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The Fixity and Flexibility of Images: Italian Art over Time

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Rome, Ostiense, Street art near entrance to night club Rising Love on Via delle Conce.  Right of the door: Bouncer by MTO; left: Portrait of a Student by Sten & Lex, stenciled, after a photograph in a vintage university yearbook.  Photo by Jack M. Greenstein.

Jack Greenstein and William Tronzo, Editors

Leslie Elwell and Cindy Stanphill, Managing Editors

Introduction to Volume 6, 2015/16, Issue 1: Italy and Images

Roman Antiquity and Antiquarianism

Culiseo: the Roman Colosseum in Early Modern Jest

The Mirabilia literature of the high and later Middle Ages portrayed the Colosseum in Rome as a lofty, celestial building.  As the amphitheater declined, from a lively village in the twelfth century to an abandoned wasteland in the fifteenth, these descriptions became ever more elaborate and magical, reaching an apex in the Trecento.  Starting with the poetry of the Florentine barber-poet Burchiello in the first half of the Quattrocento, however, and above all during the 1520s and 1530s, when Burchiello had many admirers and imitators, comic and satirical writers -- particularly Tuscans (Vignali, Aretino, Berni, Bronzino, Cellini) -- made the 'Culiseo' a synonym for "backside” and the butt of countless sodomitic and scatological jokes. Rome's most notable antiquity, which for the Middle Ages had been a consummate symbol of Rome as caput mundi, was thus reconceived in comic terms as a giant backside, a culo, and as a venue for sodomy.

A Tortured Image: The Biography of Lucullus' Dying Hercules

This essay explores a Roman triumphal monument put up at the heart of Rome by the triumphator Lucullus in the 1st c. BCE, and its Imperial afterlife after the fall of the Republic. We know this monument, a Greek statue of Hercules dying in torment from the poisoned robe sent him by his consort,  from a description in Pliny's Natural History; strong themes of the discussion are how Pliny interprets works of art and history, and addresses the physical city of Rome. The monument had to be put up again twice, by Lucullus' son with the Roman Senate, then by a magistrate, and each of those phases had their own meanings; the inscriptions described in Pliny afford a chance to explore relations between text and image. Accounting for the varied and even contradictory sorts of appeal made by this display of pain, for this particular hero, is key to any full exploration of how Lucullus' Hercules could be an exemplary Roman monument, and one which could stand in Pliny's day for the age of the Republic itself.

Of Plaster Casts and Monks: Images of Cultural Heritage in Risorgimento Italy

In a new nation formed from regions of differing political traditions and histories, no single work of art or building could emerge as an emblematic image of Italian culture.  Instead, this essay argues that two classes of images – one an object type, the other the representation of a social class -- grew to epitomize the cultural identity crisis of the newly founded state. 

Both types of images, furthermore, were closely connected to the activities of the national superintendency.  The first were products of the archaeological innovation of Giuseppe Fiorelli when he the director of the national museum in Naples in 1863:  they were the plaster casts of the ancient Pompeiians who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius.  The second were monks:  members of the ancien regime’s privileged first estate and former residents of the ecclesiastic estates that became state property – some as national monuments – with the suppression of religious corporations in 1866.

The Nymph in the Doorway: Revisiting a Central Motif of Aby Warburg’s Study of Culture

Aby Warburg based his revolutionary approach to Renaissance art in large part on his study of the motif of what he called "the nymph." The nymph's ecstatic movement and association with flying and floating drapery elements embodied a Dionysian side of classical art in tension with the harmonious and balanced -- i.e., Apollonian -- character attributed to it since Winckelmann. In this paper I explore figures privileged by Warburg, examining their relation to mainly literary ancient sources and to the role played by each figure in the pictorial economy in whicb they are set. In particular I focus on social implications, having to do with not only with characterization in terms of rank and role but also, in one key case, place within an argument, sketched out in imagery, about the very nature of civil society.

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Fascismo e classicità: il recupero iconografico delle opere d'arte non romane a fini propagandistici nell'Italia mussoliniana.

