BOOK REVIEW / Reconciling the sunny icon with the grim truth: 'History and its Images' - Francis Haskell: Yale University Press, 29.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
HISTORY and Its Images marks a return to fields in which its distinguished author has long enjoyed pre-eminence. Now, however, Francis Haskell is less concerned with the reinterpretation of images, than with the broader question of the role played by art in historical studies. Haskell's point of departure was an observation by the great classical historian Momigliano that Renaissance antiquarians established the need for new historical studies through the collection of evidence outside ancient literary sources.

The advent of printing facilitated the spread of different kinds of information about the ancient and medieval world, gleaned from sculpture and inscriptions, and most historians saw its worth although they believed it was peripheral to their own studies. Even sophisticated historians like Gibbon, while recognising the value of visual evidence, discounted it when it clashed with preconceived notions.

The shift towards cultural history began with Voltaire's labile association of politics and art in his study of Louis XIV and was later confirmed by Hegel's dictum that a knowledge of Greek sculpture was crucial for an understanding of Greek thought. When Ruskin famously declared that the three manuscripts of a great nation were its deeds, its words and its art, he was simply endorsing the prevailing fashion in historical studies. Confirmation of the value of monuments and paintings also came with the organisation of museums like the Louvre and the Uffizi along chronological lines, reinforcing a belief in progress across the centuries.

For Haskell, the heroes of his book seem to be Jules Michelet and Johan Huizinga, who stand at the beginning and end of the age of cultural history. In his great History of France, Michelet attempted to reconstruct all aspects of the past, and established the influential concept of the Renaissance grounded in 'the discovery of the world, the discovery of man'.

More reflective historians remained puzzled about the nature of visual evidence. Edgar Quinet pointed to the discrepancy between the sunny mythology of Venetian painting and the grim reality of the Venetian Republic. Even the great Jacob Burckhardt faltered when he confronted the triumph of the plastic arts in Italy and omitted any extended discussion of them from his masterpiece, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Indeed, his promised sequel, in which the visual arts would feature, never materialised.

Here Haskell argues that the Swiss scholar's earlier studies of Italian art provided the concepts embedded in his account of politics and the individual; yet Burckhardt's reticence, the careful distinction he maintained between his historical and art-historical publications, could also be interpreted as a recognition of their divergent intellectual claims.

Such misgivings were shared by Huizinga, writing in the aftermath of the First World War. His great work, The Waning of the Middle Ages, focused on Burgundian society in the 15th century, but Huizinga inverted the fashionable view of the period as the dawn of a northern Renaissance, interpreting it rather as the end of the medieval world. Though a sensitive student of art, Huizinga was sparing in his use of visual evidence, noting that 'the vision of an epoch resulting from . . . works of art is always incomplete, always too favourable, and therefore fallacious'.

The ambiguity of art as historical document is central to Francis Haskell's book; if it ends on an inconclusive note, that is because the subject does not lend itself to straightforward deductions. History and its Images offers, nonetheless, valuable insights into the art of history.

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