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Alice E. Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstand Walker (eds.), Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice (Ashgate, 2012)

Alice E.  Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstand Walker (eds.), Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-4094-0004-2, 276 pp., £58.50.

Reviewed by Elizabeth L. Swann

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[1] The eleven essays collected in Alice E. Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstad Walker’s Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice are united by a common interest, explicit in some cases and less obvious in others, in what the editors call ‘the collaboration of the senses’ (p. 2). As Sanger and Kulbrandstad Walker acknowledge in the first sentence of their introduction, the volume participates in a recent explosion of interest in the senses that cuts across history, art history, literary studies, anthropology, archeology and musicology. Sanger and Kulbrandstad Walker go on, however, to comment that ‘the chronological scope of this research tends to focus on post-Enlightenment society’ (p. 1). This is surely incorrect: scholarship on the medieval and early modern senses is flourishing, as attested by recent publications including (inter alia) Bruce Smith’s The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Early Modern Culture (2008); Holly Dugan’s The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (2011); and Matthew Milner’s The Senses and the English Reformation (2011); as well as by a number of important conferences on this subject over the past few years. Perhaps the elision of this vibrant body of scholarship can be explained by reference to the relatively narrow focus of the collection (as well as by a desire to assert originality); whilst Sanger and Kulbrandstad Walker make claims for interdisciplinarity, the collection is largely preoccupied by the fine arts in early modern France, Spain, and Italy (especially Rome), at the expense of analysis of the broader ‘cultural practice’ promised by the title. In their introduction, the editors touch fleetingly on the lively iconographic and allegorical traditions of northern Europe (such as Georg Pencz’s intaglio prints of the five senses, dating from the 1540s). With the exception of Sophie Oosterwijk’s contribution, however, the essays themselves include very little discussion of sensory iconography and of popular print representations of the senses in Germany, England, and the Netherlands.

[2] The wide-ranging introduction by Sanger and Kulbrandstad Walker offers a necessarily brief but lucid account of the senses from Aristotle onwards, focusing on sensory hierarchies in natural philosophy, art, and iconography, as well as on the ambivalent moral status of the senses in the works of early Christian thinkers (notably St Augustine). The volume itself is organized into three sections. Part I, Contemplating the Senses, includes three essays linked (according to the editors) by an interest in ‘the intellectual claims made for the senses in terms of their collaborative functions’ (p. 10). The first, Alessandro Archangeli’s ‘The Trouble with Odours in Petrarch’s De Remediis,’ places Petrarch’s short text in the context of the cultural history of smell, positing Petrarch’s ‘likely familiarity’ (p. 27) with medieval Christian doctrine on the senses. In so doing, Archangeli echoes Sanger’s and Kulbrandstad Walker’s implicit claim to originality, informing us that historiographically ‘smell is considered to be the most neglected of the five senses’ (p. 20). The passive voice (characteristic of the essay as a whole) prompts the question: by whom? A footnote cites Mark M. Smith’s assertion in his Sensory History that ‘Historical writing on the history of smell, measured by quantity, has some way to go before it catches up with that on hearing’ (p. 27, fn. 3). This is evidently not the same thing as saying that smell is the ‘most neglected’ of the senses (and in fact, between Smith’s 2007 publication, and the publication of the current volume in 2012, scholarship on smell in medieval and early modern culture has burgeoned; see, for example, Emily Cockayne’s Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England 1600-1770 (2008), as well as Duggan’s The Ephemeral History of Perfume). This kind of imprecision riddles Archangeli’s essay as a whole, which combines often-unfounded supposition (I remain unconvinced that ‘the field of sensory history is obviously one of longue durée and virtual immobility of habits and perceptions’ p. 20) and banalities (‘a medieval intellectual would probably have been exposed to a multiplicity of forms of understanding and explanation of sensorial experience’ p. 23) with a speculative and tentative tone (as well as the passive voice, the essay is peppered with modal qualifications, e.g. ‘Petrarch may have known…’ p. 21).

[3] It is something of a relief to turn to Suzanne B. Butters’ essay in the same section, ‘Natural Magic, Artificial Music and Birds at Francesco de’ Medici’s Pratolino.’ Butters’ erudite investigation of the Medici garden at Pratolino, built by Bernando Buontalenti between 1569 and 1586, expounds the garden’s engagement with numerous Renaissance topoi or commonplaces, notably that of the tension between (and potentially the alchemical reconciliation of) art and nature. Butters posits in particular that latent alchemical metaphors informed numerous aspects of Pratolino’s design, including its labyrinths, artificial mountains, aviaries and automatons. Her analysis is rich and revealing, although – after a short discussion of Pratolino’s sensuous diversity – it has little to say about the senses specifically. The last essay in this section, by Mindy Nancarrow, argues that the still-life paintings of the Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) recall aspects of contemporary botanical prints, in particular their supposed pursuit of ‘the truth of the plants that lies behind the world of appearances’ (p. 71). Nancarrow’s readings of the paintings in question – notably Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber – are perceptive, but her analysis depends on a somewhat under-theorized notion of early modern natural history and philosophy (or what she anachronistically calls ‘science’). For example, it is not (as Nancarrow seems to think) self-evident that in the early modern period ‘truth in science resides in what we might call the essence of the plant or other subject under investigation’ (p. 71).

