In Your Face: Professional Improprietes and the Art of Being Conspicuous in Sixteenth-Century Italy

October 9, 2012
In Your Face: Professional Improprietes and the Art of Being Conspicuous in Sixteenth-Century Italy book cover

by Douglas Biow
Stanford University Press, 246 pp., $19.95


The ideals of grace and ease were ones that came to find great success and cultural currency during the Renaissance, in great measure thanks to the writing of Baldassarre Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, in which he describes the virtues of sprezzatura, the art of concealing the efforts behind one’s striving, so as to make it appear facile. The Galateo, by Giovanni della Casa, with its notion of proper manners and correct conduct specific to all occasions, is also a product of this time. But there is a different cultural trajectory that has not been granted as much attention by the critics. In many ways, the protagonists giving shape to this alternative strand seem to have expounded, in both word and deed, values contrary to the graceful movements appropriate to sprezzatura. They could be sensuous gluttons, often given to sexual promiscuity. They tended to emphasize, rather than conceal, the less refined bodily functions. They were sometimes reckless and prone to fighting, by pen or by knife. In a well-crafted recent book, Douglas Biow provides an in-depth analysis of five men, presenting a cultural picture of this underappreciated Renaissance way of being, which he refers to as the “art of being conspicuous.” Biow’s book is organized in three thematic sections pertaining to diplomacy (chapter 1), the consumption of food (chapters 2 and 3), and the production of things (chapters 4 and 5). Biow begins with Castiglione, whose writings and persona are the most distinct from any of the other characters studied. Castiglione’s work sets the stage. It is the culture he described and promoted that the others were in some manner reacting to and moving away from. And yet, Biow emphasizes that Castiglione’s goals of self-definition were similar to those of the more ostentatious men here portrayed. He too wanted to be “conspicuous,” albeit, in an “inconspicuous” manner. From Castiglione, Biow moves on to look at Pietro Aretino, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Benvenuto Cellini, and the Florentine polygraph Anton Francesco Doni. As Biow notes, these men were working in different media, with different personality traits and social contexts. The unifying theme is conspicuousness, with each character adding his own layer to the cultural vocabulary. In addition to being elegant and well crafted, Biow’s book is theoretically significant, for he inserts himself into a thicket of recent conversation over the idea of consumption in the Renaissance. As the author points out, in the past two decades, numerous scholars of various ideological persuasions have sought to portray the Renaissance as a pivotal point in the history of western consumerism. Biow does not seek to validate or deny these claims from a quantitative or economic point of view. Instead, he looks at, as he puts it “how ideas related to appetites took shape and are represented in works of visual and verbal art.” This perhaps, is the one area where some readers may be left craving more analysis. Yet, there are other works one may turn to for such an angle. Biow’s book analyzes the artistic and cultural attitudes at play in the context of the historical trends, thus filling in with details and nuance in a way that is complementary to the more generalized economic studies.