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The recent special issue of English Literary Renaissance entitled "The State of Renaissance Studies" provides a point of departure: the two essay collections under review offer a similar opportunity to assess new directions in Renaissance art criticism.(1) Albion's Classicism is by far the most substantial effort to date to bring current theoretical concerns to bear on British Renaissance visual art, a field that the Foreword candidly calls "a comparatively underdeveloped area of scholarship" (p. vii). The volume makes major advances in the complexity accorded to individual works of art and in the complexity of critical thinking about interpretive methods. The general contours of the approach will be familiar from Svetlana Alpers's The Art of Describing (1983), which Lucy Gent cites in her Introduction (p. 3). The aim is to question the imposition of classical norms derived from the Italian Renaissance and instead to understand British art, like other Northern visual cultures, according to its own distinctive, internal categories.
This line of approach has already been applied specifically to England in a cogently formulated essay by Alice T. Friedman, a contributor to the present volume. The terms of Friedman's argument are provocatively displayed in her title, "Did England Have a Renaissance?: Classical and Anticlassical Themes in Elizabethan Culture,"(2) Breaking the automatic equation of Renaissance with classical, Friedman suggests that Renaissance in the British context can paradoxically mean anticlassical, a meaning created not out of ignorance but by deliberate choice.
What makes Albion's Classicism a stimulating successor to Friedman's concise article is its expanded, collective scope: taking a variety of different positions with respect to the key terms proposed by Friedman, the seventeen contributors enact a debate, with significant disagreements implicitly on view. The dramatic potential of the implied dialogue among contributors can be seen in miniature in the juxtapositions formed by the essays of two highly regarded veterans, Margaret Aston and Keith Thomas. Aston concludes that Protestant reformers' opposition to classical imagery "amounted to a blip" (p. 212), while in the very next essay Thomas keeps us on tenterhooks by appearing to take the other side and to highlight Protestant resistance, only in the end to converge with Aston when he shows that classicism could be attractive not only to Charles I but also to the Puritans who deposed him: "Classicism had an obvious political appeal, fitting both the imperial pretensions of the early Stuart monarchs and the virtuous republicanism of the 1650s" (p. 231).
Albion's Classicism poses the questions: To what degree is the classical element present in British Renaissance art, and should it be construed as positive or negative? How is the nonclassical element to be discerned and defined? In pursuing these questions, contributors adopt two main strategies for characterizing the relations between classical and nonclassical. The first strategy, in the spirit of Friedman's positive revaluation of an anticlassical aspect, portrays the two terms as separate entities in sharp opposition. By contrast, the second stresses their hybrid mixture. Sasha Roberts's phrase "vernacular classicism" (p. 343), for example, joins the two terms in a way that makes them inextricably and dynamically intertwined. Overall, I found the second strategy more promising than the first. This is not to say, however, that the first is wrong or that the two models are mutually exclusive. The concept of mixture may well imply tension and even opposition between the two elements being mixed.
Friedman's essay on Lady Anne …