Bruce Cole is the eighth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The author of 14 books, many of them about the history of Italian Renaissance Art, he has taught for almost three decades at the University of Indiana. Cole's relationship with the NEH dates from 1971 when he was awarded a research fellowship. He has served as a panelist in NEH peer review system and as a member of its National Council of advisors.
Joseph Phelan, editor of Artcyclopedia and a former NEH program officer, interviewed Chairman Cole about his career as an art historian and about the role of the Endowment in post-9/11 America.
The Road to Siena
Joseph Phelan: What made you want to become an art historian?
Bruce Cole: I majored in history when I was an undergraduate. I got interested in art history walking around the Cleveland Museum of Art where I grew up. My sainted aunt Gertrude used to take me to the museum. Then I got interested in Italian art history through a great teacher, a man by the name of Marvin Becker who is now retired, who was a Florentine historian who was also interested in art. I just wandered into his class in Italian Renaissance history and got hooked on Italy. That's where it all started.
JP: Was there a particular painting that came as a revelation?
BC: The real first epiphany was when I was a freshman in college and I was taking a course in world history. I was leafing through a book and saw this black and white illustration of a painting attributed to Sassetta, which is now right down the street at the National Gallery. That was an epiphany. I was absolutely enthralled not only with art but also the history of art.
JP: What was it about that painting?
BC: That's really hard to know. Kenneth Clark [in his book Looking at Paintings] has this three stage recognition: first there's something about a work of art that speaks directly to the heart and you want to know more about it. You want to know more about it and you find out who the artist was, put it in the context of his art, his artistic world, and the matrix of his civilization. And then you return to the work with a renewed appreciation. That's sort of been my story because I wound up writing two books on Sienese painting which I think were basically motivated by that first experience.
JP: Two books on Sienese painting?
BC: Sienese paintings are very hard to describe but wonderfully mystical, something enchanting.
JP: You seem to write most passionately about this school.
BC: I have a special place in my heart for Sienese painting. Part of that is just the experience of being in Siena and around Siena for a long time, which is one of the most beautiful places.
For the General Reader
JP: One thing that I noticed about almost all of your art history books is that they are written with the general reader in mind.
BC: The first book that I wrote was a dissertation which was published by Oxford University Press on Agnolo Gaddi. Agnolo Gaddi was—I can say this now—an obscure late 14th century Florentine artist. This was a full-fledged scholarly monograph with many footnotes, appendix of documents, lots of Latin and the like. When I published, it was on the one hand a fulfillment of my dreams to have something published by a great university press, Oxford University Press, but on the other hand, it was curiously unsatisfying because I got the feeling that the book was read by 10 people and five of them were inclined not to like what I wrote before they read it. It was a very small world. I think that if you are really interested in something—whether Michelangelo or Agnolo Gaddi—you want to tell people about it. That was the motivation for the books that I did subsequently. I was so enthusiastic about this material and felt this material contained such important things that I wanted to tell people about it. The way that I tell people about it is to write books for what I call the general reading public, those people who would not pick up some kind of scholarly monograph, who are looking for a way into Renaissance art.
JP: Did that make you a maverick in academia?
BC: I think academic disciplines—not only art history—really encourage and reward specialization. I think that fine-grained scholarship is really important. There need to be scholars out there who are producing the raw materials of scholarship but there's also a role for people, whether they are historians or art historians, geographers—in any humanities field—to address the general public to that which has been the center of their lives' work. I would like to see more people addressing what in a way is their natural constituency, which is the general public. But I want to say I also think people should be producing dense scholarly monographs, the sort of building blocks I use myself. Obviously I wasn't going to do research in incredible depth on every artist that I talked about. I relied on scholarly monographs and specialized studies.
JP: Your early work was supported by a scholarship from the National Endowment.
BC: Very early in my career I got an NEH grant, which was wonderful in many ways. It allowed me time off from teaching; it gave the NEH imprimatur on the importance of my work, and it's hard to get an NEH grant. I think that's very good for scholars. So I'm very grateful to the NEH. I want to emphasize that I didn't get that grant after I became chairman!
The Importance of Vasari's "Lives of the Most Famous Painters"
JP: If I may go back to your formation as a scholar, apart from the experience of being there in Italy what books did you read on the Renaissance? Which authors meant the most to you?
BC: The great authors for me were Jacob Burckhardt, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, one of the great formative books of Italian history; Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Famous, Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vasari is the great eyewitness who formed the concept of Renaissance art, differentiating the Renaissance from Antiquity. He basically helped form the idea of a Middle Ages—that period between his contemporary times and the past. Vasari was not an art historian but he was a great observer of paintings and artists and an architect, acolyte of Michelangelo and very important in his own time. He is the first to give us artist's biographies. If you asked me what the most important book was ever written on Renaissance art, I'd say Vasari. Vasari's Lives.
Then Bernard Berenson was influential on the formation of my thinking about the Renaissance. His idea of art connoisseurship, looking at paintings with a view to their relations. Kenneth Clark, the great prose stylist of Renaissance art history; John Pope-Hennessey, Crowe and Cavalcaselle, the great early pioneers in the study of Italian Renaissance art. Then all sorts of other people.
