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Repetition, Variation, and the Idea of Art in Renaissance Italy


When Pietro Perugino completed his altarpiece for Santissima Annunziata in Florence in 1507, he was criticized by local artists for having simply repeated old motifs and compositional formulas. The moment has always been recognized as marking an important transition, the emergence of  an idea of art in which inventive originality plays an essential role. Yet the distinction between repetition and variation was contested and might even be creatively thematized in artistic practice. Raphael, especially evidently in his early Madonna pictures, developed an inventive technique involving maximally efficient variation – variation just sufficient to inflect meaning – that was appreciated as such by patrons and understood to be a “poetic” strategy, similar to the kinds of variations admired by Pietro Bembo in the poetry of Petrarch. Raphael’s approach helps to explain the “canonical” or “classical” quality admired even in his monumental narrative pictures.

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