The Art of Commemoration
in the Renaissance

by Irving Lavin

edited by
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin

Church Monuments


Church Monuments 36 (2021): 233–34

While most readers of this journal likely think of tombs at the mention of commemoration, Irving Lavin’s posthumously published book mostly explores non-funereal forms of remembrance. Similarly, Society members may conjure Shakespeare or the Tudors when reflecting on the Renaissance, but these essays centre on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy. Six short chapters investigate Lavin’s “paradox of the Renaissance” (p. 6) wherein a new understanding of past and present developed from the relationship of memory, retrospection and conscious revival on the one hand, with imagination and innovation on the other. This theme informs Lavin’s thesis that the Italian fifteenth-century revival of classical antiquity was “an essential ingredient in the radical redefinition of the self “ (p. 7).

A short preface explains that Lavin remained unsatisfied with his decades-long endeavour to bring his Slade Lectures of 1984 to the printed page. Rather than take them to his grave, he and his widow, fellow art historian Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, decided that she would provide notes and bibliography and bring the text to press; a difficult task completed a little over a year after his death. As the present writer knows from experience, it is challenging to revise the prose of an author no longer able to answer questions or correct misunderstandings; it is even more daunting to critique. In this case, the reviewer’s task is made easier by Lavin’s clear enthusiasm throughout the book for engaging with big questions and interrogating formative authors in the field such as Burckhardt, Panofsky and Baxandall. Some twenty-first-century bibliography is referenced, and two of the essays (chapters 3 and 4) are noted as versions updated in 2014. The attention given to iconography and stylistic development, as well as the tendency toward bold, categorical conclusions, place the book firmly in the tradition of an earlier generation, but these same characteristics, along with ample illustrations, make it easy to imagine the vibrant and charismatic lectures that inspired it.

The first chapter begins with a discussion of memory and its role in human self-consciousness and personality, which Lavin argues is fundamental to understanding the Renaissance duality of past and present: historicism provided exemplars to follow and accomplishments to surpass. Then follows a brief history of memory as conceived by ancient and medieval authors, charting the change from a Platonic concept of memory as a metaphysical, psychological capacity, to Cicero’s useful tool of the rhetorician, to an Augustinian moral force to be heeded for prudent decision-making and, ultimately, salvation. Poems by Petrarch and Michelangelo convey the importance of memory to preserve the past, inspire the present and safeguard the future.

The next two chapters take up the portrait bust: the first argues that the fifteenth-century portrait bust, developed in Florence by artists such as Donatello, Mino da Fiesole and Antonio Rossellino, draws on both Roman portraits — specifically, familial portraits of ancestors kept in the home or used as tomb decoration — and medieval reliquaries. The result is the innovative, naturalistic portrait carved fully in the round to show head, neck, and a portion of the upper body — a synecdoche that recalls a living, private person, not a symbolic image of the deceased. Lavin also distinguishes the fifteenth-century portrait from the official, public portrait type associated with imperial Rome that consists of a bust with a hollow back, rounded bottom and pedestal-like base. This type was revived in the sixteenth century as a “consciously designed object” (p. 55) in which likeness is idealised to convey power and importance. Chapter 3 traces the development of this new, old type through sculpted portraits of Medici dukes, and its dissemination and variation in busts of monarchs, doges and popes.

Starting in the fourteenth century, painters were retained by courts across the Italian peninsula to depict cycles of illustrious figures from the past. Unfortunately, most portrait series of famous men (uomini famosi) have been destroyed or restored beyond recognition, but Lavin compellingly tells their story in chapter 4 through reference to contemporary descriptions, manuscript illuminations and derivative works. He boldly and successfully claims that these secular murals ‘were among the most important works of art ever made’ (p. 69), and that it is to Giotto rather than Petrarch that we should look for the origins of these cycles as well as visualisations of “Glory” and “Triumph,” so popular in Renaissance Italy.

Chapter 5 returns to portrait sculpture in an essay on the development of the equestrian monument. It focuses on Paolo Uccello’s mural in Florence Cathedral depicting a bronze statue of the English mercenary John Hawkwood on horseback, and a now-lost statue (by the Florentine sculptors Agostino di Cristoforo and Niccolò Baroncelli) honouring Niccolò III d’Este in Ferrara — the earliest-known, monumental bronze equestrian portrait since antiquity, and also the first-known example to have a secular rather than funerary context.

The final chapter concerns Italian chapels, specifically the growing coherence of their multimedia designs as expressions of collective family identity. After the startling disclaimer “that a tomb is not in itself really a fully qualified commemorative monument as I want to think of it…something more than simply the memory of a deceased person” (p. 135), Lavin looks first at outdoor tombs in Bologna and Verona as conscious revivals of classical funerary monuments before turning to family chapels in Florence. He focuses on the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal at San Miniato al Monte, and the Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinita, and their use of explicit historical references to communicate individual identity in and of itself and as part of a larger whole.

Given its admitted lack of interest in tomb monuments, and its cadence of the slide lecture, this book will likely be most useful to educators wanting to assign engaging and relatively short introductions to the history of memory or the various forms of and uses for portraits in Renaissance Italy. The Art of Commemoration will also provide the many friends, colleagues, students, admirers and interlocutors of Irving Lavin with a fitting memorial, preserving his intellectual identity for generations to come.

— Ann Leader

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