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David R. Smith (ed.), Parody and Festivity in Early Modern Art, Essays on Comedy as Social Vision (Burlington and Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-4094-3030-8, 220 pp., £56.70.

Reviewed by Francesca Alberti

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[1] This book follows a renewed interest in carnival culture and its social functions. Through a series of art historical essays, it shows how parody and festivity are closely linked and deeply rooted in Renaissance and Baroque minds and sensibilities. Whereas laughter in early modern literature, society and culture has been the subject of several in-depth studies, it has received little consideration from a visual perspective. Crossing art historical, historical and literary concerns, the essays reveal how artworks and visual material demonstrate different means of collective participation in laughter and the comic in public spaces. Throughout the book, the reader learns how parody has been a highly stimulating and creative mode which privileged ambiguity, irony and fun, rather than mockery or satire, in order to confront and loosen fixed norms, hierarchies and social authority. Parody and festivity seem to have served the same purpose; they worked as agencies of social cohesion and tolerance. Laughter’s social function and its link to carnivalesque culture are the common themes of the book’s various contributions which, in fact, exceed the chronological limits announced by the title: two essays deal with 20th century art.

[2] The sequence starts with Paul Barolsky’s stimulating and entertaining contribution, which reaffirms the playful foundations of Renaissance art. The author recalls the etymology of the verb illudere (to deceive), which comes form ludere (to play), and points out the comic use of deception in many Renaissance works. He invites art historians to take part in this game by adopting a more imaginative attitude to their writing. Imagination is the capacity to imagine, to believe and to be fooled. No wonder the artist, who has this faculty, is often portrayed not only as a prestidigitator, but also as simpleton who believes in his own fictions​. As he shows, this is the case for a Sienese artist named Mino, the protagonist of one of Franco Sacchetti’s fourteenth-century comic novels, in which the power of art and the theology of Incarnation are at the heart of an amusing farce. Hung in the bedroom of King Philip IV of Spain, Velasquez’s Los Borrachos is the subject of an erudite article by Aneta Georgievska-Shine. Recalling all the previous interpretations of the painting, the author claims its irreducibility to an unequivocal meaning. The picture’s subject stands beyond the boundary of genre, it recasts classical mythology in a vernacular setting with a parodic if not burlesque effect: a young and tender Bacchus sits among a group of drunken peasants and places a crown on one of them; his earthy and “virginal” beauty are in great contrast with the rusticity of his companions. To understand better its multifaceted character, the author draws a comparison between the painting and the notions of ‘disillusionment’ and paradox (coincidentia oppositorum), which were pervasive in the literary and philosophical cultures of the Spanish golden age. Through its many contradictions, the painting embraces a tragi-comic mode, the most self-conscious and meta-theatrical of genres.

[3] Diane Scillia’s paper underscores the importance of analyzing images in their specific context, even when dealing with carnival. She concentrates on the famous topsy-turvy theme of the ‘hunter rabbit/hare’, usually studied as a marginalia motif. After 1500, many links can be traced between this theme and carnival processions in Germany. Images such as George Pencz’s woodcut, the Broadsheet of the Rabbit’s/Hare’s Revenge (1534-35), accompanied by Hans Sachs’ text, may have lead to political and social readings, referring to increased taxation and the suppression of the rights of south German peasants after the Peasants’ War of 1525. Moving on to the Netherlands, Jane Kromm’s contribution familiarizes the reader with the public festivities that took place during charity lotteries in the seventeenth century. These episodes are attested to by a rich iconography encompassing different visual material such as posters, engravings and pictures, which show the lotteries that took place in The Hague (1617) and in Amsterdam (1592). The author analyzes the sophisticated strategies, activities and objects of these public and festive events.

