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Ducal Palace of Urbino | © Il Conte de Luna/Flickr
Ducal Palace of Urbino | © Il Conte de Luna/Flickr
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Art, Pleasure & Power: An Interview With Art Historian Alison Cole

Picture of Sophie Terrett
Updated: 28 November 2016
From the Art Fund to the Southbank Centre, Alison Cole has had a varied and exciting career in the art world. Her latest book, Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power, dives deep into the courts of Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua and Milan to cast the art produced there in a new light.

Your latest book, Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power, returns the art we see in museums and galleries today to the context in which it was made. What inspired you to take this angle?

As a child, I was taken around what seemed like every church in Italy, looking at wonderful Piero della Francesca frescoes, for instance, in their original chapel settings. Later, as a postgraduate student at London’s Warburg Institute, I was very fortunate to have the great art historian Michael Baxandall as my tutor, who encouraged me to look at works of art in their original context (whether in a merchant’s house, or a prince’s bedchamber), and who developed the concept of the ‘period eye’. By immersing yourself in a period, and looking at the purposes that a work of art is designed to serve and the society that it inevitably reflects, you gain so much greater an understanding of what an artist is trying to do and how their art speaks to a contemporary audience. But Baxandall was also hugely sensitive to the inherent qualities of art itself: he taught me that you should always draw on the evidence of your own senses (sight and touch) as well as the fruits of your contextual research.

How do you approach the challenge of writing books that are informative yet accessible to those who may be unfamiliar with art history?

I have always been interested in communicating knowledge and ideas to a wide audience — and have written for children as well as adults. It all boils down to good storytelling, in terms of the writing job to be done. My father wrote children’s books and poetry, distilling his ideas for a young audience, but never dumbing down (‘Bod’ is his most well-known creation!). I enjoyed writing this book because it is aimed at both a general reader and a university student. While it was challenging to write a university text without footnotes, this proved to be a surprisingly good discipline in terms of keeping the story going, and explaining concepts as one went along.

Detail from Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano| © Henry Townsend/WikiCommons
Detail from Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano | © Henry Townsend/WikiCommons

What was the most unexpected or intriguing thing you uncovered when researching your new book?

One of the most intriguing aspects was realizing just how much artists travelled, and how the fame of their works travelled too, throughout the peninsula and beyond. I had always seen Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi altarpiece in its Florentine context (it was painted for a Florentine banker). But I saw it in a new light when I realized that Gentile had just decorated a palace chapel in Brescia, Northern Italy for Pandolfo III Malatesta, and then painted the Journey of the Magi while on his own journey to take up an illustrious commission at the newly established papal court of Rome. Pope Martin V, who was travelling down from Constance to take up his seat in Rome, had stopped off in Brescia to see the trend-setting Broletto Chapel, and had subsequently summoned Gentile to work for him. I now see echoes of the splendid papal retinue winding its way through the landscape, as well as Gentile’s own travelling retinue (he set off for Rome with eight companions and eight dazzling horses) reflected in the courtly and equestrian finery of his Adoration altarpiece.

Why is it so important for us to know and understand the Renaissance?

The Renaissance stimulated so many exhilarating ideas and groundbreaking discoveries — fostered by a renewed sense of human potential in the moral, political and creative spheres (partly inspired by the potent legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome) and forged in an atmosphere of political turbulence and a remarkable rate of social change. It is a period — as I say in my book — that is ‘supercharged’ in terms of human achievement and endeavour, and this makes it incredibly illuminating and inspiring to study.

Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca | © Kjetilr/WikiCommons
Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca | © Kjetilr/WikiCommons

Who is your favourite Renaissance noble?

My favourite is probably Federico da Montefeltro — the ‘ideal’ Renaissance prince, but also the mercenary soldier-ruler who had to work hard to control his naturally choleric temperament. You feel this sense of rigid self-control in everything that Federico does, including the art he commissions — together with a determination to set himself apart from his archrival Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini (who was renowned for his restlessness and capriciousness). Nowhere is this careful articulation of self more evident than in the brand image that Federico created — with his dignified but disfigured profile adorning the portraits of his reign. Federico lost his eye in a youthful joust — but his portrait (emphasising the missing bridge of his nose) suggests maturity and stoicism.

You were key to the Art Fund’s campaign for free museum admission across the nation; over a decade on, what do you feel is the legacy of that success?

The free admission campaign — which resulted in all national museums going free in December 2001 — has become a central plank of successive government’s cultural policy. It is something that I am still very proud to have been at the forefront of. The government usually evaluates the policy’s success on the basis of significantly increased visitor numbers — and there is no doubt, too, that free museums (such as Tate Modern) have become extremely successful in diversifying their business models (shops, cafes and special exhibitions). But I hope that the real success of the free admission campaign will be that people feel able and comfortable to pop in and visit just a few objects or pictures at a time — and then return again and again. It is about really being able to look at a picture or object, because only then you can form a relationship with it.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing public access to art?

The gravest threats to public access to art at the moment are the cuts to local authority funding up and down the country. We may be fortunate in London — where Government funding for the arts has been sustained — but elsewhere libraries and museums are being forced to close.

Detail of Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi via The Google Art Project | © shannonpatrick17/Flickr
Detail of Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi via The Google Art Project | © shannonpatrick17/Flickr

In the digital age, what are the most exciting opportunities technological advances offer to our experience of art?

The Google Art Project still offers one of the best opportunities for experiencing art outside of the real thing — the ability to explore a reproduction of a work of art in magnified detail is to be relished. There are also opportunities to virtually visit major exhibitions — both online and in the cinema. Games can offer some of the most interesting virtual experiences of Renaissance Florence, for instance, allowing you to scale the heights of Brunelleschi’s dome. But I don’t think the digital world has really begun to crack the potential of art history to bring subjects, characters and periods to life, and to bring the senses into play.

What do you wish you had known when you were first starting out in the art world?

I wish I’d known better how to combine an academic career with a public-facing role, and how to focus both on making art exciting and accessible.

What advice would you give young people trying to climb the arts career ladder?

Don’t forget about the art — it’s why the arts world exists!