Renaissance Futurities: Science, Art, Invention

Renaissance Futurities: Science, Art, Invention
by Charlene Villaseñor Black, Mari-Tere Álvarez, Editors

University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2019
256 pp., illus. 23 col., 1 b/w. Paper, $34.95; open access
ISBN: 9780520296985.

Reviewed by
Michael Punt
February 2020

Renaissance Futurities is an anthology of eight essays that claims, according to the editors’ introduction, ‘to focus on the intersection of Renaissance art. Ingenuity and futurity., and ‘…builds on the scholarship linking the emergence of Early Modern science to craftsmen, workshop practices and the artist engineer.’ A slightly different account is offered in the last essay by Claire Farago: ‘The editors of this volume called upon its contributors to write the history of the Renaissance differently by suspending the conventional operations of time and place, two of the most neutral epistemological categories in the humanities.’ While the back cover claims the book ‘… examines the intersection between artistic rebirth, the new science, and European imperialism in the global early modern world.’ These are grand claims for intellectual heights that the book does not fulfil, and such inflation possibly distracts attention from the real (and considerable) virtues of this anthology. To be sure, some of the essays address some aspects of these points, but the greater strength and interest in the collection is the careful and extended repositioning of some primary but mostly secondary sources. For the most part, many of the essays comprise a section of absorbing detail that leads to an unusual and somewhat unexpected conclusion. It is as if a watchmaker is at work laboriously aligning gear trains to make something that tells the time differently.

What is most interesting about most of the essays is that regardless of the significance of that difference, which is in many cases quite minor, the performance of the author is mesmerizing and the activity suggests new horizons. In this sense there is something of the style of Gallaher and Greenblatt as they led us into New Historicism not with a manifesto but with a series of histories of apparently quite esoteric topics. What is disappointing in some essays is the attempt to build a connection between those insightful differences and the present is too hasty. And here the trap of unsubstantiated assertion, characteristic of much writing about current and future technologies, snaps on the watchmaker’s fingers and damages the balance of the instrument.

This unevenness should undo the work of the authors but it, somewhat paradoxically, makes the book all the more interesting. In this juxtaposition it makes all the careful systematic work sparkle. Moreover, just under a third of the book comprises detailed notes and bibliography and the invitation for further reading and critical engagement has been made easy and almost irresistible. The best essays open up gems of ideas that leave the reader wondering how they would use the material differently. For example, in William Eamon’s contribution ‘Medicine as a Hunt: Searching for the Secrets of the New World’, the brief section on the epistemology of the hunt not only frames his excellent essay but is immediately suggestive of the most valuable way to engage with the anthology as a whole: it invites us to look for traces of complex propositions informed by the best available evidence of their presence. Charlene Villaseñor Black’s claims about the use of an unstable and apparently inferior blue pigment (smalt) by established and wealthy painters, such as Valasquez, Murillio and El Greco, provides a compelling case study of technological form as a matter institutional choice and individual decision rather than technology as an inevitable forward march to the ‘next new thing’. As in the case of the rejection firearms by the Japanese during the Edo period, or even the persistence of candles in our own electric age, the technologically ‘better’ is a reflection of values over which humans do have some agency – if we choose to exercise it. Peter Matussek’s description of Camillo’s memory theatre also reminds us that the past is there to be mined for the present. He presents a clear and concise exposition of something that is often discussed in regard to interface design and digital media. His detail and attention to its intellectual provenance points to traces of its arcane and occult references expose clues to what Camillo intended but remains unknown. This provides an open text that affords the necessary conceptual somersaults to apply the memory theatre to contemporary media. A weakness that haunts his essay is that he does not always follow his own conclusions in discussing the media application of Camilo’s intentions through the work of Frances Yeats’ Art of Memory (a book more cited than read in my experience).

As the various attempts to give an overall story to the collection reveals, this anthology is something of a juxtaposition of fascinating essays and ideas that are difficult to synthesize but, together, become considerably more than their parts. There is the ghost of Aby Warburg in all of this. His assertion that the term, and indeed the concept of ‘Renaissance’, was insufficient to capture the wealth of differences, lost riches and indeed the places and times that were significant actors in its radicalism. To capture this, Warburg advocated the constant rearrangement of ideas and images as a necessary step in the understanding of human endeavor and thought in the arts and sciences: We are on safer ground but are poorer hunters if we simply  adhere to routine and familiar correspondences in our histories. Renaissance Futurities is a mixed bag both between the collection and within individual contributions. But that mixture is in itself interesting as a provocation that brings to the fore how we might begin to think about the Renaissance. Much in the way that Warburg invited us to, not as a golden age peppered with geniuses but more like today––something rather fuzzy and ill-defined, shaped by coincidence and, as the title of the anthology suggests, the shadow of the future. There is some irritating loose talk in some of the essays, but what saves the collection and makes it such a rewarding read is exactly that the reader can join the hunt of the writers as they seek traces of a beautiful, complex and ultimately unknowable quarry.

It is to be commended that to encourage this invitation to engage Renaissance Futurities is open access and can be downloaded free at Luminos, University of California Press's Open Access publishing program.