[4] Three essays, dedicated to Pieter Bruegel, prove how important this artist has been for the visual tradition of parody and festivity in the sixteenth-century Netherlands. Catherine Levesque’s paper delves deeply into Bruegel’s neo-stoic stance as a humanist and an intellectual. Her study focuses on the paradoxes within the Landscape with the Magpie on the Gallows, between the exceptionally beautiful landscape and the amusing figures of peasants who dance freely, enjoy themselves and are even shown defecating. With its ironic tone, the picture invites the viewer to grasp the world from many different perspectives in order to retain a deeper philosophical meaning. The same idea is put forward by Yemi Onafuwa’s study of The Thin Kitchen and The Fat Kitchen compositions, dating from 1563. These prints demonstrate Bruegel’s interest in the ‘world upside down’, which finds a contemporary literary equivalent in the work of the German scholar, Friedrich Dedekind, who published the Grobianus: de morum simplicitate in 1549: a parodic reversal of medieval conduct texts, which was repeatedly re-published. According to Onafuwa, the picture’s footnote should be: ‘excess makes man forget God and himself’. Bruegel’s erudition is also put forward by David Lavin’s new perspective on the painter’s paradoxical, parodic and ironic use of Italian models. By taking into account the disguised quotation of Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, Bruegel’s painted proverbs benefit from a new and deeper significance, which echoes the philosophy of knowledge advocated by Erasmus and the reformers of the sixteenth century. According to this doctrine, knowledge is of value only when at the service of wisdom and wisdom can only be achieved through faith.

[5] Parodies of social conventions, public festivities, professions and court spectacles are the topic of Baccio del Bianco’s comic drawings of dwarfs, studied by Sandra Cheng. The author illustrates how this theme has several antecedents and finds correspondence in the Florentine visual and literary tradition of the caramogi‘s representations (images of grotesque, hunchbacked dwarfs). What makes Baccio del Bianco’s images so interesting is their precious execution that, in contrast with the subject, was perceived as highly entertaining and much appreciated by the Seicento public. With his dwarves performing rituals of everyday life in narrative scenes, Baccio del Bianco opens a new season of caricature differing from Carracci’s ritratto carico. The sixteenth-century taste for subtle irony is illustrated by David Smith’s contribution on Jan van der Heyden’s Feast of Purim. The Feast of Purim is a Jewish version of carnival that finds its origins in the Bible’s Book of Esther. Smith recalls this tradition and explores the implications and reasons for the artist’s unusual choice of subject and its setting in a contemporary urban space.

[6] The book’s chronology broadens with two more articles: one, by Soo Y. Kang, on images of clowns painted by Rouault at the start of the 20th century, the other, by Rosemary O’Neill, on the experiences of George Brecht and Robert Filliou – two members of the Fluxus group – in the fishing town of Villefranche-sur-Mer in the 1960s. While Kang’s article concentrates on the circus as a new space for the development of parody and festivity, O’Neill’s contribution on Brecht and Filliou’s playful actions considers parody at the heart of the artistic practice. The two Fluxus artists play with everyday life; humor directs their actions and finds an embodiment with the opening of La Cédille qui Sourit, the art store, studio and exhibition space, whose title is a pun. The cedilla is both a smile and a hook, the emblem of Villefranche-sur-Mer’s fishing heritage. Both papers invite the reader to consider how parody and festivity have changed since the early modern period: how they have adapted to an age that has become too secular to keep many religious feasts on the calendar.

[7] The bibliography on parody listed at the end of the volume will be helpful to future studies on the topic although it is largely Anglo-centric. Visual parody and irony in the early modern period still demand a theoretical definition in order to better understand these phenomena from a historical perspective. In order to do so, studies such as those of Gérard Genette (Palimpseste. La littérature au Second Degré, Paris, 1982), Margaret Rose (Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-modern, Cambridge, 1993) and Patricia Eichel-Lojkine (Excentricité et Humanisme, Parodie, Dérision et Détournement des Codes à la Renaissance, Genève, 2002), may be of great use. Nevertheless, with its discerning and in-depth essays, the book contributes significantly to the study of festive culture and attests to the importance and the need of analyzing carefully all its manifestations.

Académie de France à Rome, January 2015