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Thursday, 24 May 2018

News from New Orleans: The Renaissance Society of America Conference 2018

The Renaissance Society of America organises the largest annual international conference in the field of Renaissance studies, bringing together historians working across disciplines on the period 1300-1700. Held in New Orleans this year, the conference offered a stimulating blend of new research in the field, networking events, book fairs and museum visits. I hold an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) with Oxford Brookes and the National Gallery, where I study the relationship between painting and other media in the work of the Venetian artist, Carlo Crivelli (c.1430-c.1494). With generous support from Brookes, I was able to attend the conference and present some ideas I had been exploring recently in my research.

My panel, organised by Ashley Elston and Madeline Rislow, was entitled ‘Hybridity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art’. In my paper, I discussed various ways in which Crivelli asks the viewer to compare painting to other media, such as metalwork, sculpture and textiles, as a way of challenging our expectations of what a painting is. He does this, for example, by borrowing the materials and techniques of metalwork, painting sculptural creations that would be impossible in stone, or drawing on the aesthetic qualities of tapestries. Painting’s ability to encompass many arts, and indeed to surpass them, was a way not only of championing this materially-humble medium, but also of suggesting an analogy with divine creation, an idea that was posed by the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa in a sermon delivered in 1440. By showing the same painted detail in paint, and then in raised gesso, rope, wood or glass, Crivelli encourages the viewer to meditate upon matter transformed at the hand of the painter, and by extension, at the hand of God, who made Christ incarnate. The question asked by a member of the audience – how does Crivelli’s play on materials differ from Andrea Mantegna’s? – has reminded me of how useful it is to juxtapose Crivelli’s practice with that of his Paduan colleague. For although both are interested in the possibilities of painting and the paragone, or comparison, with sculpture, Crivelli takes his analogies in new directions by incorporating elements in relief.

It was interesting to situate my own work alongside that of other speakers, especially Ashley Elston, who discussed the interaction between painting and sculpture in early modern Italian art. Ashley presented many examples in which painting and sculpture are interdependent, raising questions about the sacred dimension of media, as well as the validity of our modern categories for works of art. The range of papers in my panel demonstrated that hybridity in art can be not only medial, but also temporal, stylistic and even experiential, brought about by circumstances such as the restoration of objects through time, the wide-ranging sources of itinerant artists, and the multivalent roles of single objects.

Other panels I attended led me to conclude that current research trends in the field of Italian Renaissance art are characterised by a focus on the agency of the object and the viewer, as well as materials and their meanings. This was especially evident in the sessions entitled ‘New Approaches to Italian Quattrocento Sculpture’, in which issues such as framing devices, theories of relief and the slippery boundaries between creating idols and representations, were addressed. It was interesting that many of the questions raised in these sessions could be applied just as easily to sculpture as they could to painting. It also suggested that there might be an interested audience for my own research on Carlo Crivelli, which applies a range of methodologies, including technical, theoretical and contextual, which are traditionally treated separately. This approach opens new possibilities for research into objects and artists that do not fit neatly within the confines of our current art-historical categories, or for which little documentary evidence exists.

The three-day conference also offered many chances to meet others active in the field. I met Tim McCall from Villanova University, who works on the representation of clothing in Italian Renaissance painting, and who discussed Crivelli’s attentiveness to the materials and logics of contemporary fashion in a previous paper at RSA. McCall’s consideration of how Crivelli gives a sense of the contingent, changeable nature of fabric, its texture and colour, as it is experience in actuality, has informed my own work on the relationship between reality and fiction in Crivelli’s paintings. I also met scholars from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) in Washington, where I will be moving from September for 8 months to work at the National Gallery of Art. It was great to catch up with friends and colleagues from the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute, as well as my Brookes supervisor, Marika Leino, and to support one another by attending each others’ panels.

As well as a chance to build professional contacts, and the experience of presenting my research at a large, international conference, my attendance at RSA has led to an invitation from the organisers of my panel to contribute a chapter to the volume they are editing on the subject of hybridity. This publication, which I will write in the Autumn, will allow me to develop some of the themes I touched upon in my paper, including the comparison with Mantegna’s practice. Over the Summer I will be focusing on writing up my PhD, starting with the artistic and devotional context of Crivelli’s multi-media polyptych for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, now in the National Gallery. The research leads and ideas that RSA gave me will undoubtedly enrich my PhD in new ways.

Amanda Hilliam, PhD student in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

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