The Florentine Tondo
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 408 pp.; 12 color ills., 297 b/w. $145.00
"Cassone" Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 278 pp.; 59 b/w ills. $80.00
Italian Renaissance art history has its version of literature's "genre studies--monographs focusing on particular categories of visual representation such as the altarpiece, the portrait, and tomb sculpture. (1) The two books under review here are studies of this kind: Roberta Olson looks at tondi--autonomous circular paintings and sculpture--while Cristelle Baskins concentrates on painted cassone panels that once adorned paired chests made for patrician weddings. It is usually assumed in art historical studies that these categories were recognized classifications during the time period and that significant cultural values were invested in the conventionalized formal features and characteristic typologies. In a contribution to a recent volume on the altarpiece, Paul Hills calls attention to some of the problems attending this approach to Renaissance art in an essay entitled "The Renaissance Altarpiece: A Valid Category?" While acknowledging that the altarpiece was a functional category in the period, he point s to a significant elasticity in design and designation and notes the absence of any discussion about altarpieces in theoretical writings about art. Furthermore, he cautions that the isolation of a representational genre "privileges paradigmatic relations (altarpiece as member of a class of objects) over syntagmatic relations (altarpiece as part of a larger whole--either the physical one of the chapel and church that houses the altarpiece, or the 'mental' one of contemporary needs, beliefs and attitudes). An art history that is to get beyond the stage of cataloguing needs to attend to both paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, and it needs to be rather careful not to box itself within its own categories." (2) Hills does not propose that art historians abandon the study of categories, which he considers a valid tool of inquiry, only that these limitations be kept in mind. Another matter to consider is the ideological investment in this approach. Tracking the emergence of new representational forms and the ra dical transformation of traditional ones in Italy from the 14th to the 16th century is a hermeneutical enterprise intricately linked to perceptions about what is distinct and significant about this historical period. Determinations about artistic categories are fashioned by and, in turn, fashion "the Renaissance"--whether conceived of as a chronological demarcation or an episteme demonstrating pivotal cultural developments. The study of portraiture, for example, negotiates conceptions about the individual, identity, the self, and subjectivity--critical terms in Renaissance historiography. Furthermore, category designations are inevitably graded classifications that are privileged within the disciplinary practice of art history, and they do their job in mapping the cultural terrain. Portraits, altarpieces, and equestrian monuments receive considerable scholarly attention; other kinds of representational objects--engraved armor, ex-votos, and coins--find validation within a lower strata of classification as "or nament" or "material culture." (3) One can thus add to Paul Hills's script for effective art historical genre studies the need to reflect on the currency and ideological purchase of the categories tinder consideration, both within the historical culture and in modern art historical discourse.
Both the tondo and the painted cassone panel were treated in comprehensive, cataloguing monographs early in the 20th century: Moritz Hauptmann's Der Tondo: Ursprung und Bedeutung und Geschichte des italienischen Rundbildes in Relief und Malerei (Frankfurt, 1936) and Paul Schubring's Cassoni: Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienische Fruhrenaissance (Leipzig, 1915, 1923). These new publications by Roberta Olson and Cristelle Baskins represent timely reexaminations of the respective categories and highlight the diversity of historiographic perspectives and methodological approaches used by historians of quattrocento and cinquecento Italian art today.
Olson's study is the first extended account of the tondo since Hauptmann's monograph, published in 1936. While Olson narrows the geographic scope to Florence (perhaps too exclusively), she strives for comprehensive coverage. She chronicles the emergence of the independent tondo in Florence in the 1430s and its relatively brief apogee from 1480 to 1515. She provides a prehistory and an epilogue, explores the cultural significance of the circle, looks at the different media used and the typical subjects represented, and includes an appendix that falls just short of cataloguing the numerous extant tondi executed by painters who specialized in the form.
The tondo, much more so than the altarpiece, was not a clear-cut category in quattrocento and early cinquecento Florence. Olson devotes a chapter to the philology and usage of the term tondo, noting that the earliest textual incidence of the word is found in dolce stil nuovo verse, where it connoted the cosmos, completeness, and perfection. In reference to painting and sculpture, tondo was fundamentally a shape descriptor that was applied to a range of conventional subjects when they were composed in a round format. Paul Hills, when faced with terminological imprecision and diversity among the objects competing for classification in his consideration of altarpieces, reflected on the relative authority of the category designation. Olson responds by devising her own taxonomy. She makes a distinction between independent tondi--the principal focus of her study--and circular compositions that are embedded within larger decorative programs, which she terms "roundels." "Medallions," in turn, are round sculptural rel iefs that are larger than medals but smaller than the average independent tondo. Within Olson's classification, independent tondi can encompass round portraits, but the majority are what she calls "devotional tondi" representing the Madonna and Child, alone or with accompanying angels and saints. While there is little documentary information about the production and use of these tondi, inventories, commission records, and visual sources suggest that most were displayed within Florentine patrician residences, most frequently in the bedchamber and antechamber.
Olson begins her investigation with a standard preoccupation of art historical genre studies: the search for the origin of the form and the identification of influential precedents. Here she casts her net quite wide, exploring a variety of circular representations from classical antiquity through the 15th century: gems, mirrors, coins and medals, historiated stained-glass oculi windows, sacred figures within roundels in mural decoration, and birth trays (deschi da parto), among many others. She concludes that the tondo had a mixed lineage but considers the dominant prototype the classical imago clipeata, which displayed human figures against a round disk and was implicated in a cycle of creation, renewal, and apotheosis. (4) She also points to circular associations that quattrocento Florentines …