The paper demonstrates the importance of the Classical iconography, except the Ancient Roman one, in the Fascist propaganda. It starts considering how the Fascism has also taken inspiration from Ancient Greek artistic examples, often transforming and misinterpreting their original meaning. I especially focus my attention on the famous ancient masterpieces of the Nike of Samotracia, the Doryphoros and the Discobolus, that compared in various propaganda publications. In the second part of the article, I examine how Italian Renaissance's iconographies were recovered in order to sponsorize social policies, concerning family and health, also promoting the superiority of the Aryan race ideology. Finally I dedicate a short paragraph to the XVII century's Classicism and its revival in the Fascist Era, through the rediscovery of Guido Reni's paintings in Fascist propaganda publications.

The Life and Afterlife of Medieval Art

Multisensory Memories and Monastic Identity at Sant’Elia near Nepi (VT)

When confronted with pictorial details emphasizing such bodily actions as singing, observing, gesturing, or moving in other ways, art historians typically follow one of three interpretive approaches, either using the details as signs of a specific iconographic source or markers of a particular artistic style or understanding them as generic flourishes designed to lend vivacity to an image. The field’s recent expansion to consider sensory dimensions beyond the visual or spatial offers new pathways to making sense of such elements in painting and sculpture. This article argues that images of open mouths and gesturing hands within a set of twelfth-century frescoes preserved in the monastic church of Sant’Elia near Nepi (VT), built and decorated ca. 1125 to serve as the abbey church of a male Benedictine community known as the monastery of Elijah, guided medieval audiences (and should guide modern scholars) into a world of gesture, movement, ritual, and voice. These paintings were inseparable from daily ritual, from liturgical elements spoken and sung at specific times, and from commemorative practices followed on such occasions as the feast days of saints and the deaths of terrestrial leaders—in sum, even if presenting themselves initially as motionless two-dimensional images, these images were profoundly intertwined with the monastery’s existence as a lived ritual site. These links between image and site served a further purpose: to establish and promote a distinct communal identity among the monastery of Elijah’s brethren by depicting and then activating specific concepts regarding their community’s sacred history, the history of monasticism more generally, and appropriate monastic behaviors and aspirations. Crucial in this regard were a series of images depicting the monastery’s local saint, the abbot Anastasius, and its exceedingly rare titular saint, the Old Testament prophet Elijah. While the process of generating communal identity may have begun at a visual level, it was only effected through, first, the use of mediums including, in addition to painting, architecture, furnishings, pavement, inscriptions, and topography, and, second, the activation of multiple bodily actions and sensations, including physical movement through the monastery’s wider landscape. Likewise, a scholarly discussion that begins within the field of art history necessarily expands to encompass history, liturgy, and theology, but always with a close focus on twelfth-century Italy.

The Image of a Building: Santa Maria in Trastevere

Buildings can only be seen through images, including sensory impressions (perceptual images), views created by artists and photographers (pictorial images), the analytical graphics of architects (analytical images), and now, digital means of representation. This article is concerned with another level of image: the themes or metaphors the building was intended to convey (intended images); the image projected by contingent factors such as age, condition, and location (projected images), and the collective image generated by the interaction of the building’s appearance with the norms and expectations of its users and beholders.  The Roman church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is taken as a case study.  Its collective image among a cyber community of contemporary tourists is compared to its intended images in the twelfth century, when it was erected, and in the nineteenth century when it was effectively remade.  The role of the image in constituting communities of users and viewers is foregrounded.

The Lives and Afterlives of Shrine Madonnas

This article explores uncertain histories of three fourteenth-century Shrine Madonna statues. It focuses particularly on the unfixedness of these statues' identities, which, already socially determined, loosen over time and become semiotically exposed. All three started out as cult statues, and all subsequently became suspect, inspiring clerical distrust. One Shrine Madonna transformed from a monastic thaumaturgical image into a mutilated puppet in the theater of politico-religious struggle, and then from a forgotten curiosity into an agent of cultural authority. Another Shrine Madonna changed identity through geographical and denominational shifts: it began as an indulgenced performance object, showered with annual gifts, and became a symbol of a Catholic community, its ideology and its values, finally developing into a visually ambiguous memory. The third Shrine Madonna stayed roughly in the same place for centuries, but transformed outwardly, masked and unmasked, glued shut and dressed, undressed and undone, while retaining its perceived agency with hardly any change—until, that is, its recent removal from the church. 

