The Art History Newsletter

What’s in a name?

by | 27 February 2009 | Conferences, News, Renaissance

Our contributor Allyson Drucker writes:

The topic of this morning’s session “Renaissance and/or Early Modern: Naming and/or Knowing the Past” promised to travel some well-rehearsed territory for scholars of the field who remain dissatisfied with the term early modern as a substitute for “renaissance” and its troubling connotations. And while the session as a whole made good on this promise, each panelist offered new insights on nomenclature and the artwork of the period itself. The well-attended session started off light-heartedly with Marvin Trachtenberg citing statistics about the usage of the term “renaissance” in contemporary popular culture and ended with a lively discussion among all the panelists spurred by questions from an engaged audience. In between, the papers given by Samuel Edgerton, Jeffrey Chipps Smith and David Cast included some defense of the term “renaissance” while acknowledging its shortcomings as a signifier. Nothing so ground-breaking as a solution was reached, but the need for names, distinctions and awareness of their consequences was acknowledged. Particularly interesting were the connections drawn between literary developments, scientific discoveries and new ways of thinking about art forms, their genesis and contemporary reception. Edgerton, for example, in discussing linear perspective, showed how advances in science were a boon to artistic progress and carried theological significance as well.

Meanwhile, down the hall, revivalism and revisionism were being discussed within a much different framework at the “Eighteenth-Century Art, Decorative Arts, and Architecture: Shattering the Nineteenth-Century Image of the Eighteenth Century” session. Here, independent scholar Beverly Jacoby showed how the aims of French eighteenth-century artists were misunderstood almost immediately in the following century as they were perceived through the eyes of an audience influenced by political upheaval and eventually nationalistic pride. J. Nicholas Napoli discussed how the advances of the Industrial Revolution spurred developments in ornament and taste. Although their subject matter could not have been more different, both Napoli and Edgerton demonstrated the power of science and technology to affect change in form and the vocabulary used to describe it.