Anne Dunlop


On her book Painted Palaces: The Rise of Secular Art in Early Renaissance Italy

Cover Interview of August 18, 2009

The wide angle

There wasn’t one moment when the book started to take shape in my mind, but I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, since I was a student.  If you flip through most textbooks, there are Antique paintings with secular subjects, and there are rooms like Mantegna’s Camera Picta in Mantua (1465-1474).  But there isn’t much in between, and I remember wondering about the gap.  So when I started Painted Palaces, I had two goals: first, to locate surviving secular painting cycles; and second, to see what they suggested about models of the artwork in the period.

The chronological and geographical limits grew from the material itself.  Though secular subjects are recorded all through the Middle Ages, it’s only from the mid-thirteenth century that large-scale room decoration examples survive, and so that became the starting point.

Initially, I was defining “secular” in opposition to existing categories of civic and sacred art, to fill in the information we seemed to be missing: not devotional imagery, and in spaces that were primarily residential.  But it became clear that the idea of “secular painting” was itself a product of this experimental period, and that the painted rooms were different from civic and sacred spaces. 

The imagery is often surprising and bizarre: in the main ceremonial hall of La Manta in Piemonte, painted before 1420, naked lovers fondle each other in a giant fountain of youth and standing warriors look on nearby.

But I didn’t want to write a study of patrons or of iconographies.  The issues seemed aesthetic as much as socio-historical, and it’s precisely the aesthetic or conceptual aspects of early art that art history as a discipline has tended to skate over or ignore.

At the castle of Sabbionara north of Verona, for instance, there’s a mid-Trecento room painted as if it were entirely covered with fur hangings, and the figures of lovers appear and disappear behind the painted flaps.  The Palazzo Trinci in Foligno is a later example.  There’s a room painted around 1415 with Roman heroes standing in niches, but also with a fictive balcony with Renaissance onlookers, watching both the real inhabitants of the room and the painted Romans.

Over and over, there were these complicated uses of illusionism and fictive space - qualities which suggested a sophisticated viewership, and which are more generally associated with High Renaissance and mannerist art rather than the years around 1300.  In many ways our ideas of the early Renaissance go back to Vasari: we agree that something changed, and that mimesis re-emerged as a basic marker of painting as an art.  But we don’t agree on why this happened.

The question is part of a much larger argument in art and cultural history - what might be called the “secularization thesis.”  The apparent rise of secular subject-matter in the later fifteenth century gets used as evidence for a shift in the nature of art itself – roughly, that the artist had an increasing freedom to experiment and to innovate.

But secularization is also linked in different ways to the rise of mimesis, most notably in books like Hans Belting’s The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages and Likeness and Presence.  Belting looked at devotional images, particularly those icons thought to be true portraits of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and he linked the rise in the illusionistic qualities of the image to a loss of faith.  The traditional justification for art was a didactic one.  Images existed to incite devotion, or to shape behavior; but as people came to believe less in the real presence of the holy person in the picture and the auratic qualities of the image, they had to be convinced by an appeal to lived experience.

This is an argument also found in Otto Kurtz and Ernst Kris’s Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist, or in Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of the modern artwork.  In this model mimesis can only be an excess, a negative supplement.

Secular painting suggested a different direction.  I argue that the category of the secular artwork developed in parallel with Trecento debates about vernacular literature, especially poetry.  Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio - all the major figures of the period worked to define the proper means and aims of a vernacular literary production.  They codified three types of subject-matter, drawn from ideas about rhetoric: exemplary figures, love, and war.  These three also became the major chapter divisions of Painted Palaces.  Each had a distinct purpose: to teach, to stir leadership, and to delight.

These debates also stressed allegory as the basic interpretative model for the artwork: a surface fiction “veiling” a meaning that the viewer worked to uncover.  As these ideas moved into visual culture they created a model in which the viewer was expected to “see through” the surface illusion to the meaning beyond.  So painters were experimenting with full-scale, illusionistic spatial environments, and their elite audiences expected self-conscious mimetic fictions as cues for their interpretation.  Each drove the other.