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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Renaissance Futures: Chance, Prediction, and Play in Northern European Visual Culture, c. 1480-1550

  • Author(s): Kelly, Jessen Lee
  • Advisor(s): Honig, Elizabeth A
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the relationships between chance and visual culture during the Northern Renaissance, focusing on the use of images in the deliberate, ritualized application of chance in games and divination. I argue that, prior to the development of probability theory in the seventeenth century, images served a critical function in encountering and negotiating uncertainties about the future. The casting of lots for prognostication and play was nothing new in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Yet, aided in part by the growing print industry, the period witnessed the development of new and varied forms for these practices, forms that were increasingly pictorial in character. A series of case studies examines the popular media of chance, such as playing cards, game boards, and divinatory devices. In addition, I connect these objects to works by major artists of the period in order to assert the importance of chance for the development of early modern artistic production. Just as images helped stage a confrontation with future contingency in play and divination, artists also began to experiment with the construction of time and narrative in pictorial representation. In Northern Europe in particular, the rise of visual media for chance coincides with the emergence of artistic subjects that were not bound to pre-established or predictable narratives and, significantly, often incorporated references to games of chance and fortune's mutability.

Taken together, these phenomena not only point to the importance of chance and futurity in the development of early modern art and visuality, they also suggest crucial but neglected epistemological, social, and aesthetic aspects of image-making and use. These aspects have remained largely unexamined due to the traditional view of the Renaissance as a period defined by its relationship to the past of classical antiquity. This project thus seeks to recast our understanding of Renaissance temporality by pointing to the future as a key impetus within the visual culture of the period.

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