When I started I was interested just in the object, connoisseurship. But as I worked on, I also became interested in trying to situate them in the societies from whence they came: what were they used for, how were they classified, how were they commissioned—larger social issues surrounding them. That I incorporated into a book I wrote called Italian Art and Society. I became very interested in the artist—the working conditions, the artist's experiences, what place the artist played in society, what the artist's ideas were of creativity and originality. That I incorporated in "The Renaissance Artist at Work."
So if you look at my dissertation it's very narrow. It is just about identification and ordering of the works of one artist, but as I matured as a scholar I became interested in not only that but larger issues. I kept moving up in time. I started really in the 14th century, then I got interested in the 15th and my last book on Italian Renaissance art was on Titian, a 15th-16th century artist.
JP: You've focused on three great art cities: Florence, Siena and most recently Venice. Did that lead to any general reflections on why the art of those three cities is so very different?
BC: You can't talk about "Italian art." There is no such thing as "Italian Renaissance art" because there was no Italy. Italy was a patchwork of duchies, Papal States and republics, etc. and what really characterizes Italian art was its localism. What was being done, say, in Venice in 1500 was very different from what was being done in, say, Perugia or Siena. Sure they have things in common but I'm also very interested in differentiation between them.
You know Italy is younger than the United States—Italy as a nation. When you live in Italy you still see how important localism is in dialect, in cuisine, in architecture and the like. What's interesting is that if you look at central Italy—the area that's now called Tuscany—say in 1400, you could draw a line between those areas under Sienese control and those areas under Florentine control by looking at the art. The localism in art is due to the fact that these were political, economic, administrative entities in and of themselves. Florence was different from Siena was different from Perugia. It's localism that's very, very interesting. The art is in a way shaped by those factors.
JP: So even though Siena is only about 50 miles from Florence, the art is different. So different that Vasari wrote it off as being an artistic dead end.
BC: Vasari's book shaped our ideas; we can't get away from it, about what the Renaissance is. Vasari was the greatest propagandist for Florence ever. Vasari's scheme of things was that Renaissance art began in Florence, started with Giotto—that was its first peak—and then there was a kind of valley, then another even higher peak with Masaccio, and then the Everest of art, Michelangelo. This is now our idea of art. If you want to see how that works you just have to go to Italy and try to see the David. There are lines down two blocks and you're lucky if you can get in to see it. Or try to get in the Uffizzi. Go to the Academy in Venice where all the great Titians and Tintorettos are, the great glorious story of Venetian art. There's no one there or very few people. Siena is not a big art destination or any of these other cities. So our story is pretty much Vasari's story. Siena didn't fit into this picture of the Renaissance.
Because of Vasari and his idea that Sienese art was a dead end, it was for centuries neglected. It's really only in the late 19th and early 20th century that people began to see that Siena's art was important. The winners got to write the story.
JP: You also wrote a book on Piero della Francesca. How does he fit in?
BC: That's a similar story because Piero was important in his own time. He was going around from city to city, but he didn't really fit into Vasari's scheme so he was almost completely forgotten until he was discovered in the late 19th century by artists. Often these discoveries are made by artists who looking around in the past for art that is similar to what they are trying to create. You have Post Impressionists who are looking for structure in their art and there's nobody who has more structure than Piero. They rediscovered him. If we were talking a hundred years ago about Renaissance art, there would be many people who were considered important then who nobody knows anything about. Francesco Francia, for example, is now totally forgotten.
Tradition and Innovation vs. Originality
JP: The title of the book is Piero della Francesca: Tradition and Innovation. What did you mean?
BC: I think a problem with some of the scholarship on Renaissance art is that it uses a 21st century model. In other words, it assumes that there is a succession of self-conscious principals self-consciously trying to change their art. If you look at the 19th and 20th centuries, look at all the "isms." Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, on and on and on, the model is an ever-changing—I don't know if "evolving" is the right word—succession of styles. People use the modern idea that artists were interested in originality and that change was a necessarily a good thing. But Piero and most Renaissance artists learned their art though imitation, the workshop system. They imitated their master. They then pretty much painted in that style and trained other apprentices, who made modifications of that style, but very nuanced. Scholars could never pin down when any Piero was painted. That's a good indication. Innovation is within very carefully circumscribed boundaries. It's not like today when there are no mileposts When are you being original? Originality is the highest praise you can give to an artist. And the artist is very carefully, very consciously often rejecting the past, starting with Picasso probably.
JP: Or the Impressionists?
BC: I don't think the Impressionists rejected the past, not in the very conscious way of Jackson Pollack, who wanted to reinvent the wheel. Renaissance artists didn't think like that. It's a different kind of innovation. It isn't one ism supplanting another. It's a nuanced change because form and content are inextricably bound. The point I really try to make is that Renaissance artists are basically very much bound up with tradition but that does not negate the fact that they were also innovators.
Television and the Humanities
JP: You co-authored the textbook for the television series "The Art of the Western World." That series is still being shown to students in the college where I teach and many other places. Would you tell us about your work there?