A Guglielmite Trinity?

In the Abbey of Viboldone, in suburban Milan, there is a medieval Trinitarian sinopia that never before has received an in-depth analysis. This paper proposes that the sinopia is related to a group known as the Guglielmites, prosecuted in this region of Milan in 1300. The Guglielmites believed that a woman named Guglielma was the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Christian Trinity, come to earth incarnate in female form. The sinopia appears to portray a female Holy Spirit, and the history of the Abbey in which it is located suggests some intriguing relationships with this heretical group.

The Cult of Dante

Textual Physiognomy: A New Theory and Brief History of Dantean Portraiture

Dante Alighieri, as we understand him and read his poetry, is a construct crafted from posthumous portraiture. Dante’s famous profile appears at a pivotal transition point from icon to image, where the aura of the saint is transferred to the poet. In this aesthetic creation of identity, portraits and visual representations of Dante are influenced by, and in turn influence, commentaries, translations, and biographies of the poet.  This visual and textual synergy is called textual physiognomy, and it reaches an important juncture point in the 19th century, when Dante Gabriel Rossetti—as both artist, critic, and translator of Dante—creates a new and influential alternative to the traditional Dantean identity. Rossetti challenges the Dante the 19th century had taken for granted as fact: the divine “poet saturnine,” with “hatchet” profile, aquiline nose, austere face, and laurel crown. Through his iconoclastic approach to the Dantean portraiture tradition, Rossetti gives Dante a new life by emphasizing the human Dante, the pre-exile Dante before the Divine Comedy.

Fragments of Freedom: Dante's Relic in the Re-United States

Based on archival research at Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site and Harvard's Houghton Library, this essay provides the first full account of pieces of Dante's coffin gathered by a stone mason upon discovery of the poet's stolen bones in 1865. Through analysis of unpublished letters and other documents (several transcribed or translated for the first time), I trace the provenance of this relic, showing how Longfellow, soon after completing the first American translation of the Divine Comedy as the nation emerged from civil war, enshrined the fragments of Dante's coffin in his study in Cambridge—the very room in which Washington had consulted with military officers and political leaders when he broke the Siege of Boston and set the Colonies on their path toward independence in 1776. I contribute to scholarship examining Dante's place in nineteenth-century narratives of independence and liberation by placing the relic within the context of Longfellow's literary and epistolary responses to slavery and the civil war. Revered at a location in the "Re-United" States intimately connected with the nation's founding revolution, these physical traces of Dante's afterlife reinforce the poet's reputation as a prophet of political freedom for readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Images and Identities

Body Politics and Mythic Figures: Andrea Doria in the Mediterranean World

This article considers the "agency of images" in "mediating identity" of the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560).  Doria was represented in an extraordinary group of portraits as an ancient Roman sea captain and nude Neptune, god of the seas.  These historical and mythological portraits are considered in relation to Charles V's Hapsburg Augustan imperial iconography and ancient Roman ideas about the Mediterranean Sea, mare nostrum.

Solving the Mystery of the Sitter in Bartolomeo Veneto’s Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress

This article uses the portrait date, the costume in the title, and the original seals found on the back of the picture to unveil the mystery of the sitter and to clarify the provenance of Bartolomeo Veneto’s Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress (1530) from the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego. This portrait is the last signed work of exceptional quality and preservation by the Renaissance master. With rare exception, most of Bartolomeo’s sitters remain anonymous. This paper identifies one of Bartolomeo’s patrons and associates the portrait with an intimate circle of Isabella D’Este. The Timken portrait reveals a complex game of identity in Renaissance courts. Rulers like Isabella d’Este strategically deployed the power and agency of Roman imperial fashions to construct and project their dynastic identity and social status. Through bestowing her exquisite hairdos as gifts, the Marchesa was able to reinforce her ideals and symbolic values. Her daughter-in-laws displayed their allegiance to Isabella visually by wearing hairdresses and costume accessories modeled on her proprietary designs. In turn, Isabella’s Roman-inspired hairstyles aided her in the construction and transmission of her own feminine virtue and political aspirations.


