June 2010

Jacob Mikanowski

nonfiction

Anachronic Renaissance by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood

In the middle of F Is for Fake, his film-essay about forgery, imitation, and invention, Orson Welles puts on a magic show. Welles was a talented magician, but the show we are watching is a put-on, a fake. But does that make any difference? After all, as Welles says, citing the great nineteenth-century French magician Houdini, “A magician… is just an actor -- Just an actor playing the part of a magician.” 

This would have made a fitting epigram for Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood’s Anachronic Renaissance. A daring attempt to rethink the authority of images in the Renaissance and their relationship to time, the book asks us to wonder whether an artwork isn’t just a forgery playing the part of an artwork:

For what is an artwork if not a forgery -- an invention of a nonexistent form, fetched perhaps from the past, perhaps from the future -- which does not take the trouble to conceal its own real origins in the present.

In the Renaissance, every work of art had a source -- either a direct antecedent which it was copying, or a referent in tradition which it imitated and supplemented. According to Nagel and Wood, two models of artistic production went along with this. One was authorial; it stressed what an artist brought to bear on his source, and how his personal style affected the outcome. The other was substitutional; the new work of art was supposed to stand in directly for the old one. The performance of the artist was secondary to the radiance of the original. An example of this model is the Ise Shrine in Japan, which is completely rebuilt every twenty years, so that it is forever ancient and brand-new. Though less familiar in standard accounts of Western art, the practice of substitutional art was nonetheless widespread. It dominated icon painting, in which artists imitated models which went back in an unbroken chain to a miraculous portrait said to be by Saint Luke.

A substitutional work of art isn’t simply a forgery, something made to look as if it came from the past. Instead it exists in multiple times at once. The title’s anachronic (as opposed to anachronistic) gestures at the ability of such work to inhabit multiple temporalities, to “double or crimp time upon itself." At its core, the book is a serious attempt to struggle with the questions of authority and authenticity that substitutional artworks raise.

In pursuing the answers, Nagel and Wood have written an atlas to an unknown Renaissance. In place of the pageant of genius after genius, familiar from Vasari on, they reveal an unfamiliar landscape, crowded with eccentric talents and forgotten genres. Their pages give ample scope to what, in other histories, would be confined to the footnotes: micro-mosaics, miraculous images, flying houses and forgeries of non-existent paintings.

For Renaissance artists, Nagel and Wood show, antiquity had multiple meanings. It didn’t just reside in ruins from the classical past; it could also be felt in many more recent artifacts, like the swirling designs of medieval mosaic pavements, executed in lush purple, or in Eastern icons no more than a hundred years old, which seemed to bear witness to Christianity’s earliest years. It could even be felt in figure of the Byzantine Emperor, whose clothing and peculiar visored hat seemed to offer “direct testimony of Roman antiquity.” 

Not all testimony to the past was created equal, however, especially when holiness was at stake. In the fifteenth century, images underwent a prolonged crisis of legitimacy as their authority was challenged by new standards of evidence, from philology to archaeology. Perversely, this very challenge could encourage forgery, as the need for authoritative templates outstripped the weight-bearing capacity of old models. The question of Jesus’s true appearance was especially complicated: was it preserved in a relic, like one of the several miraculous, acheiropoetic images (images not made by hands) of his face, like the Shroud of Turin or the Mandylion? Or were his true features recorded on a mysterious emerald which had recently come to Italy as a gift from the Sultan? (No one had seen this stone, but its image circulated in prints and medals, whose accuracy was attested by a letter written by Pontius Pilate -- itself a forgery.) 

Fascinating as it is, the issue of forgery and authenticity ends up not being the most vital one raised by Anachronic Renaissance. Even more intriguing are those works which sidestep the question through strategies of citation and embedding. For instance, the shrine of the Holy House in Loreto, which began as a few bricks brought back by a pilgrim from the Holy Land and gradually turned into a full-scale model (or original, to believers) of the Virgin Mother’s home, thought to have been brought over the Mediterranean through the air by angels. Finally, the humble house was put inside its own reliquary, a sculptural sheath of sumptuously worked marble, which preserved the modest interior and skewed alignment of the landing site. These strategies are also at work in a remarkable painting by Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth Holding an Icon, in which the icon is an actual fragment of a two-hundred-year-old painting, cut out and dropped into the canvas as a sort of direct, visual remix.

In the end, models of substitution and citation gave way to authorial performance, as artists created illusions so powerful and persuasive that they could be savored as bravura fictions without wasting a thought to the authenticity of their source. Nagel and Wood end their book with a fascinating reading of Raphael’s Disputation of Athens, that “densest of cryptograms” which they interpret as a complex commentary on the demise of the substitutional model and the status of truth in an age of new media.

Anachronic Renaissance can occasionally be difficult -- words like analogon and chronotopology don’t exactly roll off the tongue -- but the lucidity of its arguments and clarity of its prose provide ample reward. A multitude of short chapters and ample illustrations, coupled with Zone Books’ typically beautiful design, make for easy grazing.

Collage and pastiche are once again dominant modes in the arts, although these days the questions of legitimacy play out differently, as citation brings art from the past into an eternal present. Anachronic Renaissance takes us back to a world where the time of art, “with its densities, irruptions, juxtapositions, and recoveries,” was a vital part of its impact. Along the way it presents a marvelous panorama of fakers and innovators for whom authenticity didn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Orson Welles would have fit right in.    

Anachronic Renaissance by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood
Zone Books
ISBN: 193540802X
456 Pages