Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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TV Review: The Renaissance Unchained

Rebecca Unsworth (Queen Mary University of London / The Victoria & Albert Museum)


[1] In his recent BBC4 television series rethinking the art of the Renaissance, Waldemar Januszczak began with Giorgio Vasari. According to Januszczak, that ‘Michelangelo groupie’ was responsible for inventing the Renaissance in his use of the term rinascita to describe what was happening around him artistically. The tale which Vasari wove in his Lives of the Artists was one of cultural triumph, with a return to civilisation in Italy and a rebirth of the ideas of classical antiquity. Whilst this vision of the Renaissance has become canonical in art history, it is this version of events that Januszczak set out to challenge.

Waldemar Januszczak in BBC4's The Renaissance Unchained

Waldemar Januszczak in BBC4’s The Renaissance Unchained

[2] Instead, he argued that although to an extent there was a search for knowledge and revival of classical civilisation in the Renaissance, generally in this period art was ‘doing what art always does. Imagining the unimaginable and inventing things, expressing its emotions and describing its fears, enjoying itself and breaking the rules’. The Renaissance was not a period of civilised calm and enlightenment, and if it was “progressive”, it was in ways other than those we have been led to believe.

[3] In the first episode, ‘Gods, Myths and Oil Paints’, Januszczak pitted himself directly against Vasari, questioning his timing and geography. For Januszczak argued that by ignoring Northern Europe – and what might be now termed the Northern Renaissance – Vasari had ignored some major developments in art, and had in turn planted 500 years of prejudice against northern art in favour of that from Italy in the annals of art history. By focusing on artists such as Jan van Eyck, Quentin Metsys, Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer, Januszczak set out to show that actually painting had become much “better” much earlier in Flanders and Germany than in Italy, helped by their earlier adoption of key developments like oil paints and lenses.

[4] The premise of the second episode, ‘Whips, Deaths and Madonnas’, was that although many have claimed that the Renaissance saw the birth of modern thought and a greater secularisation of society, religion remained hugely important. Indeed, the reason for there being so much great Renaissance art, according to Januszczak, is because so many great Renaissance sinners were trying to get into God’s good books. Through the frescoes of Giotto, the various Madonnas of Piero della Francesca and the Sistine Chapel of the ‘guilty, angsty and devoted’ Michelangelo, Januszczak showed how paintings in this period were finding ways to depict the previously unimaginable and make the impossible seem vivid and real.

[5] In the third episode, ‘Silk, Sex and Sin’ – interesting in its own right, but the programme least successfully tied into the wider argument of the series – Januszczak moved the action to Venice, questioning why its art was so different from everyone else’s. The answer that he gave was that it was due to the peculiarities of Venice’s location, ‘floating off the coast of reality’ and forming a cultural meeting point between East and West. Examining the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini and Giorgione, Januszczak both continued the focus on religious art and also moved into the sensual, with a look at depictions of Venus, Mary Magdalene, and the numerous sexual conquests of Zeus.

[6] The fourth and final episode, ‘Hells, Snakes and Giants’, was dedicated to the more unsettling and strange aspects of Renaissance art. Januszczak argued that the Renaissance was a far wilder period than we are typically led to believe, and that instead of being the first modern age of reason, it continued to be full of unreason. Thus by creating artworks which were more surreal or pessimistic in outlook, artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Leonardo da Vinci, Archimboldo and Jacopo Pontormo were not betraying Renaissance values. The development of Mannerism in the sixteenth century did not signify the decline of the Renaissance then, according to Januszczak, but its climax.

Hiereonymus Bosch, detail from 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', c.1500

Hiereonymus Bosch, detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, c.1500

[7] With his quirky presenting style – which often involved the use of unusual props, such as a plaster head of Michelangelo, or a taxidermied squirrel in order to explain the furs seen in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait – and witty quips, Januszczak has produced a fascinating whistlestop tour through a selection of artists and works which are often slightly more off the beaten track. His occasional extended riffs on individual paintings such as Giorgione’s Tempest, van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (memorably described by Januszczak as a ‘theme park of sin’) are very engaging, and certainly leave you with a greater insight into these works than you might have had before. Some of the more contextual topics that he deviates into, like the depiction of shot silk in Venetian art, the use of mirrors in Flemish art, and Rudolf II and the court in Prague, are incredibly interesting in their own right, and leave you wishing that there had been more time to dwell on them. Indeed, the programmes are such cornucopias of ideas and images and switch so peripatetically between different locations across the continent, it would have good to have had captions elucidating who the numerous works thrown up on screen but not necessarily discussed were by and where they can be found.

