Anne Dunlop


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

Cover Interview of August 18, 2009

A close-up

A reader might be surprised to find a full-page picture of a mechanical rooster toward the beginning of Painted Palaces.  The bird is more than three feet tall, and it was made about 1352 as part of the clock of Strasbourg Cathedral.  A few pages later there’s a folio from a treatise on military engineering, showing how to make skeletons “rise” from a coffin using a clockwork mechanism.  Both are examples of the range of materials used to explore the aesthetics of the period.

There is not much dedicated writing on specific artworks before the mid-fifteenth century, and so alongside the painting cycles, the book examines such things as costume history and tournament trophies, manuscripts and fountains for what they reveal about ideas of art before the age of Leon Battista Alberti.

The rooster and rising dead men are part of the extensive discussion of imitation as an artistic goal.  Automata and moving images developed in the same period and in the same elite court circles as early secular cycles.  Not much survives, but there are well-documented cases.  In the palace and gardens of Hesdin, begun in 1288, there were gesticulating monkeys, windows that shut themselves, and a mechanical tree with birds that spouted water.

Automata are probably the clearest case of the blurring of art and life in the period, and further proof that pleasure was already central to visual culture at the beginning of the Renaissance.  Like the painted rooms that surrounded them, they suggest how far the drive to imitation could be taken.