyances:

Michelangelo battled not only with marble but with the ancients, too? Yeah, Waldemar (any old Michelangelo book will tell you that)! I also didn’t get the bit about “poor old Michelangelo” being duped by the Ancient sculptures, which, by the time they were dug up in the 1500s had lost their polychromy. But can we really be sure that if these sculptures had been found with paint still on them–and I’m not 100% sure that all Antique statues were painted (were they?)–that Michelangelo and others would have been less interested in the intrinsic visual properties of marble? I’m not so sure.

It’s also strangely ironic, I suppose, that at one moment in a show that claims to show new sides to the Renaissance, to cast light on hitherto neglected souls, that Waldemar did a piece to camera front of Senastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation (in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome; below). Michelangelo was involved in designing this fresco, yet that collaboration was not mentioned, and poor old Sebastiano didn’t even get a look in, wasn’t even mentioned. Instead we were whisked off to the Sistine Chapel, for Botticelli, Perugino, the big M, and so on and so on (not necessarily a bad thing, but incongruous given Waldemar’s supposed aims).


There were plenty of other bold, wholly untrue claims. One was that nobody’s ever heard of, thinks about, or writes about Nicollò dell’Arca, who has been”written out”, Waldemar told us, of the story of the Renaissance: “you just don’t hear about Niccolò dell’Arca”. But that’s not quite true.

Anyway, those were my thoughts about show 2.

Anyway, felt compelled to write again, since show 3 was in many ways just as problematic. We’ve moved on to Venice. Splendid! There were lots of Bellinis, Carpaccios and all the rest, which are wonderful. But then, with Giorgione, the first big problem arose. We don’t know anything about Giorgione, true, but when Waldemar said that he had solved the mystery of Giorgione’s Tempest, he was, yet again, doing hard-working art historians a disservice. Waldemar, as though making a breakthrough, told us that he’d come up with a solution to the Tempest, which has troubled art historians, and told us the picture is actually based on Hesiod’s Theogony. Now that isn’t exactly “common knowledge”, granted, but the thing is it’s not (yet again) a Waldemar original (as he enthusiastically implied!). The idea that Giorgione’s famous picture was inspired by Hesiod was first proposed–as far as I know, and I could be wrong–by Ursula and Warren Kirkendale in 2015. Even if they weren’t the first, what is certainly true is that Waldemar isn’t. (Obviously I understand he need for TV drama, but would it have been so hard to say “as others recently have pointed out… and I agree…”? To put it bluntly, I don’t much like this kind of scholarly appropriation that Waldemar goes in for. True, a TV show doesn’t have the apparatus, nor the appetite, for dense, academic argumentation, but I think that there are ways of being scrupulous about acknowledging your sources without bogging the viewer down and which must always be done.)

Waldemar also went on to claim that it is only as a result of “recent research” that we now know that the glassworkers were moved to Murano, not only to protect the main city of Venice from fire, but also so that Venice could keep its glass blowing techniques a secret from their rivals. To his credit, Waldemar does not attribute this “recent research” to himself, but he still suggests that this is a recent revelation that he is sharing with his audience when it is a claim that has been asserted for centuries.

Ponte delle Tette (Venice)

At least in show 3 the women made it in–hurrah. Unfortunately this was in the way of the Ponte de le Tette, or Bridge of Tits. Obviously not the most empowering of guises in which women could make an appearance in Waldemar’s newfangled account of the Renaissance. Waldemar uses the bridge as a segue into discussing the audience grabbing aspect of this episode’s title–sex! In particular, he looks at Titian’s revolutionary portrayal of the female nude, which allows Waldemar to oggle Titian’s Danaë, the Rape of Europa, the Venus of Urbino and others. Titian was indeed a groundbreaking and consummate painter of the female nude. However, Waldemar completely ignores the really interesting aspects of these paintings, which is that despite all their sexiness a fair few of Titian’s mythologies (the ones with the most female nudes!) were commissioned by Spain’s Philip II, who just happens to have been one of the most powerful Catholics in the period of religious upheaval that we call the Reformations and Counter Reformations (an important context for understanding Titian, and, broadly speaking, all European art from the sixteenth century that Waldemar failed to mention). It might have been interesting, then, to think about how we can resolve or square the ostensible paradox that Titian’s sexy nudes were originally oggled by the very-Catholic, notoriously strait-laced Phillip!

