I traded sunny California for a very chilly New York City this spring break to attend the annual conference of the
Renaissance Society of America
. Always a mega-gathering of specialists in Renaissance history, art, literature, and music, this year was bigger than ever, with a printed program weighing in at two and a half pounds (and a fancy and useful app – which saved us all a lot of back strain!).I study painting and sculpture in papal Rome, the period from 1400 to 1700, and the conference is the chance to present new work, exchange ideas with American and international colleagues, and hear the latest stimulating thinking about well-known works of art.
This conference was a particularly busy one – I presented a paper on new material from my current book project, ‘The Art of Nepotism in Early Modern Rome,” and organized a panel on “Stillness in Early Modern Italian Art.” The paper, which looked at how ancient statues were used as mouthpieces for political protest against some of seventeenth-century Rome’s most despised princes and cardinals, was enriched by the panel’s larger discussion of ‘spoils’ – objects taken by force. The panel instead explored some of the most pleasurable paradoxes of visual art, for instance how stillness in a painted picture encourages physical stillness in the viewer, and yet opens a space for infinite mental meandering and spiritual and intellectual discovery (the participants and myself are pictured above). The panel was especially lucky to have Professor Emeritus Samuel Edgerton as a speaker; an award-winning writer and expert on Renaissance perspective and geometry, Dr. Edgerton’s observations can forever change how you understand the space of a picture and your own place in an artist’s imagined world. While the week was anything but still, it was a success.
Whether the conference is in NYC, Chicago or abroad (Berlin in 2015!), the RSA also offers the added bonus of getting to visit old favorites and temporary exhibitions at some of the world’s best museums in the company of eagle-eyed and deeply-learned art historians and curators. I attended a tour of the Frick Collection’s newly opened
Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes at the Hill Collection
with the exhibition’s curator Denise Allen, getting the chance to look at material I teach in my courses on Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, up close and personal. A special feature of the exhibit is that the works are not displayed under glass (in vitrines), and their silky surfaces gleam and ripple without interference.
The final highlight of the week was seeing the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘s exhibition of the devotional paintings of Tuscan artist Piero della Francesca in the company of the members of the ‘Stillness’ panel. We were especially lucky to be joined in our visit by Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Curator of European Paintings at the Met. Christiansen’s knowledge of Italian paintings is unsurpassed and his passion is contagious; the nuances of Piero’s painting and career came alive in his company.
All in all, the week was a reminder of some of the rewards available to Chapman students studying the history of art: a keen eye for detail, a global network of paintings and sculptures in museums waiting patiently to greet you whenever you come back, and the skills to
, not just look at, the world around us.