2024 College Art Association Annual Conference, Chicago
IAS-Sponsored Session

New Approaches to Embodiment and Italian Art

Organizer & Chair: Allie Terry-Fritsch, Bowling Green State University

Representation and evocation of the bodies of people past have long been a principal concern of Italian Renaissance art and art history. The body had a central place in Christian theology; artists avidly engaged with the Classical nude; potentates and members of the middle class immortalized themselves in portraits; and court commissions provided opportunities for representing otherness. In recent years, research grounded in feminism, queer studies, somaesthetics, performance studies, disability studies, and critical race theory has challenged art historians to rethink early modern bodies, their representation in art, and the historical contingency of corporeal existence. Yet, while the body figures crucially in a vast range of studies on religion, politics, medicine, poetics, play, and many other topics, it is paradoxically all too easy to lose sight of historically embodied experience itself as well as the visual strategies that artists employed to make bodies “matter.” Scholars are thus faced with a persistent and self-renewing challenge to develop methodologies for the study of art and the ever-elusive body. This panel seeks to expand the scope of inquiry into embodiment and Italian art through investigations of the mediating role of art in training the body; treating the non-human as though it has a human body; and the implications of adapting or altering the body through physical or spiritual intervention.


Sara Berkowitz, Widener University
Agatha’s Amputation: The Disfigured Body in Giovanni Andrea Coppola’s The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha

This paper examines Giovanni Andrea Coppola’s 1650 altarpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha in the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata in Gallipoli, Italy, which depicts two early Christian torturers violently amputating her breasts—an act of humiliation resulting from her rejection of the sexual advances of a Roman general. While other artists often portray the anticipatory moment before Agatha’s breasts are severed, Coppola focuses on their removal and highlights her bodily disfigurement by depicting her already amputated left breast dangled over the saint’s head by the nipple, dripping blood onto her, in what I argue visualizes her body’s transformation from a strictly material form to a spiritual, otherworldly one through the allusion to both the eucharist and baptism. The altarpiece’s iconography is considered in light of early modern attitudes towards the body, and especially the intersection of medical and theological studies through surgical and torture treatises, in order to frame the work within its broader historical context. The altarpiece’s position within the cathedral’s larger artistic program is also considered to suggest that Agatha’s bloodied breast was only visible from a close proximity. Through mapping the painting’s sightlines within its original location, this paper accounts for how onlookers may have responded to saint’s traumatic bodily transformation, and thus connect their own corporeal experience to the saint’s. This altarpiece presents an opportunity to reconsider early modern attitudes on what constituted an intact female body, and how its elements, such as blood, occupied a blended spiritual, medical, and transformative status during the period.

Andrew Chen, Texas State University
The Binding of Personifications and the Image of the Slave, 1460–1560

This paper considers a selection of allegorical artworks, in which personifications are bound or fettered, in relation to images of slaves and prisoners broadly. A visual tradition that originates as a commentary on the power of love becomes, in the hands of Benvenuto Cellini, an assertion of the force of the artistic imagination. Milestones separating the love allegories of the fifteenth century from Cellini’s designs for the seal of the Accademia del Disegno (1564) are the unearthing of the Laocoön, with its twisting snakes, and the making of Michelangelo’s Slaves. Drawing as it did on historical ideas about enslavement, imprisonment, and servitude, binding was the perfect metamotif for signifying the capture of concepts as figure.

Kelli Wood, University of Tennessee
Athletic Art Historiography and the Early Modern Male Body

This paper considers the ways that development and expression of sport in sixteenth-century Italy not only literally and imaginatively shaped the bodies of early modern men and women, but also established foundational contours of art historiography from Winckelmann to Burckhardt. Girolamo Cardano classified sport as requiring two separate but intertwined abilities, “agility of body, as with a ball; or on strength, as with a discus and in wrestling.” Such vigorous pursuits occupied the time and inspired the passions of gentlemen whose active leisure and spectacular performances appropriately served their health and befit their social standing. Exercises which emphasized agility over brute strength increasingly gained prominence as venues for the salubrious maintenance of physique and the performance of virtue. The real or potential corporeal dominance of a brawny artisanal class, this paper contends, a “rivalry not of birth, but of strength and ability, wherein villagers are quite a match for nobles,” in the words of Castiglione, fundamentally influenced the regulation and representation of the body. The codification of the rules of those sports, far from simply reflecting a growing interest in athletics, responded to concern for bodies on display and created structures of supervision which consolidated control for powerful operators in homosocial networks. Adoption of the aesthetic of the classical male athlete as an ideal for early modern men introduced enduring changes to why, how, and whose bodies signified and conveyed meaning in life, but also crucially in art and writing about art.

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