2012 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, Washington D.C.
IAS-Sponsored Session

The Appeal of Sculpture in Renaissance Italy: Collecting, Patronage, Style, and the Role of Touch

Grand Hyatt / 5B - Independence Level, Independence D
Saturday, March 24, 2012, 10:30am-12:00pm

Organizer: Joaneath A. Spicer, The Walters Art Museum

Chair: Eleanora Luciano, National Gallery of Art

New perspectives on the perception of sculpture, especially the small bronze, have been raised in current and recent research projects, publications and exhibitions. This session seeks to draw these together to foster broader insights, including from the fields of literature, psychology, and neuroscience. The representation of the collector and collections, issues inherent to the paragone debates, the differences in sculpture meant to be touched or held and sculpture that was simply to be viewed, how sculpture generates “pleasure”: these are all potential subjects. This proposal is prompted by a fruitful ongoing collaboration at the Walters Art Museum melding the perspectives of an art historian and a neuroscientist in assessing the role of tactility in the appeal of the small bronze in Renaissance Italy. A small exhibition on this subject will be on view at the Walters in Baltimore at the time of the conference, while an exhibition on the sculptor Antico will be at the National Gallery in Washington. The possibility of group visits to both will be offered.


Speakers/Papers

Francesco Freddolini, The Getty Research Institute
"The Lure of Sculpture, the Role of Touch and the Paragone in Sixteenth-Century Portraits"

This paper investigates how the sense of touch played a significant role in the engagement between sitter and sculpture in sixteenth-century Florentine portraits of collectors. In works such as Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Statuette of Venus (Musée du Louvre), or Poppi’s Portrait of Vincenzo Borghini (Staatliche Kunsthalle), sitters are not just holding or showing statuettes, but overtly experiencing sculpture with the sense of touch. I will explore how these portraits pose significant questions concerning gender-related and religious traditions of experiencing sculpture, but also reflect a key issue related to the tactile experience of sculpture within the Paragone debate. Touch was major topos in the Paragone debate, and by culling evidence from theoretical writings and comparing the aforementioned paintings with other works I shall explore how the sense of touch played a crucial role in the emergence of a “visual dispute” on the Paragone in sixteenth-century Florence.

Geraldine A. Johnson, University of Oxford
"Weighing the Evidence: Encounters with Sculpture in Early Modern Italy"

Scholars and curators studying the development of the bronze statuette as a sculptural genre in Early Modern Italy have generally assumed that these objects were meant to be handled—touched, turned, lifted, held, perhaps even caressed—by their original owners. But what is the evidence for this? In fact, the great variety of statuettes cast in bronze in this period, from small works that fit easily in the palm of one’s hand to large, multi-figure groups that cannot be raised with ease even using two strong arms, suggests that such objects were not necessarily all meant to be handled in exactly the same way. By using contemporary descriptions of encounters with precious collectibles and images depicting beholders’ tactile engagements with statuettes, as well as by considering evidence derived from the sculpted objects themselves, this paper seeks to problematize assumptions about how statuettes were actually handled in Italy in this period.

Peter Jonathan Bell, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"The Role of the Base in Early Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance"

In the quattrocento, the base became a locus of meaning for free­standing sculpture. Already in the first decades of the century, bases are referential sites of authorship as well as identity (della Quercia, Valdambrino). By mid­century, Donatello’s bases (for the David or Judith, for example) are physically intertwined with their figural loads and replete with interpretive significance. Perhaps too frequently overlooked today in favor of the subject proper, bases in the Renaissance were often conceived—and constructed—integrally with the sculpture above. This was the case with one of the great sculptural innovations of the period: the revival of the independent bronze statuette. The base was a site of experimentation and careful consideration for the makers of the first bronze statuettes, sculptures designed to be manipulated. I will examine the significance of the base in early bronzetti, from Filarete to Pollaiuolo to Antico, with special attention to its mediating role between the object and its viewer/handler.

Joaneath A. Spicer, The Walters Art Museum
"Tactility and the Appeal of the Small Bronze in Renaissance Italy"

A collaborative project with a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins who works on touch has prompted the writer to reexamine the temporal and cultural contingencies surrounding the discussed (but untested) perceived tactility of the small statuette in the Italian Renaissance, especially in regards the concurrent development of the female nude as a subject. This will be considered in the context 1) of practical experiments with replicas to tease out distinctions between sensation and its interpretation, 2) differences in the enjoyment of statuettes in bronze versus other materials; and 3) the wider context of shifts in the character, availability, and role of high-value “collectibles” by the early 1500s.

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