New York Review of Books
June 21, 2017
One of the favorite sports of Renaissance artists was a contest called the paragone, the “comparison,” the age-old debate about the most expressive form of art. Like sport itself, the paragone never led to a definitive conclusion; the fun lay in playing the game with headlong passion, insisting that painting, or sculpture, or architecture reigned as queen of all the other arts. At the very least, the paragone sharpened its participants’ eyes and wits, though it must have led to the occasional tavern brawl as well. It also engendered endless repetitions of Horace’s ut pictura poesis, “poetry is like painting,” making the three-word phrase one of the sovereign clichés of the Renaissance.
In the real world, of course, the paragone rarely convinced an artist to turn down a good commission in any medium, be it architecture, embroidery, engraving, cannonry, or ceramic design. Filippo Brunelleschi started as a goldsmith and ended up an architect, shifting his scale from miniature to monumental. The sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi exercised her talents both in carving a crowd of saints’ faces into a single peach pit and in chiseling big blocks of marble. Giorgio Vasari designed temporary pageants and permanent structures, including the daring riverside Uffizi complex in Florence. He also painted, wrote, and helped to found the Accademia del Disegno, the state-sponsored artistic academy of Florence, where the paragone dominated discussion. For Vasari himself, disegno, which can mean both drawing and design, stood at the heart of every artistic enterprise and ruled them all.
This spring and summer, the Florentine exhibition “Bill Viola: Electronic Renaissance,” organized around the work of the acclaimed American video artist Bill Viola, has brought the paragone into the twenty-first century. Centered in the massive fifteenth-century Palazzo Strozzi, “Electronic Renaissance,” which runs until July 23, also involves several other venues in the city, placing Viola’s videos alongside Renaissance works by the likes of Jacopo Pontormo, Michelangelo, and Paolo Uccello.