[4] A strength of the collection is its attentiveness to the non-visual senses; the willingness to consider the varied and reciprocal roles that hearing, touch, smell, and taste play in early modern art is fresh and revealing. The four essays included in Part II, Sustaining Body and Soul, all explore the ability of the visual arts to stimulate the traditionally ‘lower’ senses, provoking sensual appetites as well as intellectual contemplation. In her contribution, Sophie Oosterwijk points out that instances of the danse macabre theme in art and literature often linger on the senses. Paradoxically, death – the end of sensory pleasure – is often described in profoundly sensory, even sensual or erotic, ways: ‘we shall all see, hear, and smell the approach of Death – and then feel his chilling touch’ (p. 77). In emphasizing how sensory pleasures are parodied and perverted by death, Oosterwijk argues, instances of the danse macabre drive home a vanitas message about the dangers and futility of earthly desires. Extending Oosterwijk’s interest in the sensual, as well as the merely sensory, Robert W. Gaston brings the writings of the sixteenth-century Italian artist Agnolo Bronzino, in particular his salacious burlesque poem La Cipolla del Bronzino Pittore, into dialogue with his paintings in order to elucidate both the non-visual aspects of his art, and the scope of his learning and literary virtuosity. Consideration of Bronzino’s poetry and paintings, Gaston argues compellingly, reveals how the artist uses learned, classicizing, and parodic discourses in order to represent and explore his desire for pre-pubescent boys in deeply sensual, and often gustatory, terms.

[5] Siv Tove Kulbrandstad Walker’s thoughtful and provocative essay also emphasizes the culinary and the gustatory, reading images of ‘low-life,’ rustic food in sixteenth-century Italian art as ‘bearers of meaning related to issues of corporeality and class’  (p. 109) and as signifiers of the sense of taste. Such images, Kulbrandstad Walker suggests, have both a sensual and a social dimension, valorizing lower-class life and the traditionally ‘lower senses’ of smell and taste simultaneously. Kulbrandstad Walker’s alignment of sensory and social hierarchies is potentially fertile, but at points her essay risks reproducing the dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that she argues the paintings in question strive to complicate, as the sensual charge of the images she surveys accrue cultural significance only when we recognize the ‘metaphorical register[s]’ that they exploit. In making ‘sense’ of the ‘senses’ as they operate in such works, Kulbrandstad Walker paradoxically diminishes their sensuality, reconfiguring them as bearers of abstract meaning. And whilst Kulbrandstad Walker presumes that scrupulously accurate and vibrant visual representations of food automatically stimulate the senses of smell and taste, I would have liked more detail about how and why this synesthetic response. It is not enough to say that a vividly-rendered image of food preparation ‘conjures up the odours of a butcher’s shop’ (p. 118): the reader wants to know more about how the magic takes place.

[6] The final essay in this section, Susan Russell’s ‘The Villa Pamphilj on the Janiculum Hill: The Garden, the Senses, and Good Health in Seventeenth-Century Rome,’ contends that the gardens of the seventeenth-century papal Villa Pamphilj functioned as a site for intellectual and physical recreation, and examines in particular its use of iconography associated with health and well-being. The piece as a whole tends towards the descriptive, rather than the analytical, and – as with Butters’ similarly horticultural piece in the first section – the senses are disappointingly absent.

[7] The third section of the volume, Sensual Encounters, focuses on the ways in which art objects portray, evaluate, or prompt interactions between touch and the other senses, especially sight. Lisa M. Rafanelli’s excellent contribution investigates depictions of the subject of the Noli Me Tangere in works by a range of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, arguing that such depictions contribute to the paragone debate by celebrating the ability of vision (and by extension visual images) to provoke religious belief. Phillippa Plock’s piece, ‘Touching Looks: Masculinizing the Maternal-Feminine in Poussin’s Tancred and Erminia,’ similarly considers the relation between touch and sight. Plock’s nuanced essay draws our attention to a motif that she calls ‘the touching-look’ (p. 169): that is, a female look that occurs in tandem with physical contact with a male body. The fluid, ambiguous gendering of this motif in Poussin’s painting, Plock argues, enabled his patrons – mainly celibate men at the papal court – to reflect on their own ability to participate in traditionally female, tactile forms of devotion and worship.

[8] The final two essays in the volume shift attention to the plastic arts. Geraldine A. Johnson’s essay offers a case-study of a single object in the collection of Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, in order to consider the evidence for, and implications of, the common presumption that small-scale sculpture produced for elite collectors in early modern Italy was intended to be appreciated up-close and in-hand. Examination of Antico’s 1519 bronze statuette depicting Hercules and Antaeus, Johnson claims, reveals how ‘art works could be actors or… agents within the multi-sensory world of early modern collectors’ (p. 183). This interesting proposition is only partially borne out: whilst Johnson illuminates the diversely multi-sensory environments in which d’Este stored and displayed her collection, and offers a persuasive account of the phenomenology of art appreciation in early modern Italy, it is less clear how and why she sees Hercules and Antaeus acting as a dynamic ‘agent.’ The last essay in the collection, Alice E. Sanger’s ‘Sensuality, Sacred Remains and Devotion in Baroque Rome,’ explores the physical dimensions of relic devotion, arguing that, whilst relics and reliquaries do not conform neatly to the category of canonical visual art, sacred collections must nonetheless be understood in the context of the histories of art and architecture. Like Rafanelli and Plock, Sanger is interested in synergies between vision and touch, speculating that ‘reliquaries, if not the relics themselves, were handled and moved around’ (p. 208). Her proposal – building on the work of Mieke Bal – that relics incorporate a prosthetic function that is activated by touch, as well as sight, is fascinating, but underdeveloped.

[9] The visual arts, as Sanger and Kulbrandstad Walker note in their introduction, can both imaginatively stimulate the other senses, and interrogate the relation between them. In other words, artworks have the ability both to elicit sensory responses, and to reflect on and contribute to discourses about the senses. Overall, this collection offers a rich and suggestive but ultimately uneven exploration of these functions; whilst it does not quite deliver on all its promises, it raises a number of eminently worthwhile and stimulating questions that sketch out some intriguing avenues for future inquiries.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville, March 2014