Michael Baxandall’s Renaissance ecstasy

  • Themes: Great Books

Fewer than 200 pages long, the classic 1972 study, 'Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy', turned Michael Baxandall into a global academic celebrity.

Botticelli's Annunciation, circa 1489-1490. Credit: Giorgio Morara / Alamy Stock Photo.
Botticelli's Annunciation, circa 1489-1490. Credit: Giorgio Morara / Alamy Stock Photo.

When the Staffordshire Hoard was revealed in 2009, I contacted a noted Anglo-Saxon scholar, anticipating a response of excitement hitherto unknown among specialists of a distant period in which every discovery is precious. They were underwhelmed: ‘It’s good, but I’d swap it all for a single legal text from the period.’

It was not the response I expected, but it did point to an enduring and dynamic tension between the relative value of the visual and the literary. It is a tension that is especially pertinent, 14 years on, as communication becomes ever more visual. In 2022 British children spent an average of four hours a day on TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, all overwhelmingly visual media. In contrast, under a quarter of British children read a book daily. The Word, which has, since the Reformation, ruled triumphant, is being rapidly replaced. This new dawn, does not, as before, stream through stained glass windows, but glows dimly from our LCD screens: ‘The eye is called the first of all the gates / Through which the intellect may learn and taste. / The ear is second, with the attentive word / That arms and nourishes the mind.’

Feo Belcari, in a passage from his 1440 drama Abraham and Isaac, is quoted at the end of Michael Baxandall’s classic 1972 study, Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, which similarly contends with the tension between image and word, though at a time when it was the word on the cusp of ascendancy.

The ‘attentive word’ could be an alternative title for this physically slight work of scholarship. Fewer than 200 pages long, it propelled Baxandall out of the cloisters of the Warburg Institute, where he had studied under that other great populariser of serious art history, Ernst Gombrich, into a global academic celebrity. Rereading it, one can see – if that’s the word – why. It is short, elegantly written, and resonant, though now for reasons starkly different to those when it was first published half a century ago.

Baxandall, who studied English at Downing College, Cambridge, had dreamt of becoming a novelist, but was enticed into the world of art history, made easier by his rigorous mastery of classical and modern European languages and the worlds of myth and mystery they open. He had also developed extraordinary powers of concentration, essential when examining complex pictorial representations, those ancient literary texts – Classical and Christian – that inspired them, and the contemporary offerings that commented upon them as the Renaissance flourished. Baxandall’s obsessive interest in county cricket, then a far slower, meandering affair than today – and far more popular  – may also have helped hone this patient endurance. It was a combination of factors that perfectly primed the scholar, and which are now in decline.

His Damascene conversion to art history appears to have struck him while at the charitable Collegio Borromeo in Pavia, Lombardy, from where he went on to study in Switzerland and Munich under the dry doyens of German scholarship, Hans Sedlmayer and Ludwig Heydenreich.

Much has been written about Painting & Experience – crudely simplified as a study of how social forces shaped works of art – beginning with the inaccuracy of its title. It is much more a study of painting in Florence than it is of Italy as a whole, focused primarily on the Florentine patrons – the ideal of which is famously and perhaps ironically described by Baxandall as ‘a church-going business man, with a taste for dancing’.

A ‘primer in the social history of pictorial style’, Painting & Experience is perhaps best known for introducing the (not entirely original ) concept of the ‘period eye’: that in different times and places, viewers become aware of, and are attuned to, interpretations of images that may prove elusive to later generations. The task of the historian is to recover this mindset, born of circumstance and social dynamics, to capture once more the eye of the period. Helpfully, the fifteenth century, the quattrocento, left numerous visual sources: the works of art themselves; as well as written texts in the form of contracts between patrons and their painters; and the then new and growing field of connoisseurship and criticism, exemplified by Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura (1450).

Painting & Experience is also a study in the elusive concept of ‘taste’, which Baxandall defines as ‘the conformity between discriminations demanded by a painting and the skills of discrimination possessed in this period’. Such skills of discrimination would be applied increasingly to both the visual and the literate. Baxandall is describing a nascent modernity, different to the superficially similar world that preceded it.

In the late thirteenth century, for example, in his Catholicon, John of Genoa maintained that the prime purpose of the image was ‘for the instruction of simple people, because they are instructed by them as if by books’. ‘As if’, indeed. John continues: that the mysteries of Christianity will also be ‘more active through our memory through being presented daily to our eyes’. And feelings of devotion will be ‘aroused more effectively by things seen than by things heard’. But those ‘things heard’ would, through the printing revolution, be read, memorised, and rearticulated as only words can? Their triumph was imminent – and became all but immanent.

Baxandall’s work reads now as an epitaph, not so much for the world left behind by the revolution of the fifteenth century, but the literate and dynamic public sphere wounded, perhaps mortally, by the counter-revolution of the twenty-first. Kevin Systrom, a founder of Instagram, has written that: ‘People have always been visual – our brains are wired for images. Writing was a hack, a detour. Pictorial languages are how we all started to communicate – we are coming full circle.’

Systrom, of course, welcomes the revolution – in the old sense of a cyclical turning of a wheel, of renewed illiteracy – in contrast to a break with the past embodied by the Protestant Reformation, which brought The Word to the people via the printing press, and empowered them. Are we now to become once again passive recipients, ‘simple people’? The literate expelled from Paradise like Adam and Eve, in the words of a blind poet: ‘They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.’


Paul Lay