Alexander Nagel


On his book The Controversy of Renaissance Art

Cover Interview of July 12, 2011

In a nutshell

This book puts Italian art of the period 1490-1540, in the context of the religious controversy that dominated the era.

This is the period before the Council of Trent, before the Counter Reformation.  It runs parallel to the reformations of the North, before it had become certain that those movements would actually split from the church, a period when many people in Italy, including intellectual leaders and prelates, as well as artists, shared many of the concerns of the Protestant reformers.  I call it the period of “experimental reform” in Italy.

The difference between what happened in Italy and what happened during the northern European reformations is that the Italians could not give up on the art.  Whereas in the North one sees either outright destruction of images or a tolerance of images under careful doctrinal control, in Italy artists and reformers, despite their concerns, continued to believe that art could perform an important, transformative religious function.

Reformation questions led to radical aesthetic experimentation. Those questions were fundamental ones. What is an image? Do images have a role in religion? What role have they played in the past? Does an image derive its authority from the artist or from the institution that it serves or from the sacred subjects it portrays? Is there one medium that is better suited to Christian art than others? That is, is mosaic more holy than painting? Is painting less reliable than sculpture? Is the classical dignity of statuary an advantage or a revival of ancient paganism? What is the relation of images and architecture?  Did the first churches have images?

Italian art of this period offers many extremely interesting answers to these questions—answers that unfold within painting, sculpture, and architecture, and correspond to the three sections of this book.