BMCR 2004.05.15

The Revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance Art

, The revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xv, 301 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 0521815762. $85.00.

In this volume, Freedman examines one aspect of sixteenth-century Italians’ encounter with the classical world: their representations of the Olympian deities in drawings, prints, paintings, and especially statues. She focuses on what she describes as the “autonomous representation” of these gods. This is the portrayal of a single figure, or one in a group in which it “is seen as if either actually alone or seemingly detached from all the other figures and objects visible in the same space” (20). Freedman argues that this mode of representation was problematic for a Christian society but flourished in the sixteenth century, and not before or afterwards. She considers the sources available to sixteenth-century scholars and artists who wanted to imitate their classical predecessors, and the ways in which sculptors like Jacopo Sansovino and Giambologna, or painters like Giulio Romano and Raphael imitated and differentiated their work from that of their predecessors in antiquity.

The book is divided into three parts. The first introduces the terms of discussion, and the patrons and artists who created representations of the deities. The second, which will probably be of most interest to readers of this review, aims to provide an overview of the statues, gems, coins that signified gods, and the classical texts discussing the representation of gods, that were available to artists of the time. It then begins to consider the way in which those artists combined the different forms of evidence to identify classical iconographies and create their own. In the third part, Freedman has two long chapters detailing sixteenth-century representations of each Olympian figure, the first considering classical elements in those representations and the second non-classical elements. She ends with a chapter examining Renaissance responses to the images. Freedman’s basic argument is that sixteenth-century artists interwove classical with non-classical elements when they depicted the Olympian gods because of their concerns about the Olympians’ status as false deities. Neither her main hypothesis, nor the route she takes to her conclusion, is convincing, however, and this book should be read with caution by anyone new to this field.

As the premise of the work suggests, Freedman deliberately harks back and responds to previous generations of scholars. She frames her work in the long shadows cast by the tutelary deities of Saxl and Panofsky. By her title she refers to Jean Seznec’s 1940 La Survivance des dieux antiques, although she distinguishes her interest in a revival of a specific mode of representation from Seznec’s assertion of survival. She even enlists the shade of Burckhardt when defining her use of “Cinquecento,” which, on her terms, “appears to be the brightest manifestation of the Burckhardtian idea of the Renaissance as a phenomenon in world history” (5). This Cinquecento (or “Renaissance”) is regularly compared with an equally monolithic “Antiquity” (always capitalized, and usually unqualified). In the former, for example, “the Olympian gods and goddesses… were shown as deprived of the sanctity and majesty that they unequivocally conveyed” in the latter (118). Freedman engages neither with applications of response theory in classical scholarship, nor with recent work on the early modern period that has probed the range of artists’ attitudes to antiquity. There is little trace here of the agonistic relationship of sixteenth-century sculptors like Baccio Bandinelli towards their ancient predecessors that Leonard Barkan has so elegantly explored or of the wide variety of responses to the material and textual remains of antiquity exemplified in the collection of essays, Antiquity and its Interpreters.1

Freedman is on surest ground when she considers concrete examples of the phenomena of appropriation and imitation. She illuminates how, for example, the motif of crossed legs in both a statue of Mercury by Zanobi Lastricati and a fresco of the god by Giorgio Vasari derives from a Roman statue documented to have been in the Medici collection in the sixteenth century. Similarly, Renaissance illustrations and copies of classical deities reveal which details of the classical versions were thought to be important: in an early print of the Apollo Belvedere, Nicoletto da Modena took no notice of the god’s tresses and fillet, whereas subsequent copies and adaptations recognized the distinctive historicity of the hairstyle. More speculatively, she persuasively suggests that the sixteenth-century tendency to represent classical male and female deities naked, without any strong ancient precedent, was due to the persistence of medieval beliefs that pagan gods were demonic, lascivious, and hence to be depicted without any clothes.

When she starts to draw other, wider conclusions from these observations, however, difficulties emerge. Some contradictions and mistakes are striking, but not of central importance to the argument of the book. We learn, for example, that “[t]he earliest collection of antiquities that definitely included statues of the Olympian deities was that of Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini,” in 1500 (83), but then seven pages later that Giovanni da Tolentino, writing in 1490, recorded two statues of the Olympian gods in the Della Valle family palace. Classicists will be surprised to discover that J.G. Frazer is supposed to have translated “enim lacrimare deorum est” (Ovid, Fasti iv.521, preceded there by “neque”) as “gods can never weep” (181), but they will be happier that Freedman notes Pliny’s and Lucian’s anecdote about the fervid, besotted response of one observer to Praxiteles’ Cnidian Venus, even if that story would seem to modify her earlier statement about the unequivocal majesty communicated by statues in antiquity.

More problematic for Freedman’s argument is her treatment of the relationship in this period among artists, collectors of antiquities, and printers. The structure of her book suggests that artists in the Cinquecento were in a position to respond to a wide variety of source material about ancient representations of gods, including the coins, gems, statues and classical texts that are mentioned in the second part of the book. But the situation was far more complex than she allows. Coins, for example, certainly excited widespread interest. Freedman examines the phenomenon primarily through lovingly illustrated numismatic books, which began to include engravings or woodcuts of coin reverses from the middle of the sixteenth century. There are two difficulties with this method. First, many of the works of art discussed in this book were completed before the middle of the century and before the appearance of the numismatic treatises. Second, these books are themselves the products of appropriation and interpretation, and should not be regarded anachronistically as archaeological records. The woodcutters and engravers who worked on these books were certainly influenced by contemporary representations of Olympian deities and other classical subjects — Enea Vico, the author of several numismatic books, also engraved reconstructions involving classical gods — as is clear to numismatists today who examine the illustrations. To discuss an engraving of Jupiter by Caraglio (the results of a collaboration with Rosso Fiorentino, and from 1526, although not dated here) by referring to the reverse of a coin of Marcus Aurelius that features a figure carried by an eagle is illuminating. But to do so by including an illustration of Guillaume Du Choul’s 1556 woodcut of the coin, and by mentioning Du Choul’s discussion of the object, is potentially misleading to an unwary reader. By consistently using illustrations from these books, rather than of the coins themselves, Freedman blurs the difference between source and representation, and suggests that the artists she discusses would have had the books at hand.