BC: I didn't have any experience working on the television series. My co-author and I wrote the book separately from the TV series. We knew what works were going to be in the series. Many of the works in the film are discussed by us but it's a pretty independent entity.
JP: That series, along with "Kenneth Clark's Civilization" and "Sister Wendy Beckett's Story of Painting," are the only three television series devoted to the whole history of European painting in the past 30 years. Any reflections on that?
BC: It's tough. I think the most successful of these is "Kenneth Clark's Civilization." And that's because he says right off it's a "personal view," his idea of what civilization is. And what you get is that personal connection between Clark and the work of art and of the society that produced it. Not everybody agrees with what Clark says and I remember when it first came out there were lots of people who had objections to it. But its so well written and so well directed and Clark is the great prose stylist. He is one of the best interpreters of the visual arts and the humanities.
The Role of NEH in the Post-9/11 World
JP: That's a good segue to the Endowment and your role as chairman. You received an NEH fellowship 30 years ago, served on the peer review panels and on National Council. You've been chairman for a little over a year. What have you learned this past year?
BC: One of the things I've brought with me to this job the desire to make the humanities available to as wide an audience as possible. NEH is the major funder of the humanities in the United States. What have I found? A wonderful staff—very experienced, very intelligent, very capable. We disseminate the humanities in many ways, through our programs in research and preservation and access, through exhibitions, through films like Ken Burns's "Civil War" or "Baseball," which reach millions of people. We play a role in education with summer seminars and institutes for teachers. And at the root of it all, the work is based on solid scholarship and research. From this office I can really see how well that works and what a contribution that makes.
I've also found that the Endowment plays a role in making good citizens. We can bring the wisdom of the humanities to our citizens to help them make good judgments, to help them participate in our democracy. In our founding legislation it says that "democracy demands wisdom" and we take that very seriously.
The "We The People" Initiative
JP: What can the Endowment do to improve the knowledge of American citizens at this time?
BC: I'm glad you asked that. We have a new initiative, "We the People" and this initiative is meant to address what I call the crisis of our American amnesia. Over the last two or three years there have been a number of very good surveys and polls that clearly demonstrates that Americans don't know their own history. Let me give you just a couple of instances. In one case, more than half of the high school seniors thought that Italy, Germany or Japan was an ally of the United States in World War II. In another, given to seniors at 55 top colleges, one-third couldn't identify the Constitution as establishing the division of powers between the branches of government. Forty percent couldn't place the Civil War in the correct half century.
Well democracy, unlike monarchy, is not self-sustaining. There's a story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the statehouse after signing the Constitution. Someone asked: "Well, Dr. Franklin, what form of government have you given us?" He said: "A republic—if you can keep it." We need to renew our knowledge of American history and our knowledge of our founding documents and what it means to be an American from generation to generation.
I believe what Madison said, "the diffusion of knowledge is the only true guardian of liberty." We have to know about our past. We are really very pleased that the president announced this initiative in his Rose Garden speech and has asked in the 2004 budget for $25 million for "We the People." If your readers want to find out about it, they can go to www.wethepeople.gov.
JP: Will this initiative be limited to the founding period and the Constitution?
BC: It will be very broad. It's meant to increase knowledge not only to K-12 and college and university students, but the general public as well. We know the public is interested. Look at David McCullough's books, at Ken Burns's films, C-SPAN, the History Channel, and the like.
This year we are going to have a "Heroes of History" lecture, which will be delivered by Robert Remini, it will be entitled "Ordinary Heroes." We believe that history is not shaped by forces beyond our control, that we're not blades of grass driven by the wind. We believe that individuals do make a difference. We want to celebrate that and to put forward all sorts of heroes from the founders to civil rights leaders to astronauts, to inventors and scientists, suffragettes and the like.
We have just concluded an essay contest on "The Idea of America." Because we are a nation of immigrants, we are not bound by blood and birth and racial background. We are bound by the great ideals of democracy, which we continually struggle to meet. We are also encouraging submissions on projects in American history and culture. Next year, depending on how much money is appropriated, we will be increasing the number of our seminars and institutes for teachers. We will devote a number of them to American history. We will offer model curricula.
Beyond the classroom we will continue our support for the Presidential Papers projects; we will continue to preserve things like the journals of Lewis and Clark and the notebooks of Thomas Edison. And as always, this is something we will do in collaboration with state humanities councils across the country, which are already deeply involved in the community.
There's a summary document on the "We the People" website that has a lot of the detail about some of the things we're looking to do.
JP: One thing the 25 million will do is to give much needed prestige to the history and social science teachers who now tend to get neglected for math and science teachers.
BC: Obviously we are not going to be able to turn the whole thing around ourselves; there will be other entities as well. We will do our part. It's something that the Endowment already does but it's going to do more.
That doesn't mean, by the way, that there will be any slacking in support for what I would call world cultures—history and languages and the like. We need to know who we are and we also need to know where we are in the world.
JP: Are you planning any media projects?
BC: We are hoping for very good applications focusing on the American experience, which will help us understand ourselves.