research forum visiting professor seminar


Portraiture, Sincerity and the Ethics of Early Modern Conversation

Thursday, 26 January 2012

16.00 - 18.00, Research Forum South Room

portrait of an old man with sparse grey hair and a beard
Moroni, Giovanni Battista, Italian, c.1525-1578, Portrait of an Elderly Man, c. 1575. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16-1/2 in. (50.8 x 41.9 cm). © Courtesy The Norton Simon Foundation

Speaker(s): Bronwen Wilson (Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

Ticket/entry details: Free and open to postgraduate students and history of art teaching staff

Organised by: Professors Caroline Arscott and Joanna Woodall

“Moral portrait” is a rubric that has been assigned to paintings produced in Northern Italy in the later decades of the sixteenth century on the basis of their adherence to Counter Reformation demands for truthful representation. Naturalism is one characteristic of these portraits, painted by Giovanni Battista Moroni, among others, while another—emphasized by the paring down of extraneous content—is the emphasis on the face-to-face encounter. Interrogating the category of the moral portrait by shifting the focus to ethics, the seminar explores, in part via Michel de Montaigne, the striking demands made by depictions of human faces of their beholders. Many Northern Italian portraits actively solicit our engagement in ways that resonate with ideas of friendship that circulated in Stefano Guazzo’s La civil conversazione (1574), to which Montaigne’s De l’art de conférer has been seen as an homage. For the French essayist, conversation is a figure of thought that opens up the possibility of an ethics without an ego, and also a procedure for questioning what we know and how we can know it. In a culture of suspicion generated by the potential, and sometimes prudent requirement, for humans to dissimulate, Montaigne’s call for transparency as an ethical imperative—the disarming effects of being open to others with one’s speech and one’s face—provides insights for exploring the effects of realism in painting and the process of interpretation itself.

Currently teaching in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Bronwen Wilson is moving to the school of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia in August 2012. She has had fellowships with the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada and at Villa i Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Newberry Library. Her research interests include representational technologies and forms of imagery that blur the boundaries between genres, that protract and condense time, and that emerge from practices that impinge upon each other. Publications include The World in Venice: print, the city, and early modern identity (University of Toronto Press, 2005; Roland H. Bainton prize for Art History, 2006); Making Publics in Early Modern Europe: people, things and forms of knowledge, co-edited with Paul Yachnin (Routledge, 2010); a special volume of Art History, The Erotics of Looking: Materiality, Solicitation and Dutch Visual Culture co-edited with Angela Vanhaelen (2012); and articles in The Renaissance World (Routledge, 2007), The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern History (2007), Oxford Art Journal (2011), and Seeing across cultures, Ashgate (2012). She has completed a book manuscript, Facing Early Modernity: essays on appearance and perception in Northern Italy, and her current project is titled Journeys to Constantinople: inscription, the horizon and duration in early modern travel imagery.

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