2022 IAS Research and Publication Grant

Dr. Diana Bullen Presciutti (Professor of Art History, University of Essex)

Saints, Miracles, and Social Problems in Italian Renaissance Art

Saints, Miracles, and Social Problems in Italian Renaissance Art uncovers how images of miracles performed by mendicant saints framed and conditioned perceptions of social problems in Renaissance Italy. Throughout the peninsula, I argue, underlying issues relating to gender, sexuality, and honor manifested themselves as culturally constructed ‘social problems’, such as vendetta, adultery, infanticide, marital violence, gossip, and madness. Depictions of mendicant miracles by artists played a crucial role in the process of defining and conceptualizing these threats. Art historians, primarily medievalists, have devoted considerable attention in recent years to the relationship between image and text in the hagiographical context; cultural and social historians, in turn, have established the rich potential of miracle stories as forms of textual evidence. Yet miracle scenes themselves remain a resource largely untapped by scholars seeking to better understand how images intervened in the daily life of Renaissance people. My interdisciplinary study of this visual corpus reveals the pivotal role visual hagiography played in constructing social problems in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy.

Recent years have witnessed the publication of a spate of art historical studies seeking to restore the
central role of religion in the scholarly narrative of Italian Renaissance art; this has occurred alongside
(and in conversation with) a renewed interest in popular culture that crosses disciplines and geographical divides. Studies of votive panels, miraculous images, Marian shrines, and inexpensive devotional prints have helped to correct longstanding secularist and elitist biases in Renaissance art history, showing how humble works created by anonymous artisans could claim a cultural significance comparable to—and sometimes exceeding—that of lauded ‘masterpieces’ created by venerated names. Recent exhibitions such as Sanctity Pictured (Frist Center, Nashville, 2014) and Madonnas and Miracles (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2017) brought these developments to the attention of a wider audience. While my book contributes to this conversation, and features both famous and anonymous artists, expanding the field of Renaissance art history is not my primary aim. For me, images are, first and foremost, active agents of ‘lived religion’—dynamic sites where gender relations and social norms are defined and negotiated.

In order to elucidate how images worked, in often unexpected and contradictory ways, to condition
public perceptions of social problems, in this book I combine the methodologies of art history, social history, and gender studies, among others. In particular, my approach draws on the sociological theories advanced by Herbert Blumer and his interlocutors in order to explicate the ‘cultural constructedness’ of social problems in the cities of Renaissance Italy. Moving from the institutional context of my first book, Visual Cultures of Foundling Care in Renaissance Italy (Ashgate/Routledge, 2015), this study examines a number of social problems through the lens of a specific visual genre: the miracle story. While being attentive to issues of patronage and artistic identity, my primary focus is the reception of these miracle stories—the ways in which images create meaning(s) as part of the viewing process. I argue that the miracle story emerges as a flexible template whose essential components—on the one hand, a social crisis that required a solution, on the other, the figure of the saint as its remedy—enable it to serve as a vehicle for negotiating the public image of pressing social problems.

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