March 3rd, 2012

The Renaissance portrait, individualism and autobiographical memory

A new article in the New York Review of Books They Clamor for Our Attention: The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, connects the rise of the portrait with the rise of the individual in the early Renaissance. The article begins by discussing the uncontroversial view that the portrait was created at the end of the dark ages, leading into the Renaissance. More striking is the thesis that, along with the rise of the portrait came the invention of individual identity. This thesis stems from Burckhardt (1860)

Man [previously] was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation--only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such. (Butterfield, p.10)


That is, prior to portraits, people didn't individuate themselves apart from their collective identity by religion, nationality, geographic area, gender etc... The portraits of normal people (rather than kings or popes), with great detail, supposedly represent the rise of the individual. Yet, the article points to a new exhibit and a new thesis that really, apart from facial details, typical portraits of the time show people in garb that clearly demarcates them as part of a group (e.g. ruling class of Florence). Butterfield (2012) states:

In Burckhardt's formulation, the individual was seen in distinction from the group. But in the exhibition what we often view are individuals portrayed as the preeminent and exemplary representatives of groups; the men and women are depicted as distinguished members of a virtuosu and honored elite (p.10).


Thus, while portraits certainly paved the way for a shift in the representation of individuals, did they really contribute to the invention of individuation?

This thesis particularly interests me because of a book I've read called Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of the Narrative Self. In this book, there is much discussion of cross-cultural differences in the way we construct self-identity. For example, the Maori in NZ raise their children to be able to retell, in great detail, the events that have recently occurred in their lives. Where as, (studied) rural Indians do not encourage remembering individual events, rather a person's memories tend to be about events that happened to the group, such as floods, food availability etc..., . Thus, the cultural norms for autobiographical memory have a big impact on how one describes and potentially conceptualizes oneself.

Of course, that doesn't mean that identity itself depends on how one describes it. A person's identity over time is defined by a set of interconnected memory events (a version of Locke's theory), but these memory events frequently do not inform conscious reflection. For example, I am the same person as the 2yr old version of me, even though I cannot remember anything that happened before autobiographical memory came online (probably between 3-4). That is, all my memories, implicit and explicit together, define my identity. It's important to remember that there are a lot of memory systems and self-perception only taps into a fraction of that which makes us the same person.

Anyway, if self-perception is largely culturally constructed, then what was going on for these Renaissance individuals, such that they thought of themselves differently? Indeed, did they change at all? I mean, just because I get a staff card with my photo on it, doesn't impinge on my self-image created and fostered by my parents, school and society.

References:
Burckhardt, J. (1860) The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.
Butterfield, A. (2012) They clamor for our attention: The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini. The New York Review of Books. LIX(4), 10-12
Fivush, R. Haden, C.A. (2003) Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of the Narrative Self. Psychology Press.