Titian, Frari .jpg

Waldemar failed to mention religion in his discussion of sex, failing to address what appear to be the inherent dichotomies and incongruities. But he did later go off to visit one of my favourite buildings in Venice–the Scuola di San Rocco–as an example of a religious building that is covered in the most amazing collection of Tintoretto paintings. He also mentioned Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari, but once again, missed the opportunity to share any of the more interesting things about that painting, going instead for the more banal ones.Waldemar could, for example, have talked about the fact that Titian was one of the first artists to really consider the space he was painting for and the picture’s relationship with its surroundings. I got excited when Waldemar started his talk about the painting from in front of the choir screen, guessing that he was going to talk about the fact that the Assunta is meant to be gradually revealed to you and you move along the nave towards the altar, until you reach the choir screen, which, when opened, perfectly frames the altarpiece ahead. Titian, and later Tintoretto, wanted the experiences of the audiences to be interactive, awe-inspiring and above all, spiritual (you know, that revelationary moment in the Frari when you reach the choir screen and see get a full glimpse of the Virgin’s assumption into the Heavens). However Waldemar said nothing about it. It was such a missed opportunity to talk about something that was really a very Venetian, and very pioneering, approach.

Again, though, is Waldemar really bringing us anything new and exciting about the Renaissance that we didn’t already know by talking to us about Titian’s most famous painting? While it is indeed a very, very good painting there are numerous others that do not get the same attention that Waldemar could have talked about and which really would’ve highlighted an under-appreciated side of the (Venetian) Renaissance. Venice is full of masterpieces that are not as well known as the Assumption. Titian, along with Tintoretto and Veronese (who also gets a mention for, unsurprisingly, his stunning representation of fabrics) represent the triumvirate of the most famous Venetian painters of the Renaissance. But what about all the others? If Waldemar had really wanted to uncover a more hidden side, he could have given a voice to painters such as Francesco Montemezzano or Jacopo Bassano, who were both very competent artists working in the same period as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese but are nowhere near as well known. He might also have dwelled on Venice as an artistic crossroads, that played host to all sorts of artists as they moved about Europe.

All this week’s episode of The Renaissance Unchained did not really fulfill its brief of challenging “the traditional view of art’s most important epoch”. Instead it provided a watered down version of any good (or not so good) art history textbook, with some spurious “recent research” claims, and other breakthroughs, thrown in.


* Update

Bernard says:

The series is broadcasted early 2016, so probably filmed in 2015 and written maybe even earlier? Is it possible the Kirkindales and this Waldemar came to the same conclusion independently?

  • jamieedwards756 says:

    It’s possible, of course. But, being a skeptic, I guess I’m doubtful… It seems somehow too much of a coincidence, perhaps?! At any rate, I didn’t mean to make much of a big point about it. For me it’s just another (possible) example of how Waldemar can skew the truth by neglecting to mention that certain ideas are already out there in the world of art history.




  1. The series is broadcasted early 2016, so probably filmed in 2015 and written maybe even earlier? Is it possible the Kirkindales and this Waldemar came to the same conclusion independently?

    • It’s possible, of course. But, being a skeptic, I guess I’m doubtful… It seems somehow too much of a coincidence, perhaps?! At any rate, I didn’t mean to make much of a big point about it. For me it’s just another (possible) example of how Waldemar can skew the truth by neglecting to mention that certain ideas are already out there in the world of art history.

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