Linguistic Theories and Intellectual History in Michael Baxandall’s Giotto and the Orators

Giotto and the OratorsLinguistic Theories and Intellectual History in Michael Baxandall’s Giotto and the Orators

By Allan Langdale

Journal of Art Historiography, Number 1 (2009)

Introduction: A close reading of Michael Baxandall’s Giotto and the Orators gives insight to one of the most sophisticated accounts of the relationship between words and images in art history. The volume, which appeared in 1971, works an eclectic synthesis of linguistic theories contextualized in remarkable detail and it remains one of the most intellectually rich accounts of Italian Renaissance/Early Modern humanist art criticism and its structural relation to Renaissance painting.

This paper, briefly touching on the book’s importance to Italian Renaissance/Early Modern studies, will focus more specifically on the linguistic theories that have relevant interplay with Baxandall’s enterprise. At the time, Baxandall’s insertion of an advanced linguistic methodology into art historical discourse signaled a paradigm shift in art historical studies, representing a crucial marker of the linguistic turn in art history and, moreover, a work which signaled a confrontation of the humanistic confidence of the text-based Warburg Method with a contemporary epistemological anxiety about language and its limitations. I have attempted to map out some of the linguistic theories and demonstrate how they complement certain intellectual strands in anthropology and art history.

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