Michelangelo's Medici Chapel and its Aftermath: Scattered Bodies and Florentine Identities under the Duchy

The Medici Chapel was not fully completed in the state that it presently exists until nearly thirty years after Michelangelo’s departure from Florence in 1534. This gave artists, intellectuals, and patrons the extraordinary opportunity to study the sculptures close up and from different points of view, a habit that continued well after their installation through reductions and casts. Any study of the influence of Michelangelo’s chapel sculptures on Florentine artists and patrons must take into account how they were viewed, experienced, and studied. In portraits of young Florentine patricians, Bronzino and Salviati drew on the practice of copying the statues from different angles and detailed scrutiny of body parts to assemble these views and parts in images of their patrons that made overt reference to Michelangelo as well as displayed their own distinctive style. While these portraits were made for private palaces to convey both Florentine erudition and its artistic tradition, Duke Cosimo adapted the Medici Chapel sculptures for portrayals of himself in public settings, including Vasari’s tondo in the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi corridor façade together with Vincenzo Danti’s reclining nude figures, these coinciding with his association with Michelangelo in the founding of the Accademia del Disegno. The reassembled body parts in engravings of the completed tombs by Cornelis Cort in 1570 represented Florence to a wide public, but no longer functioned to signify a distinct Florentine artistic tradition and cultural identity.

F.T. Marinetti's Vocalizations

In portraits of Italian futurist founder and poet Filippo-Tommaso Marinetti, the staging of the revelation of modern character meant factoring in many different, sometimes competing qualities, including his individual traits as well as broader visual principles that fit with avant-garde practices. In particular, an emphasis on his vocal ability would become a prominent feature of many of the most successful depictions.Portraits of Marinetti offer a valuable glimpse of some of the underlying tensions or outright contradictions related to this futurist aim, such as how this dominant, domineering, figure came to signify the movement at large and to overshadow the artistic achievements of others, as well as how early futurism’s popular success in Italy played a role in hastening an authoritarian return to political and ideological traditions.

Artistic Tradition and Feminine Legacy in Elena Ferrante’s L’amore molesto

In this essay I examine Elena Ferrante’s L’amore molesto as a novel about artists, artist figures, and artistic legacies. Delia is a comic artist in Rome; her father is a Neapolitan painter of vulgar commercial canvases; and Amalia is an artist who works with fabric – as a seamstress, she invents and reinvents clothes, bodies, stories. Likewise, the text teems with artworks – the father’s lurid paintings of a semi-nude gypsy; a masterful canvas depicting two women and displayed in the window of a lingerie shop; and several photographic portraits of Amalia and Delia. Notably, all these images portray the woman’s body trapped within the frame of visual representation, within an artwork which is always the product of a male artist. By positing both Delia and her father as artists Ferrante invites scrutiny of their artworks and the social system that enables their production. In this essay I read the discourse constituted by the discrete artworks in the text to contend that the visual representation of women reflects the processes of objectification, fragmentation, and defacement associated with the male gaze and male artistic practice within a Western androcentric tradition. I illustrate these processes by analyzing the image of the female nude in L’amore molesto through the critical lenses of Western art history, visual theory, and feminist thought. I argue that Ferrante’s novel resists patrilineal artistic legacy by advocating a feminine genealogy that connects Delia and Amalia as artist figures and bonds them through the act of artistic creation. This reading offers a new approach to the novel and enriches our understanding of the text. It brings into focus Ferrante’s visual poetics and opens new lines of inquiry into her creative imagination.