[8] Despite, or perhaps because, Januszczak has chosen to cover such a plethora of works and topics, the series is rather lacking in contextualisation and historical grounding at times. Although reasons are posited for the earlier development of Northern Renaissance art, these are not discussed in enough depth. If the capacity to produce and use oil paints and lenses was crucial to the advancement of art, why was it that Flanders had these items earlier than in Italy, and how was it that they came to migrate south? Why was Northern Europe left out of Vasari’s vision of the Renaissance? Despite categorising Vasari as arch enemy number one, no explanation is given of Vasari’s aims in writing his Lives, where he got his information from, or how it was that his narrative and conclusions were so readily adopted by art historians and propagated down the centuries.

[9] For although Januszczak begins the series with Vasari, not only does he then omit him from the following three episodes, but he also fails to deliver any real understanding of how Vasari or his followers conceptualised the Renaissance. He is challenging the chronology, setting and characteristics of Vasari’s (or at least the “traditional”) Renaissance without fully explaining the model that he is arguing against. Assumptions seem to have been made that the viewer already knows what “typical” Renaissance art looks like, so that whilst Januszczak concentrates on the deviations, he never shows the standard. To have more successfully made his case for difference, it would have been helpful to have had more direct comparisons, to have been shown what the works and artists were which Vasari believed to have exemplified the Renaissance and why he saw them as doing so.

[10] The term Renaissance is itself bandied about in the series with sheer abandon, but exactly what Januszczak is using that term to encapsulate is unclear. When he says of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights that ‘this is Renaissance art as well, just as Renaissance as the Mona Lisa’, what does that mean? Is it simply that both were created around the same time, or is it that Januszczak wants us to reconceptualise the ideals that Renaissance art is supposed to exhibit? Frequently he talks about the Renaissance as a period, although he covers ground from the early fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century. At other times however he gives the impression of the Renaissance being a movement in art whose parameters he wants to expand. But if the whole original conception of the Renaissance was as a rebirth of antiquity, does it work for Januszczak to bring works like Giambologna’s Apennine Colossus, ‘so clearly not influenced by the Greeks’, under the umbrella of the term Renaissance?

[11] At other times, the notion of the Renaissance for Januszczak appears to mean that the era saw a wider cultural shift beyond just changes in painting. This can be seen for example in his discussion of Savonarola in the second episode, where he argues that if the Renaissance was genuinely an enlightened and progressive time, then Florence would have ignored Savonarola rather than being enthralled by him. Generally however Januszczak steers clear of delving into the actual history of the period or into other media and cultural outputs. The focus is very firmly on painting and the odd sculpture or two, although Januszczak does occasionally meander into the realm of the decorative arts, with discussions of maps, glass, and the life-cast ceramics of Bernard Palissy. But the common conceptualisation in the period, key in particular to Vasari’s understanding of art, that the liberal arts of painting, sculpture and architecture were on a higher and more intellectual plane to the mechanical arts is completely absent from the series.

12] Given the lack of cohesion as to what the central term of the series actually referred to, might The Renaissance Unchained have been better reconceived as simply an exploration of some of the perhaps lesser appreciated ideas and corners of late medieval and early modern art? Certainly the artistic content provided the excitement whilst the actual thesis felt lacking. But one suspects that Januszczak wants to be seen as the revolutionary firebrand overturning the canon, even though there is not enough clarity and context to his argument to make it convincing. It seems probable that the term Renaissance is also an easier and more recognisable hook for the general public, especially compared to the vague and little known (at least outside of academia) early modern.

[13] Challenging the concept of the Renaissance is no bad thing, but The Renaissance Unchained’s premise is impeded by its own confusion surrounding that term. There is definitely another show to be made examining what exactly the Renaissance was, why it was conceived of in such a way, and the impact that idea has had on subsequent understandings of history and art. But in making the case for an alternative vision of Renaissance art, The Renaissance Unchained does convince of the wealth of beauty and interest to be found in works beyond those of the “greats”, and hopefully more of these artists and topics will get their own expanded air time in the future.

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