2023 College Art Association Annual Conference, New York City
IAS-Sponsored Session

Materialità and Italian Visual Culture from Ancient to Contemporary 

Organizer & Chair: Ashley Lindeman, Florida State University

For centuries Italian artists have animated their ideas through tangible materials, revealing aspects of function, ritual, and symbolism. While recent art historical scholarship has focused on Italian artistic practice through the lens of patronage, politics, and subject matter, studies in materiality pose additional questions about value, labor, and craftsmanship as well as ideas of ephemerality and conceptualism. A study in materiality asks viewers to consider how objects are bound to social dynamics as well as shifting styles and art institutionalism.


Speakers/Papers

Karen Rose Mathews, University of Miami
Materiality, Mapping, and Merchant Culture in Medieval Italy (12th-14th century)

From the twelfth to fourteenth century, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice developed into highly successful port cities whose wealth and prosperity depended on international maritime commerce. As such, merchants played a central role in the political, economic, and cultural life of these three mercantile centers. Merchant patronage can be connected to two distinct cultural endeavors, the creation of lavish and eclectic decorative ensembles for civic churches and the production of practical cartographic and commercial tools—the portolan chart and text and the merchant manual. All these cultural products share characteristics that connect them to mercantile interests and ambitions, forging a distinct merchant aesthetic that visualized the importance of commercial activities and Mediterranean navigation in these Italian port cities. This paper will analyze these diverse manifestations of merchant visual culture as an integrated unit, assessing the influence of mercantile mentalities on the production and reception of cartographic works and civic architecture in Venice, Pisa, and Genoa. These maritime cities developed a merchant visuality that focused on materiality and viewed the things traders produced, bought, and sold from the perspective of commodities, collections, inventories, itineraries, mementoes, and souvenirs. Mercantile and cartographic tools and trade goods formed the foundation of a distinct merchant visual culture that distinguished these three Italian cities from one another and from other competitors in a contentious Mediterranean environment.

Louisa McKenzie, The Warburg Institute
'Squeezing out any roughness from the wax': reappraising wax as a sculptural material in Renaissance Florence

The idea of sculpture in Renaissance Florence most commonly brings to mind Donatello, Verrocchio and Michelangelo and large or small-scale sculptures in marble, terracotta and bronze. Another material, however, was commonly used for sculpture in fourteenth and fifteenth-century Florence – wax. One particular kind of wax sculpture, the wax ex-voto, was a fundamental part of devotional practice across almost all strata of society, and was visually transformative of the shrines at which examples were placed. Wax was also used in other types of devotional sculpture, and frequently in secular portraiture. Wax sculpture as an art-form has, however, been historically undervalued by scholarship. Wax’s relegation to the side-lines of art historical thought has largely been compounded by modern conceptions of its materiality – as re-mouldable, friable and ephemeral. By contrast, this paper considers fourteenth and fifteenth-century views of wax as a material, outlining what wax may have symbolised to those who commissioned or purchased sculpted works made from it. The paper then assesses how wax’s materiality may have influenced the way in which the artisans who worked with it were trained and the techniques they used to create wax sculptures. Finally, the paper suggests ways in which conceptions of wax as a material intersected with a contemporaneous aesthetic reception of wax sculpture, both devotional and secular. Through this, the paper argues for a reappraisal of wax’s place amongst other Renaissance sculptural materials.

Tenley Bick, Florida State University
Linee di fuga (Flight Lines): On Paper Media and the Construction of Images in the Work of Francesco Simeti

Building on recent scholarship on paper media in postwar Italian art, this presentation examines contemporary Italian artistic uses of paper media in the past twenty-five years through a case study on the newspaper photomontages and collages of contemporary Italian artist Francesco Simeti (b. 1968, Palermo), begun after the artist’s emigration from Italy in the late 1990s. Drawing upon the interviews with the artist, this presentation focuses on paper media’s political and artistic associations past and present, in and out of Italy, as well as its material economy that lent itself to artistic migration. It pays particular attention to the seminal but under-examined Linee di fuga (Flight Lines, 1998): a work that features photographic cut-outs from Italian newspaper reports on the civil war in Sarajevo, photocopied and glued by the artist onto nine square sheets of paper. Attached to the wall in a grid format, the work suggests infinite expansion while recalling Sicilian vernacular decoration of the artist’s home. Its figures, fleeing and perpetuating civil war, are isolated in the white “tiled” paper field, connected by faint pencil “flight lines” or linee di fuga, suggesting escape. The phrase in Italian also has a second meaning: lines of perspective. Considering the Italian resonances of the term regarding the construction of images, this presentation offers a different view of the artist’s work and paper’s role within it: as politically charged, circulating material that bridges its historical documentary function with new deconstructionist ones that prompt investigation of the relationship between art, politics, and representation.

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