Lock up your patron's daughters

By Matthew Collings
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The Independent Culture

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon (BBC £25)

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon (BBC £25)

This book has a bad kitschy cover but otherwise it's a good populist book. The Renaissance isn't a subject many people know very well, so just explaining anything at all about it in a lively way is an achievement. And largely Graham-Dixon keeps up the pace.

The pleasure is in the ideas. They fairly steam along. They come from conventional art history but Graham-Dixon has selected ones that will make the most immediate impact. He gets them over skilfully and succinctly without ever getting bogged down or self-conscious. Academic or scholarly books on the Renaissance can be full of equivocations and fearsome runnings-around as if the writer was afraid of being told off. But this one immediately sets to in the opening chapter, explaining what the Renaissance was and where it came from and what the basic ideas are now about it and how you can try fitting them together in different ways. And the author more or less keeps up the liveliness to the end.

When he goes against received wisdom he does it in a way that subtly reminds the reader what the wisdom is before kicking in with the twist on it. "It is impossible to appreciate the energies which animate a painting such as Masacchio's Expulsion from Paradise - with its ugly, agonized, expressive figures - or a sculpture such as Donatello's St John the Baptist - a figure of a prophet pulsating with inner mental energies ... if one has been led to think of these masterpieces purely in terms of a classically inspired rejection of the medieval past. How 'medieval', indeed, such acknowledged masterpieces of 'Renaissance' art can seem."

The best mode is when it explains in terms of description and anecdote relationships between power and art. This is a subject Graham-Dixon approaches from many angles without ever exhausting its fascination. He is good, for example, on the painter of a particular religious scene whose art paid tribute "to his patron's wealth and wisdom, even though his style remained simple and direct, purged of any trace of excess or luxury, in keeping with the monastic ideal". The same artist worked on the same subject once again - for the same patron - but for a private chapel rather than a public space and this time came up with a very different result - "in which devotion has been transferred from Christ to the pageant of wealth".

With the Renaissance, genius is the thing but power is the thing, too. In the case of the Medicis in Florence, power had to be expressed with a certain restraint and caution because Florence remained a Republic even when the power of the Medici rulers became virtually absolute. This tension of projecting and amplifying but at the same time hiding ambition and power resulted in the magnificently complex and subtle art of the Florentine Renaissance. With other rulers in Italy, power and triumph were expressed more directly. But in any case artists achieved great heights of individual artistic expression not in opposition to power but quite the reverse, that is, to the extent that they were clever and quick enough to go along with it, following its subtle, odd twists.

Even the most monstrous of rulers was a humanist scholar, a poet, and a philosopher. At one point we are introduced to Piero della Francesca's patron - the delightfully named Sigismondo Malatesta, frightful lord of Rimini, who raped not only his own daughters but their husbands as well. And yet it was Sigismondo who hired Alberti to design the Malatesta temple in Rimini, a marvellous work notable for its layering of mythological, astrological and Christian symbols. Graham-Dixon points out that using other kinds of religious beliefs in such an inclusive way was new; it came from an intellectual confidence that all beliefs connect to the one true faith. And he contends that this was - rather shockingly - exclusive in its liberal tolerance. That is, ordinary people wouldn't necessarily have understood it.

The book is full of things like this that enrich our idea of genius by demystifying it and putting it in a more human context. For example, I always vaguely knew about Alberti - he wrote some kind of treatise concerning the ideal attributes a painter should have, refinement and high learning and mathematical ability as well as manual. But Graham-Dixon lets us know that until this Alberti published On Painting, "few such intellectually rounded painters actually existed". We tend to think it was a cast of mind that just developed because the Renaissance air was so naturally thick with genius, rather than an intellectual trend that Alberti personally set.

All this is great, and the licence-payers should definitely be grateful to the BBC for it and stop complaining. They might be a bit fed up with Graham-Dixon's manneristic use of non-words like "thus" and non-phrases (at least in the 20th century) like "in his employ". He knows very well he only means "he was employed by" and that "thus" is never used by real people unless it's in a context of being humorously pedantic. Also he is capable of absurd and ugly constructions like the following: "The networks that linked one Renaissance court to another - traversed by painters as well as by poets, philosophers, mathematicians and a host of other men with nothing but their genius to declare - became an information highway."

We should take our hats off to him, though, and the BBC should reward him, too, even more than they already have. He should be given a magnificent unit of his own at Television Centre so that he can sit around and think up ideas at his leisure, boss people about and go out for plenty of big dinners on expenses. (That this might be Graham-Dixon's own fantasy, as suggested by a recent leaked memo going round the BBC, is no reason to think ill of him. Rather it gives us a more richly human idea of the nature of genius.)