That Hateful Tail: The Sirena as Figure for Disability in Italian Literature and Beyond

This paper traces the appearance of the siren-mermaid figure throughout Italian literature, arguing that the figure has been used – from Dante to the present day – to represent disabled female subjects, while also acting as a figure for narrative itself. I begin with a survey of examples from the classical, medieval and early modern periods before turning to recent autobiographical texts by disabled women authors. I focus on Mirella Santamato’s Io, sirena fuor d’acqua, showing the way the author grapples with the relationship between mind and disabled body, as staged upon the partially human body of the mermaid. The mermaid’s coda, as stand-in for both the phallus and the writing pen, reveals a hybridity that bridges gender categories, as well as those of human and animal, oral and written, disabled and non-disabled. Drawing parallels to medical literature on the surgical treatment of the condition “sirenomelia” (fused legs), I argue that the insistence upon the separation of the mermaid's legs combines heteronormative fantasies of controlling the monstrous female body with the normalizing imperatives of medical cure, illustrating the extent to which ableist ideologies undergird and reinforce normative expectations regarding gender and sexuality, and vice versa. Finally, drawing from Agamben’s L’Aperto, I argue for an understanding of the sirena in disability narratives as a figure for the inseparability of body and narrative, and thus for an understanding of the materiality of disability as inherent to self-expression and disabled identity.

Regarding the Pain of Others: Migrant Self-Narration, Participatory Filmmaking, and Academic Collaborations

In March 2014 we collaborated on a common cultural project, hosting the visit of three activists from Italy—Stefano Liberti, Andrea Segre, and Dagmawi Yimer—to our respective universities in California. As filmmakers and reporters in a variety of media, the three of them engage with contemporary human rights abuses connected to Italy’s involvement in the control of Mediterranean migration. In our respective programs we screened one or more of their documentaries with Liberti, Segre, and Yimer in attendance and in dialogue with the spectators:  A Sud di Lampedusa (2006), about migrants in sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Libya to find employment; Come un uomo sulla terra (2008), about the difficult trajectory traversed by Yimer and many of his compatriots from Ethiopia to Italy via Sudan and Libya; Mare chiuso (2012), about Italy and the EU’s pushback policies following a number of controversial decrees enacted by Berlusconi’s government in cahoots with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi; and Và pensiero (2013), about two vicious incidents of racism directed at African immigrants in Florence and Milan.

Ideally, and perhaps idealistically, we wanted to engage students, colleagues and local communities in a transnational dialogue across continents on issues that are global, and which are as much about biopolitics and ethics as they are about poetics and aesthetics. Formerly the site of multiple European and American colonial and imperialist conquests, California is a state that has been traversed and transformed historically and physically by different waves of migration. As such, it offered each of us, through our respective geographical and cultural points of belonging, the opportunity to engage the work of Liberti, Segre, and Yimer from a variety of perspectives and refraction points.

We believe that a theoretical and aesthetic discussion of the films must be accompanied by a reflection on our locations, our academic work, and our pedagogical practices. Precisely because we welcomed our guests at both public and private institutions, with different missions, objectives, and audiences, we find it compelling to examine the various permutations and kinds of reception that these presentations produced. This essay, therefore also addresses the role that collaboration plays not only in organizing events of such magnitude and import, but also in providing pedagogical and scholarly advantages for us as intellectuals and for students who are the recipients of such practices. Our collaboration has forced us to consider, among other things, why broader academic exchanges such as ours do not happen more frequently, and to explore the material and intellectual obstacles that render such collaborations rare, not simply in Italian Studies, but in the humanities in general, across campuses and colleges.

Fixity and Flexibility of Photographs

Paesaggi informali. Immagini per un album generazionale (1945–1979)

In the years starting just after WWII up to the nineteen seventies, a sizable group of italian architects, artists, and photographers create a vast amount of graphic, pictorial and photographic images documenting vague or broken traditions, illustrating places of the spirit, indicating emotional geographies, and selecting territories, settlements, artifacts, simple objects and archeological finds that all together could form the material for a generational album.

