Malcolm Bull has written a formidable handbook, for which, I predict, many scholars and lovers of Renaissance art will never forgive him. What he has to say in the end about the revival of the ancient gods in early modern Europe amounts to a wholesale (Savonarolan) bonfire of most art historians' assumptions, or wishes, about the leaven of paganism in the transition to modernity. But 'in the end' is a real qualification here. The Mirror of the Gods is a difficult book to represent adequately in a review, because inevitably I shall find myself extracting from the texture of its pages - and the texture is, by and large, that of patient and incisive summary, deployment of just the right thumbnail sketches, and an extraordinary conjunction of evidence drawn from a wider range of visual media and a broader sweep of countries than any one author, to my knowledge, has dared to exploit previously - a set of strong and, as I say, unforgivable theses. I don't think I am inventing the pugnacious arguments, and I shall not exaggerate their force. But it is of the essence that they appear in the book seemingly episodically, in no particular order, with some of the most dangerous and suggestive barely hinted at until the last twenty pages; and always they crop up as extrapolations, almost asides, in the course of a comprehensive mapping of sources, stories, patrons, transformations, functions, media.
LRB 22 September 2005 | PDF Download