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The second half of Passini’s book shifts the geographical and chronological focus from the Italian Renaissance to the French and German Middle Ages; in it, Passini studies the understanding of the Gothic between 18.Again, the choice of subject, while relatively narrow, is inspired.Passini interestingly argues that Courajod was one of the key figures in bringing about what she calls dénormativisation (24), for her a precondition for a true history of art.
The reasons for this are many and varied; but one consequence is that art historiography, the history of art history, is a much newer field than the parallel histories of literary criticism or history proper.
It was only with the so-called new art history of the 1970s and 1980s (now fully institutionalized) that art historiography emerged as anything more than an occasional subject for panegyric, obituary, or autobiography.
If there was a French Renaissance, as many of the authors whom Passini studies believed, was it somehow more Mediterranean and thus closer to the Italian Renaissance than a German version?
If that was the case, was this due to racial or cultural similarities between France and Italy, or some other cause?
It would certainly be easy to write a simplistic history of art history in that period along those lines.
Such a history would feature, for example, Émile Mâle’s L’art allemand et l’art français du moyen age, a book whose tone is predictable from its original publication date of 1916-1917, in the midst of the First World War.Between the start of the Franco-Prussian War and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, art historians in Germany and France were studying the Italian Renaissance and the Gothic monuments of the Middle Ages.Passini’s recent book analyses the role of French and German nationalism in the shaping of art history.That prediction is confirmed by virtually every one of the book’s sentences; the first can stand for the whole: “It is difficult to speak of German art.” but her study is much more complex and nuanced. The book, if a non-native speaker of French is permitted to judge, is exceptionally clearly written, perhaps because Passini composed it in Italian (it was originally a thesis from the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa) and then translated it herself.Much more significant is the clarity with which she has structured her presentation.The chief monuments of the Gothic were located in France and Germany.Some of them, notably Strasbourg cathedral, even moved across the Franco-German border during the period Passini studies.Such literal cases of a building shifting sides were rare, but the two countries had long argued about which gave birth to the Gothic, which was regarded as the most prestigious and distinguished northern European style and thus parallel (or opposed) to Greco-Roman classicism and its Renaissance avatar.In an art-historical age in which style was the dominant issue, the Gothic was a rich topic.This section of the book concludes with a detailed account of Henri Focillon’s characterization, at the end of the period Passini discusses, of the art of the Middle Ages as an “art of the West,” that is, an art transcending the borders drawn by French and German nationalism.Although Passini does not point this out, Focillon’s idea had a long historiographical run; it was powerful and useful in the 1930s, when he conceived it, but became even more so after the Second World War.