Dr Genevieve Warwick, University of Edinburgh

 

As part of the AHRC’s highlight theme of ‘translating cultures’, this project offers for study a well-known example of cultural transmission, that of antique revival in Renaissance art. Specifically, the intended research is concerned with inter-visual dialogues between painting and sculpture in European art of the long Renaissance. Renaissance painting was predicated on the imitation of antiquity, thus its quest was to ‘translate’ the forms of sculpture into the medium of paint. To arrive at a fuller understanding of the channels of transmission between the antique past and Renaissance painting the research highlights the artistic processes of medial translation through which this great cultural transfer occurred. To do so it draws on the Renaissance debate as to the relative merits of painting and sculpture, the so-called paragone, or comparison of the arts.

The study converges on Renaissance paintings of the ancient gods, specifically Venus and her child Cupid, because of the particularly close ties between ancient statuary and early modern painted figurations of their forms. In addition to its analysis of medial translation, the research is thus also concerned with the cultural translation of canons of female bodily beauty from the art of antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond. It addresses both the methods and meanings of the artistic translation of ancient sculptural remnants of Venus into mythological paintings for Renaissance courts; and the produring yet conflicted power of Venus’s representation in Western art as a cultural signifier of female beauty. By focussing on particularly dense instances of her appropriation and translation within early modern court art, the research troubles the apparently seamless history of her representation to highlight instead the conflicts of culture attending her translation-cum-appropriation. More broadly, the research juxtaposes visual ‘sources’ and their citations in art, reading difference as a type of resistance that may take the form of purposeful misappropriation and critical translation.

Dissemination of the research will be through conference papers, articles in peer-review journals, and a touring exhibition of prints and drawings with an accompanying catalogue. One conference paper/article will be concerned with Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus painted for the Spanish king, Philip IV. As has long been noted, the painting represents an apogee in Velazquez’s productive engagement with the work of Titian, who had also painted Venus for the Spanish court. Thus Velazquez’s Venus is replete with a knowledge of this goddess’s long representation in the history of both Renaissance painting and antique sculpture, yet it is also a powerful translation that would itself seed many further imitations. The second paper is concerned with Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid. Painted for a Florentine patron, it is surely a form of artistic commentary on Michelangelo’s early sculptural rendition of this same theme (now lost). The study demands consideration of Caravaggio’s intended visual effect in the act of translation from sculpture into paint, which may be read as an artistic polemic against Michelangelo’s ‘maniera statuina’. Both articles also address the theme of temporal/geographical translations of antique revial in art across the map of Europe. The exhibition will take a broader view of tropes of bodily beauty to map their changing construction across time, place, and medium. This rests on a conception of body beauty as culturally constructed and subject to an historical process of imitation, translation, and difference. Through a series of visual comparisons, the exhibition will present an argument about the artistic translation of figurative motifs to represent beauty from one work of art, one medium, and one historical context, to another.

 

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Exhibition at The Hunterian