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Brunelleschi's Egg: Nature, Art, and Gender in Renaissance Italy

by Mary D. Garrard
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2010
448 pp. Trade, $60.00
ISBN:10: 0520261526.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704 USA


Brunelleschi's Egg: Nature, Art, and Gender in Renaissance Italy is a study of the Italian Renaissance that argues the visual arts both anticipated and mediated the profound shift in the concept of nature from the organic worldview to the scientific perspective that took root at that time. According to Garrard, the gendered status of nature, the perspective of feminized nature’s history, and the biases of masculinist art history shaped her counternarrative. In particular, she argues that around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we can identify a demotion of the female role from the elevated images of the Virgin to the more mundane role of the female as the facilitator of patriarchal reproduction.  Moreover, during the High Renaissance, we see a neo-patriarchialistic art; the nuclear family was culturally celebrated in imagery that now conceives it as husband-wife-children, rather than the mother-child, further putting the Nature and the feminine in its place. By the end of the sixteenth century, the time we associate with Caravaggio and the Carracci brothers, “the desire to return to aesthetic clarity and logic, the growing interest in practical applications of new technologies, and the rise of the new scientific objectivity are related to each other through their opposition to a feminized Other” (p. 310). Overall, as Garrard argues her case, going through evolving art and styles, she frequently points out exceptions to her generalizations, none of which deter her from her vision. Indeed, she writes:

“There are many ironies . . . [One is] that the stranglehold and taint of feminized style, perpetuated in Florence long after Caravaggio’s virile style had transformed art elsewhere, was finally broken by a female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, who brought both Caravaggism and a new gender dynamic to the Medici court of Francesco I’s nephew, Cosimo II” (p. 312).

Clearly, large and complex domains are engaged in this study. Frequently the analyses challenge assumptions so woven into both art and cultural history that we do not see them to raise questions. Others (e.g., Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Fox Keller) have argued that the Western concept of nature changed significantly during the Renaissance. Garrard builds on their work.  Like these writers she notes that it was during this period that philosophies of nature moved from a view of the natural world as an organism imbued with mind, or “soul,” on an earth that was itself understood as alive and intelligent, to the early modern “scientific” conception of the world as a machine that lacks both intelligence and the capacity to move itself, created and maintained by a divine outside being.  What Garrard adds to this earlier research is a revolutionary perspective that considers how and where art fits within this evolution.

The book opens with a philosophical overview, reviewing the gendering of nature from pre-history through the Middle Ages. With this foundation in place, Garrard forwards the focus to case studies of major Renaissance figures such as Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Giorgione, and Titian and some discussion of various schools. This robust approach allows her to create the well-researched and sophisticated study. Detailed analyses present her view on how art was an ingredient in a downward revision that moved the feminine Nature from a divine and generative power into the lowly physical nature of rocks, trees, and clouds. Given how refined the research is, I think the all readers are likely to take away different things from the book, based on how much knowledge they bring to the topic, their own backgrounds and predispositions, and whether (or not) her unusual approach resonates with their own scholarship.  Such a breadth of reactions seems appropriate for this kind of hefty (it weighs over 5 pounds) volume because its heft also translates into a well researched, philosophically rich, stimulating, thought provoking, and quite contrarian volume.

I was drawn to the book by its enticing title. It seems Garrard chose how and where she takes issue with scholarship that extends out from the design and construction of Brunelleschi's dome for the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, which was carried out between 1420 and 1436. More specifically, Garrard sees this feat as a symbol of the triumph of technology over nature. What this “triumph” means in terms of the art of that time is the theme of the book.

The standard canon tells us that, according to Vasari, the decisive moment in Brunelleschi’s winning of the dome competition for this project came about when the many aspiring contenders gathered to present their models for crowning the cathedral. Unlike the others, Brunelleschi produced no model or plan; instead, he brought forth a simple egg, proposing that whoever could make the egg stand upright on a flat surface should receive the commission. Each master failed to make the egg stand on its end. When it was his turn, Brunelleschi lightly broke the end of the egg on the marble, leaving it to stand on its shards.   Garrard sees this story as a key component in a contest between art and nature.  The “egg” is a natural form and, as others have argued as well, the rebirth of the arts in the Quattrocento was stimulated in part by an effort to reassert human control over nature’s chaos, an idea interwoven with the outbreak of the plague of the previous century.  Her conclusion is that:

“Having discovered one of Nature’s secrets in the structural strength of the egg, Brunelleschi makes the egg perform for him, putting it to larger use by imitating Nature’s mysterious designs on a grand scale. The concealment of his sources, both in the apparently cryptic egg demonstration and in the hiding of the dome’s true structure behind ribs that tectonized its breast- or egglike form, may bespeak an unacknowledged competition, between the creative powers of Nature and those of the artist. At this stage, art’s special powers are not articulated directly, and Nature is still credited as the source . . . Yet, as the dome’s actual construction showed, Nature’s living structures could be improved upon, if they were set in larger and permanent form . . . art could create entirely new kinds of order, marked by mathematical rationality rather than organic design” (p. 45).

