MA in the History of Art

From Dante to Michelangelo: Rhetoric, Representation and Identity in Italian Art and Literature, c. 1300-1550

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Course Description

Leonardo da Vinci famously argued that any lover, presented with a portrait of his beloved and a poem about her, would invariably turn to the portrait. His example poignantly opposes the captivating immediacy of images to the supposed superiority of words. Without privileging either word or image, this course will examine the multiple relationships and cross-currents between art and literature in Italy from the time of Dante to that of Michelangelo. It is intentionally interdisciplinary and is consequently led by two lecturers: one, a specialist in Italian literature and the other, an art historian.

Ever since antiquity, verbal and visual art have challenged each other with respect to their mimetic powers and effects. Nevertheless, the rivalry between poetry and painting was parallel to the myth of their ‘sisterhood’ and the development of their historical alliance. As Horace famously wrote: ‘ut pictura poesis’. For centuries writers and artists inspired and celebrated each other’s work, while making their respective memory immortal through words and images.

Italy in the Medieval and Renaissance period offers an ideal backdrop to explore the multifaceted and conflicting relationship between visual arts and literature. Not only did writers play a key role in establishing the social status of artists, but several works of art were fostered by the collaboration of writers and painters. The expectations of patronage and the influence of cultural codes shared by patrons, poets and artists had a major impact on the construction of texts and images, as well as on the discourses that grew up around them. While poets praised artists and artists represented poets, both could build on each other’s subject through ekphrasis and illustrations.

In this course we will be looking at contexts as diverse as medieval city-states, Renaissance courts and academies to single out and analyse pivotal encounters between artists and writers. We will travel across the centuries, from fourteenth-century Avignon (Petrarch and Simone Martini) to early sixteenth-century Rome (Bembo, Castiglione and Raphael), from Florence at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Poliziano and Botticelli) to late fifteenth-century Milan, where Leonardo painted his Lady with an Ermine. Ferrara and Mantua, Urbino and Venice will be other destinations on our journey. We will also focus on painters and sculptors who were both renowned artists and talented writers, such as Michelangelo, and on celebrated artists who reflected on arts in treatises and notebooks, such as Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo. Artists as varied as Botticelli and Titian will be studied alongside, and together with, writers like Boccaccio, Aretino and Ariosto. Furthermore, we will consider the tradition of anecdotes on artists and how literature shaped – and biased – the reception and fortune of their work, from Dante’s Comedy to Vasari’s Lives of the artists.

The first eight weeks of the course will focus on methodologies and sources for the study of renaissance art, including the study of texts such as documents and biographies. Together with the other MA students taking renaissance options, it will hone skills in visual analysis and build visual repertoire. The Special Option begins in week 9 of the autumn term and will be organised on a thematic basis. Each week will revolve around a cultural and theoretical core, which will be examined from different perspectives, with a view to proposing a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach to the topic, possibly opening up new research paths.

The issues we will be dealing with include (but are not limited to):

- ekphrasis and description
- illustration
- time and space in words and images
- literary and visual topoi
- metaphors and wordplays
- blind words/silent images
- speaking images
- functions and effects of frames and paratextual devices
- the space of the subject
- the rhetoric of the image

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements. A reading knowledge of Italian is highly desirable.