The architect’s interest is not completely coincident with that of an artist or a photographer, who, driven by the desire of being a witness to the changes and promises of those years, is continually exploring the outskirts of the cities and the small inland hamlets. The architect’s concern with traditions of day to day living and building that date back to ancient times, the attraction they feel toward indigenous or informal local architecture, and the generally accepted opinion that the built environment should reflect the history, culture, and climate of that community not only stem from a deep criticism of the Modern Movement but are also a reaction against mass civilization, a refuge from the socio-economic reality of industrialization.

Separated from the productive world, architectural culture can’t make decisive choices, and because of this has to keep a strong connection with its history; a history which, however, is not so much a technical and aesthetic issue or an exercise in praise of formal or “authorial” architecture, but the frame for a way of life; the interaction of culture, customs, and environment relative to a specific community. This desire for reality, this necessity for a new and direct contact with the territory, perceived as a valuable workshop for study and research, a stimulus to the use of senses and the development of creative intelligence, converges with the interests of others of the same period, namely the painters and photographers.

Their explorations of the reality don’t stem from the intent to create a history or an identity of the various local realities based upon primary facts and individuals but to get records of way of life. The result is a novel approach to archeology: representations of “minor” artifacts and utilitarian structures weathered by time, usage, and neglect. Landscapes to re-invent through the use of a new visual alphabet and a different kind of narration. Architects, artists, and photographers give themselves over to this reality creating imagery that at times may seem unorthodox and erratic but, and most importantly, is historic-archeological (from the constant drawing on the past), and even ethic-onthological (from connecting the past to the present).

At the heart of this work there’s the attempt to recognize the multiple intertwinement, the mutual restrictions and the “genetic” differences between the architectual vision developed in the socio-cultural utopies of the period , the inquiring self-reflecting artists’ iconographies and the renewal of representation on the part of photographers, especially in the sixties and seventies of the 19th century. The aim of this investigation is not to present some hidden masterpiece but to follow the change in images — graphic and pictorial works of architects, products of different visual cultures, professional thinking, sensibilities, and knowledge — and using history, explain the reasons for this change. If it is possible to recognize a common trend as to the nature and quality of the relationship between formal and informal landscapes, very different instead is the commitment  that architects on one side and artists and photographers on the other make on an aesthetic and methodical level.

Starting from this common trend the works of these architects, artists, and photographers may reveal very different approaches but taken as a whole they become an important element  in overcoming a culture that is devoid of natural ties with “a society that lays at its feet like an elusive landscape”.

Guardare Venezia: la città come dispositivo visuale

The hypothesis of this paper is that Venice has been and still is an extraordinary example of visual representations’ production and consumption. The identity of the city, as represented by tourist images, is the result of a long cultural process that has taken place since the Renaissance and continues to exert its effects even today.

The author uses visual sociology to analyze both a corpus of mass media images (photographs on websites, postcards, brochures, stock photography) and a visual documentation of the practices of tourists visiting Venice. Following this methodology, the article describes how pictures of the city have become one of the key drivers of mass tourism there, which is considered unsustainable by a portion of the resident community.

The first part of this approach (analysis of the images) concerns the urban icons, those that become standard generative models for other visual representations.  Some pictures are used to describe the genesis of the icons as well as their reproduction, distribution, and remediation throughout time.

The second part of the methodology (analysis with the images) concerns some documentation (photographs and videos) observing the performances of tourists in Venice. Mass tourism is described by its social practices of looking, gazing, photographing, and acquiring images. The focus is on the cycle of the production and consumption of cultural capital and icons through visual practices.

The article uses a selection of photographs as an integral part of research. Photographs, postcards, and artwork that have influenced the process of creating Venetian icons help in the investigation of the tourists’ relationships with the urban space and its residents, and they also help to explain the visual identity of the Serenissima in our collective imagination.


