Book Review: Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance
By Sarah Blake McHam
Yale University Press, 2013
The foundation of Rutgers professor Sarah Blake McHam’s big new book (450 heavy, oversized pages in a typically gorgeous Yale University Press production), Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance, rests on a very small part of an even bigger book, the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, written around AD 77-78, right before the event that would end his life and insure his place in every canned disaster documentary ever made. In AD 79 Pliny was commander of the Roman naval detachment at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted, and when he sailed with his ships to attempt taking off panicked survivors, he was overcome (probably a heart attack brought on by breathing all the hot pumice in the air) and died on the beach. As McHam puts it – in a line that would have pleased Pliny exactly to the degree that it’s full of sheep-dip – Pliny “died as he had lived, driven by a quest for knowledge and an unrelenting sense of duty.”
His old army comrade Titus was emperor at the time, and it was to Titus that Pliny had dedicated his enormous Natural History, a calculated gamble, since Titus was a bit on the pretty side and had a (perhaps correspondingly?) tremulous interest in heavy reading. The ploy was the extend over the more recondite Natural History some of the good will that would be generated by the near-simultaneous appearance of Pliny’s equally-long history of Rome, which was planned on such a sycophantic outline that it might well have been called How the Flavians Saved Rome (Titus probably wouldn’t have read that one either, but you can bet he’d have had some brainy slave comb through it for any good bits about himself).
We’ll never know if the ploy was successful, because of all the hundred books Pliny the Elder wrote in a lifetime of hours snatched from sleep or family (but never, he assures his penny-pinching boss, from any of his official duties), only the Natural History survives.
It’s a treasure-trove for the classically curious, but only a small portion of it – Books 33-37 (out of a possible 37) – deals with art, specifically its raw materials, the metals, stones, and gems used in building, in medicine, and in painting and sculpture. When Pliny finally gets around to art, he offers his readers some quick, anecdote-rich biographies of the most famous ancient artists and sculptors, names such as Myron, Phydias, Lysippus, Polyclitus, Appelles, and Praxiteles. McHam points out that this approach to the arts isn’t all that different from the one Pliny likely took to the Flavians:
In a sense, the Natural History can be considered the complement of Pliny’s history of Rome. Just as those volumes cataloged the growth of the empire during Pliny’s own lifetime, and the order and peace Rome imposed on its conquered territories, the Natural History aimed to honor the Roman achievement by classifying and describing all the features of the lands unified under the pax romana.
That’s very good stuff, which is to be expected of this author, whose contribution to 2009’s Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture was the best thing in a very, very good book. Throughout this gigantic new tome, McHam displays both encyclopedic knowledge (the book’s 70 pages of double-columned End Notes are a quietly staggering feat of learning in their own right) and a welcome breadth of perception, and her genius here is to trace the surprisingly staggering effect this one book – this one portion of this one book – had on the entire intellectual and artistic world of the Renaissance. It’s not just that the Natural History “provided Renaissance readers with a vocabulary of first-century technical and scientific terms not available in any other extant writing,” although that’s a fair point (even if Vitruvius might have disagreed), it’s also that Pliny’s book provided an entire frame of mind in which the science, passion, and business of art could find new soil:
Pliny’s equation between painting and sculpture because of their shared roots in drawing became a maxim of Italian theoretical writing, most influentially in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Petrarch’s syntheses of Pliny’s vivid stories about respected, powerful Romans such as the emperors Augustus and Vespasian avidly collecting Greek painting and sculpture and transporting them to Rome suggested to wealthy Italians the glory and fame they could accrue were they to follow the lead of such notable earlier enthusiasts.
And not just wealthy Italian collectors – the main part of McHam’s story deals with Pliny’s reception among the artists of the Renaissance, people like Petrarch, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Alberti, Ghiberti, and the Florentine painter Cennino Cennini. The Natural History was one of the first printed books, done up in a nice edition in Venice in 1469, and it was reprinted and misprinted many times before getting its first master-edition in fifteen centuries when the great Venetian scholar and diplomat Ermolao Barbaro (who said that without Pliny, “Latin scholarship could hardly exist”) produced a definitive commentary in 1492-93. McHam calls it simply “a monumental achievement,” and she’s entirely right.
Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance is something of a monumental achievement too. Its dogged pursuit of the effects this one book (by an author McHam wittily refers to as “the Wikipedia of his day”) had on a vast cultural revival – its thoroughly convincing account of the extent to which this one book caused that revival – will change the way readers think about the Italian Renaissance. And since Yale has spared no expense to load the proceedings with high-quality reproductions of a wide array of artwork (Renaissance and otherwise, relevant and otherwise), there’s something here for even McHam’s most Flavian readers. Art history doesn’t get much better than this.