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Splitting Attractive Hairs
on 8 July 2007
This is the kind of book that History of Art departments throw at you early on in their courses to instil the right respect and awe for the whole academic ritual.
When I first saw this book at Birkbeck College (2003 History of Art MA) I was duly impressed and intimidated into thinking this was somehow a classic. In this work Baxandall is the exemplary academic, slowly building up a case from painstaking research and cleverly interpreted trivia.
This approach is fine and dandy until you reflect that at the end of it the conclusions Baxandall has laboured so hard to arrive at are perhaps a little banal -- i.e. Renaissance painting was influenced by such contemporary phenomenon as religious practices, dancing, and the ability to judge quantities by eye.
The only reason this book works as a book is that the Renaissance is such an attractive period that Baxandall's painstakingly dull technique receives a charming counterpoint in the endearing trivia of the period. Unfortunately this effect is not replicated in other works by Baxandall that I have looked at. To college students getting a dose of this, I would say, 'Enjoy the period, but think about how relevant this kind of hairsplitting really is.'