Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2023
David Ekserdjian The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between Icon and Narrative New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. 496 pp.; 250 ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9780300253641)

David Ekserdjian describes his new and important book, The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between Icon and Narrative, as a work of “almost demented ambition” (6). The description is apt. A thorough introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, two appendices, and the usual scholarly apparatus adds up to just over 400 pages of tightly-packed, double-columned text. And that text sets out to provide an almost encyclopedic account of the most frequently produced type of art object in Renaissance Italy. Accordingly, the author references “well over a thousand” (61) works of art. These involve the whole of the Italian peninsula, date from circa 1250–1600, and allow both familiar and lesser-known painters to feature in the book’s 250 illustrations—the vast majority of which are beautifully produced, colorful, and luminous. Only a scholar who has been thinking about Renaissance altarpieces for nearly half a century could undertake such a venture.

Those decades of looking and reading serve Ekserdjian well. He expertly draws together—and inflects—many threads of analysis that already run through the period’s historiography, especially when it comes to iconographic matters. Indeed, setting questions of style and of region-specific traditions largely to one side, he employs a “taxonomic approach” (12) that emphasizes the development of the polyptych and the emergence of the pala (the single-field altarpiece). To his mind, this remarkable course of change in the appearance of religious pictures, together with the move from gold-ground painting to images with naturalistic settings, presented artists with a real challenge. The polyptych and the pala placed different visual demands on their makers, but the two formats accommodated the same devotional burdens when installed in liturgical settings. Herein lies Ekserdjian’s primary concern as well as his ultimate thesis. “[M]any of the anomalies of the Renaissance pala derive from the fact that its exponents—whether consciously or unthinkingly—retained within a single field so many of the conventions of the compartmentalized polyptych” (12). The best way to understand these “anomalies,” Ekserdjian maintains, is to group Renaissance altarpieces into broad categories—“immagini (icons), historie (narratives), and misteri (mysteries)” (10)—and to consider the evolution of those categories with an eye for how their creators attempted “to square the circles of the iconic and the narrative on the one hand, and of devotional clarity and iconographic complexity on the other” (11).

Ekserdjian develops his argument methodically. Chapter 1 deals with patronage and the business of altarpiece production. These pages cover both the formally notarized and less formal arrangements documented in artist contracts. The terms employed and content specified in such records receive special attention, as do contract drawings and the various ways that patrons and artists might assert their presence in the finished works (e.g. coats of arms, donor portraits, signatures, and inscriptions). On the whole, more might be said about the potential role of third parties—such as religious officials who acted as iconographic advisors—but the thrust of Ekserdjian’s commentary is both familiar and stellar. He stresses the collaborative nature of artistic commissions and presents contracts as a “significant stage in a flexible and evolving process” (63) of negotiation.

Chapter 2 turns to the most common altarpiece type in the period: the Virgin and Child with saints. Ekserdjian traces the evolution of this iconography, which stresses the eternal nature of divine assemblies. He examines the ways artists considered the relationships among the figures depicted, especially as formats changed and the unified fields and realistic spaces associated with the idea of the sacra conversazione became more common. A general trend emerges: narrative elements make their way into iconic representations. Figures begin to look at and respond to one another. Saints appear to perform some action.

The issue of depicted action is likewise paramount in the following chapters, which explore altarpieces featuring scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Christ (chapter 3) and the lives of the saints (chapter 4). Ekserdjian elaborates on period terminology (e.g. istoria, storia, and historia). He describes a general increase in the number of narrative altarpieces and the range of their subjects as time unfolds; this is especially true with regard to depictions of saints in the sixteenth century (a topic given more detail in one of the appendices). He organizes his account categorically, focusing on subject groups in chapter 3 (e.g., scenes of the Virgin’s early life, the infancy of Christ, and Christ’s passion) and broad classes of sacred personages in chapter 4. Here, Ekserdjian singles out figures such as John the Baptist and Mary Magdalen before investigating the apostles, martyrs, monastic saints, ecclesiastics, angels, and other figures. This manner of proceeding allows the author to demonstrate how depictions of saints frequently focused on a “quintessential narrative” that may or may not lend itself to a process of “extraction” (199), a reduction of historical data that elevates an episode of a saint’s vita to the iconic register.

Ekserdjian echoes that last point in chapter 5 in which he addresses iconographies concerned with the Virgin (the Madonna della Misericordia, the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna of the Rosary, et cetera), Christ (e.g. the mystic mill and mystic winepress), the Trinity, the Monastic Orders, Disputations, and miracle working images. In this context, he offers an interesting interpretation of Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo—he redefines this panel as “a novel variant on a . . . theme known as the Double Intersession” (258)—and reiterates his larger proposition: altarpieces depicting misteri “all inhabit a kind of no man’s land between icon and narrative” (238).

The book’s final two chapters look beyond the central panels of Italian altarpieces. Chapter 6 considers the predella, which Ekserdjian sees as a focal point of narrative interest in the period. He describes how this “footstool” (285) derived from the earliest vita retable or dossal formats to become a major component of polyptychs and pale alike, at least until the later fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the predella was in decline. According to Ekserdjian, a proliferation of altarpieces with narrative subjects led artists to find places for secondary stories in the main pictorial field itself.

Perhaps the most original and rewarding of the book’s sections is chapter 7, which deals with the three-dimensional portions of painted altarpieces, frames in particular. The author has two main goals here: “to stress the frame’s potential importance as a bearer of meaning . . . [and] to emphasize the important role often—but by no means invariably—played by the painter of the work in question in the design of its frame” (325). In the first instance, Ekserdjian details the appearance in frames of coats of arms, inscriptions, and signatures, as well as sacred figures and narratives, sometimes painted, sometimes sculpted. In the second, the author analyzes drawings for frames and describes the working relationships between painters, frame makers, and sculptors. This last part of Ekserdjian’s survey returns to the theme of collaboration that figured prominently early in the book.

 “The Council of Trent and After” concludes the book by traveling down previously mapped paths. Gilio and Paleotti are among the period’s writers to receive focused scrutiny, while relevant selections from the Council’s twenty-fifth session appear in appendix 2. Readers looking for the most innovative elements of Ekserdjian’s study will likely spend less time here than with chapters 6 and 7. Predellas and frames—rarely are such topics considered in the scholarship on Renaissance altarpieces, certainly not from a vantage point that takes in so much material. In this respect, and not only in this respect, the author deserves more than a fair bit of praise.

At the same time, however, the nature of writing a book of this complexity required certain compromises that can be felt in the text. There is a pattern to the prose. The author tends to state an idea and then provide a comprehensive list of images that illustrate his point. This method of presenting information has the virtue of being clear and accessible—qualities never to be discounted in academic writing—but it also gives the book a formulaic character that occasionally slows the reader’s experience. Similarly, Ekserdjian is an avid sign-poster. Phrases such as “as will be discussed below” or “as was mentioned previously” appear frequently throughout the volume. I expect these insertions—especially when they cross-reference specific page numbers—are designed for the benefit of readers who want to consult only those sections that are most germane to their own research. But such phrases become conspicuous nonetheless, not least because their frequency adds to the volume’s considerable length. In fact, wide-ranging though its topic undoubtedly is, one wonders if the book could have been more concise.

The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece could hardly be more spectacular in appearance, however. The glossy images and pleasing weight of the pages, together with a reasonable price point, make it an attractive object in its own right. It will be a welcome addition to every university library, and I suspect that it will serve as a well-thumbed reference source for years to come.

Steven J. Cody
Associate Professor of Art History, Purdue University Fort Wayne