Robert Brennan on 'Painting as a Modern Art in Early Renaissance Italy'

A contribution by

Robert Brennan

Painting as a Modern Art in Early Renaissance Italy

Art historians have often looked back on the Italian Renaissance as a signal moment for the emergence of modern art. In doing so, they evaluate the modernity of the period in conscious hindsight: the Renaissance is modern insofar as some aspect of their own modernity can be seen to originate in it. Whatever the merits of this approach, it sheds little light on what it meant when Renaissace writers themselves called art modern. What is modern to us was not necessarily modern to them.

Painting as a Modern Art in Early Renaissance Italy reconstructs a historical concept of modern art on the basis of sources written between the 1390s and 1440s. The central point of reference in these sources was Giotto, the early fourteenth-century painter who, as one writer put it in 1442, “first modernized (modernizavit) ancient and mosaic figures.” The word “modern” was used in a wide variety of ways throughout this period, some quite polemical, others rather prosaic. To call art (ars) modern, however, was to invoke a stable, well-defined concept whose roots ran deep in late-medieval intellectual life. According to this concept, to make an art modern was to set it on a new foundation in science (scientia) and rationalize it accordingly.

As familiar as this formulation may sound in principle, each and every one of its key terms — art, modernity, science, rationality — meant something strikingly different in this period than it does in our time. The hallmark of modern art was not verisimilitude or expression or virtually any of the achievements that art historians associate with Giotto today, but rather the invention of techniques that aimed to imitate nature in its very manner of operation, aligning the concrete, step-by-step process of painting with the inner workings of nature itself. By reclaiming this concept and tracking its complex relation to early Renaissance concerns such as linear perspective and the canon of proportion, the book not only establishes a novel framework for the visual analysis of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian painting, but also unravels a fundamental master narrative of Western art history from within, clearing the way for renewed discussions of alternative modernities, including those that precede the story of modernism as we know it.

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