On Irons, Bones, and Stones, or an Experiment in California-Italian Thinking on the ‘Plastic’ between Aby Warburg’s Plastic Art, Gelett Burgess’ Goops, and Piet Mondrian’s Plasticism

In recent art history, the “plastic” is a concept undervalued as a designation for sculpture, or, in perception, as a single sense associated with touch. “Plasticity,” as popularized by the neurosciences, is generally understood as an elastic adaptability that evades fixity for flexibility. Current continental philosophy has revisited plasticity for its explosive rather than regenerative capacity to receive and produce form; however, this rethinking has neglected the concept of the plastic in art. Using scholarly comedy to explore accidents of resemblance (pseudomorphisms) and acausal coincidences (synchronicities) among artist-writer Piet Mondrian’s “plasticism,” art historian Aby Warburg’s “plastic art,” and artist-humorist Gelett Burgess’ plastic figure called “goop,” this essay generates insights on the concept of the plastic in art history, artist writings and art practice.

Repetition, Variation, and the Idea of Art in Renaissance Italy

When Pietro Perugino completed his altarpiece for Santissima Annunziata in Florence in 1507, he was criticized by local artists for having simply repeated old motifs and compositional formulas. The moment has always been recognized as marking an important transition, the emergence of  an idea of art in which inventive originality plays an essential role. Yet the distinction between repetition and variation was contested and might even be creatively thematized in artistic practice. Raphael, especially evidently in his early Madonna pictures, developed an inventive technique involving maximally efficient variation – variation just sufficient to inflect meaning – that was appreciated as such by patrons and understood to be a “poetic” strategy, similar to the kinds of variations admired by Pietro Bembo in the poetry of Petrarch. Raphael’s approach helps to explain the “canonical” or “classical” quality admired even in his monumental narrative pictures.

Suono e Spettacolo. Athanasius Kircher, un percorso nelle Immagini sonore.

Suono e Spettacolo.  Athanasius Kircher, un percorso nelle Immagini sonore.


La Compagnia del Gesù nei grandi sforzi propagandistici del Seicento trova nelle immagini e nello spettacolo il veicolo privilegiato per la comunicazione e la persuasione. Athanasius Kircher, figura cardine del Seicento, si propone di dominare la selvaggia natura del suono e di farlo attraverso la Phonurgia Nova, che offre una galleria di potenti immagini emblematiche per estetica barocca.

Il saggio, grazie alla concessione delle immagini da parte della Biblioteca del Dipartimento di Matematica “Guido Castelnuovo” della Sapienza Università di Roma, si propone di comprendere attraverso l’iconografia kircheriana il fenomeno sonoro e la spettacolarizzazione che ne deriva.  La Phonurgia Nova, compie un processo di spettacolarizzazione degli effetti sonori, spesso attraverso macchine e “visioni” applicabili alla realtà teatrale, ambiente di sperimentazione e stupore prediletto nel barocco.

Kircher illustra il suono attraverso tavole esplicative, rendendo visibile il fenomeno, dominando così nuovamente il suono attraverso lo sguardo. Il suono viene visto, ammirato e rappresentato: la sua spettacolarizzazione non avviene soltanto attraverso la realizzazione delle macchine sonore o delle “meraviglie” applicabili al teatro, ma anche attraverso l’immagine e la sua rappresentazione, creando stupore nell’immaginazione dell’erudita secentesco.



Sound and perfomance. Athanasius Kircher, a journey in resonant images.


The Society of Jesus made great propaganda efforts throughout the seventeenth century and chose the images and the play as a privileged means to communicate and persuade.

Athanasius Kircher, a key figure of the seventeenth century, he decided to dominate the wild nature of sound through Phonurgia Nova, which includes a gallery of powerful symbolic images for Baroque aesthetics.

The essay, through the grant of the images from the Library of the Department of Mathematics "Guido Castelnuovo" Sapienza University of Rome, aims to understand, through the pictures offered by Kircher, the sound phenomenon and the spectacle that this produces.

In Phonurgia Nova a process of dramatization sound effects takes place, often through machines and "visions" applied to the theatrical reality, as experimental and astonishing environment beloved in baroque.

Kircher illustrates the sound through explanatory figures, so to dominate the sound through the eyes. Sound is seen, admired and represented: its spectacle not only takes place through the implementation of sound machines or the "wonders" applied to the theater, but even through images, creating create a sense of wonder in  in the erudite person of the seventeenth century.