Although incautious, this approach does not have major implications for the book’s central thesis, that artists deliberately added non-classical elements to their representations of Olympian deities. More troubling is a later comment about sixteenth-century artists’ adaptation of their classical sources. Freedman argues that in order to deprive the Olympians of their classical sanctity, sixteenth-century artists transformed “conventionally apathetic gods into … dynamic figures” (183); humanized and naturalized deities were less threatening than the idealized, static, representations of antiquity. She later points out, however, that Roman imperial coins — which were the coins most readily available to the artists — did in fact represent Mars, Neptune and others in action (211-12). This concession raises two crucial questions that the book does not answer satisfactorily. On the basis of this case, given that coins were so strong an influence on artistic production, can we be sure that artists deliberately adapted their sources? And more generally, is there really in fact so pronounced a difference between sixteenth-century representations and those of antiquity, particularly when, as Freedman acknowledges, contemporary audiences interpreted some sixteenth-century representations as genuine antiques?

These questions cut to the heart of Freedman’s argument. She asserts that it is “amazing” (3) that Olympians could be represented as autonomous in this period, particularly when this type of representation had previously been used for Christian subjects. This statement offers a provocative and useful reminder that sixteenth-century concerns towards the collecting and display of non-Christian material could be very different from those of today, particularly as scholarship now assigns to the Renaissance the origins of museums. The evidence that all sixteenth-century audiences shared these concerns is not clear-cut, however. Why did church figures feel able both to display classical statues of pagan deities, and even to commission imitations of, or replacements for them? How could ecclesiastical patrons support artists supposed to be able to pass off their work as antique, or at least able convincingly to restore classical fragments? Despite the thrust of the book, Freedman ultimately recognizes these difficulties. It is hard to square, for example, the comment that “[a]s the discerning reader observes, not always were sixteenth-century audiences conscious of the pagan character of antiquity” (251 n.38) with a later claim that “sixteenth-century audiences were aware of [figures of Olympian deities] as cult images of the pagans.” (186)

At the end of the book, the discussion of concerns about and responses to sixteenth-century renditions — which it would have been helpful to have at the beginning of the work — is revealing. There it becomes clear that it is very difficult to generalize about audience responses. Freedman proposes that “[t]he sixteenth-century viewer that I have in mind was a relatively pious and intelligent person,” but then promptly muddies the water by adding that “[d]epending on the aspect, religious or ‘antiquarian,’ of this urbane viewer’s outlook, the figure of the Olympian deity was perceived either with alienation, as pagan in identity, or with neutrality or perhaps even aesthetically, as a relic of the venerated past.” (218). The use of “venerated” here is telling, and perhaps offers one answer to Freedman’s problems, although she does not follow up on the word’s implications for her pious spectator.

Freedman divides her evidence of audience responses into three: comments that praise the beauty of artists’ renditions; attacks on the paganism of those renditions; and Vasari’s comments about artists’ approaches to the representation of the Olympian deities. It is striking, though Freedman does not make the point, that the material from the first group is nearly all from the first half of the sixteenth century, and that the majority of the attacks in the second group come from the second half of the century. The usual way of explaining this discrepancy is to point to Protestant attacks on ecclesiastical artistic patronage, particularly in Italy, and discussions about the role of art in the Council of Trent. After the middle of the century, the argument goes, Catholic patrons and artists became much more sensitive to the religious aspects of cultural production, and in particular to the display of nude figures. One of the texts discussed here, Gabriele Paleotti’s influential Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane of 1582, was written in response to Tridentine discussions. Because of her anxiety to see the Cinquecento as a whole, Freedman does not allude to this distinction or directly examine changes in representation or display over the course of the sixteenth century. It may be that the conventional view requires modification, but not to confront it explicitly seems irresponsible.

Ultimately Freedman aims to resolve the tension between two lines of inquiry: the first, the conventional view of scholars and artists laboring teleologically to recover ancient iconographies and to create works that accorded with those iconographies; and the second, the underlying sixteenth-century disquiet about the idolatrous display and imitation of classical pagan remains. In her discussion, she alludes to some very interesting issues, about the importance of the site where representations of the gods were shown, for example, or the difference to a cardinal between simply displaying ancient material and commissioning a contemporary artist actually to create an idol. Yet her main argument, that artists introduced non-classical motifs into their renditions deliberately, is not wholly credible, and certainly does not apply to all sixteenth-century renditions. It is certainly true that classicists will find many anachronisms in sixteenth-century representations of autonomous Olympian deities, but to attribute those primarily to religious concerns is to blur and simplify a complex picture of reception and transmission. Furthermore, Freedman’s lack of attention to chronology threatens to undermine some of her arguments. This book may well serve as a springboard to further research, but it raises many more questions than it convincingly answers.


1. Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in Renaissance Culture, New Haven/London, 1999; Alina Payne, Ann Kuttner and Rebekah Smick (eds), Antiquity and its Interpreters, Cambridge, 2000. There are references to both works in the notes.