In her view, the “core meaning in the Quattrocento [is] the struggle of the male hero, whether Hercules, Daedalus, or the artist, to escape the domination of female Nature” (p. 51); “Brunelleschi’s transcendent solution, a triumph of mind over matter, was consonant with a familiar humanist claim that the difference between nature and art was mind (her italics, p. 50); and the completion of the dome and related projects gave Florence a symbol that transformed “the nurturing and protective powers of the Virgin into a bright new vision of security and progress as promised by technology” (p. 53).

It is an interesting thesis, particularly since I’m more acquainted with the view that Brunelleschi’s insight was not a complete epiphany so much as it was inspired by re-publication of Vitruvius' De Architectura, which describes Roman machines used in the first century AD to build large structures such as the Pantheon and the Baths of Diocletian, structures he would see for himself as papal architect.  It is also important to note that she does not place this idea within a vacuum. Because the egg as a symbol is so important to her story, she presents Vasari’s account, compares several other scholarly positions on the account and competition, analyzes the pros and cons of the egg story, and reminds us of other art historical “eggs” (e.g., Piero della Francesco’s Brera Madonna (Madonna and Child with Saints and Federico da Montefeltro), c. 1472-74).

Her views on Masaccio also show how she places her ideas within the traditional canon. Arguing that Masaccio wanted to work like a designer, like God, she points to the self-portrait he painted in his St. Peter Enthroned and states that all of the enthusiasm about his work with perspective has clouded the way he re-positioned women. For example, Eve apart, not a single female appears on the entire left wall of the Brancacci Chapel, and only a handful or women are seen on the other walls, solely in passive or caretaking roles (p. 75). Here, too, the ideas are presented within the context of his art’s development.

“The almost obsessive focus of scholars upon the innovative perspective construction of this fresco [Masaccio’s Trinity] has distracted us from another original feature: its assertive rejection of matrifocal holy kinships, a genre the artist obviously knew well. Masaccio replaced these with a patrilineal image . . . The exceptional “trinity” of St. Anne, the Virgin and Christ Child [found in the Masolino/Masaccio Sant’Anna Meterza] is supplanted by the canonical masculine Trinity. God the Father and His Son command the central axis, while Christ’s earthly mother stands to the side, displaced” (p. 70).

A tome as large as this survey covers so many topics that every reader will inevitably come across ideas to savor and details with which to find fault. This was the case for me as I read. What was most pronounced was that, as a woman, I really wanted to applaud the feminist scholarship but, as an artist, I found much of the gender-specific arguments seemed too much like specialized art-speak. I found the sections that resonated the most were those where she talked about the art rather than the philosophical counter-narrative she was promoting. For example, when speaking of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, she points to “an abstract pattern [that] is developed [and] sets him apart from many of his contemporaries” (p. 114). This discussion of some abstract elements in his work seemed more tangible to me in terms of art and less amorphous as well. It stayed with me to a greater degree than many of the verbal abstractions used to make her case.

In fairness I should note that Garrard looks at Botticelli’s development toward an abstraction of his own invention as an extremely important component of his competitive challenge to Nature. I should also note that some of the case studies, for example the discussions of Leonardo do a good job of balancing the artist’s art with the philosophy. Regardless of what the text is emphasizing in any part, the many, well-produced images make it easy to engage with the words.

Mary D. Garrard, a well-known feminist scholar and art historian, spent years developing this penetrating study.  As noted, she incorporates some scholarship from the field of feminist studies, but the thrust of the argument is presented through the language of art history.  Following the long-standing academic tendency to elevate philosophical perspectives over contextual history, the words often seemed densely abstract.  Because of this, I kept wondering why she didn’t draw upon writers such as Gerda Lerner, who documented the twelve-hundred-year struggle of women to free their minds from patriarchal thought. Still, even with its fault’s, the book is masterful and no doubt a study that will engage Renaissance scholars for years to come.

Last Updated 3 June, 2012

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