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E. John Walford


Renaissance Art and the Mediation of Belief

In 1963, shortly after graduating from an elite English boarding school, I went to Florence, Italy, where I stayed for about six months. I enrolled in the then-well-known drawing school, Studio Simi, which was a gathering place for those interested in the visual arts, as well as those seeking professional art education. Our daily regimen was to draw in the mornings—from both classical casts and live models—visit museums and churches in the afternoons, and travel to other cities on weekends. We were lodged in an old-fashioned but elegantly furnished pensione, called the Mona Lisa. Today, we might categorize this interlude as a "gap year" experience, or scrape up some credit for it in the guise of a study-abroad program. But on the terms that I did it, it could also be seen as occurring on the tail end of a much older English tradition, that of the young gentleman on his Grand Tour, rounding out his education.

This is not an incidental matter, because it goes to the heart of why one was there, what one sought to acquire, and most of all, how one perceived the art one was exposed to. I believe that the only book packed in my suitcase, before leaving England, was a copy of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (first published in 1860, and still-then a "must read"). To this I soon added a Random House edition of G.F. Young's The Medici, first published in 1930. It is worth pausing to consider just what kind of induction to adult life this was providing. The funding for this trip had come from my maternal grandfather, a prominent Anglo-Greek merchant banker, whose grand London house was modeled on the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi, built by the Medici's rivals. At the time, I did not fully realize the weight of symbolism embedded in these circumstances. Yet, here I was in Florence, with Burckhardt as my guide and the Medici—and my grandfather—as role models! What I did understand was that here before me were the approved models ...

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