Political Sound

Sound Evidence, 1969: Recording a Milanese Riot

by Delia Casadei

The essay begins:

Milan, 19 November 1969, noon. In the heart of the city center, on the streets surrounding the Duomo, two crowds converge. The first, a large group of union workers, is gathered in the Teatro Lirico—there is a general strike all over Italy, the grievance being a rise in the cost of housing. A second group, an assortment of extra-parliamentary left-wing organizations whose Italian crop was in full flourish by 1968, is marching down Via Larga. Since the Teatro Lirico is also on Via Larga, the workers leaving their assembly mingle with the other demonstrators. The crowd swells and heaves. The police intervene. After a few moments, the scene has degenerated: the police, in vans, move toward the demonstrators; the demonstrators find steel tubes in a nearby building site and use them as weapons. A police officer driving one of the vans—Antonio Annarumma—dies in the struggle, in circumstances that remain unclear to this day.

Competing accounts of the event appear almost instantly. Italy’s president, Giuseppe Saragat, releases a public statement laced with imagery of a body politic assailed by lethal pathogens:

This odious crime must serve as a warning to all: to isolate the criminals and put them in a condition of no longer being noxious; their purpose is the destruction of life.

Many demonstrators were illegally incarcerated for several months while they awaited trial. The leading left-wing newspaper, L’Unità, published eyewitness accounts from both striking workers and a judge (Domenico Politanò) at the Milan tribunal, who maintained that “[the police carried out] an aggressive act on a peaceful demonstration.” Other commentators, including left-wing writer Nanni Balestrini, maintained that the police attacked first, that Annarumma collided with another police van, and that his death was subsequently framed as murder in order to antagonize the extra-parliamentary left. The Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (CISL) suggested that the extremist left-wing groups were of “suspect provenience,” meaning that they might have been infiltrated, perhaps by neofascists seeking to pin a political murder on the left. Slogans calling to avenge Annarumma’s death appeared on walls across the city. In the police barracks at the Milanese northeastern district of Bicocca, where Annarumma was usually stationed, the climate became increasingly exasperated. Far-right press such as the weekly Il Borghese called for the occupation of the city by the police. When, a few days later, Mario Capanna, leader of the Movimento Studentesco (the university’s leading left-wing group and part of the group accused of Annarumma’s murder), attended the funeral of Annarumma to offer his condolences, he narrowly escaped lynching by a mob of enraged policemen.

The ensuing trial did little to calm this tense atmosphere. While responsibility for Annarumma’s death was officially attributed to the demonstrators, an individual culprit was never found: what the law produced was not the cathartic exhibition of a criminal body, but an immaterial moral shadow cast over a mercurial, disorderly crowd—a collective that could take on different political shades depending on the onlooker. Viewed from the hindsight of the decade that followed, the whole episode—and the atmosphere it generated—was grimly familiar and not unique to Italy. The state of constant urban confrontation, in other words, was one that characterized many nations during the height of the Cold War. This “low-intensity warfare”—the US Army term used to describe the situation in Italy, as well as in Greece, West Germany, and Chile in the 1970s—saw official and unofficial police forces mobilized to curb left-wing political extremism. In Italy, as elsewhere, the decade beginning in 1969 was dubbed the anni di piombo, the years of lead—a period characterized by political violence by way of artillery: bombs detonated on trains and in railway stations and banks and the kidnapping and murder of politicians, activists, and members of the police force.

As I have mentioned, neither the epithet nor the political situation was exclusive to Italy during the years of the Cold War—indeed, the phrase anni di piombo was coined in 1981 by German director Margarethe von Trotta, who made it the title of a film about the tensions between East and West Germany. In Italy, the term referred to a series of urban guerrilla actions resulting from several layers of political conflict: the skyrocketing of private industry profits during the years of the economic miracle (1958–1963) had been accompanied by neglect of the public sector—housing infrastructure, health services, and education—that became the subject of frequent and vociferous protests among workers, university students, and left-wing intellectuals. By the end of the sixties, these sectors had articulated into a myriad of competing extra-parliamentary left-wing groups. Some of these (such as the Movimento Studentesco, the Marxisti Leninisti, and Adriano Sofri’s Lotta Continua) had considerable traction and contacts with Soviet Russia, argued for the necessity of political violence, and had ties with the Communist Red Brigades. Although in conflict with one another over the minutiae of their political programs, all groups protested the parliamentary left, which in 1969 consisted of a first-time coalition of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Christian Democrats (DC). This same government—and anything to the left of it—was also under attack by numerous neofascist groups such as Ordine Nuovo, and Avanguardia Nazionale. Although the plan came to nothing, Julio Valerio Borghese, a naval commander during the fascist regime who continued lobbying for extreme right politics after the war, allegedly gathered armed forces to attempt a coup d’état—now known as the Golpe Borghese—between 7 and 8 December 1970. The US government—which had kept very close ties with the center-left Christian Democrat government since the 1950s—naturally did not want the extreme left to gain traction in Italy; but by the seventies, as some Wikileaks cables have since shown, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was actively invested in discouraging inquiries into the links between neofascist sympathizers and the police, a disquieting position considering that Italy was in the aftermath of an attempted—if badly executed—military coup, and that Kissinger would in 1973 openly support the Chilean golpe against Salvador Allende.

The product of these tensions was an atmosphere in which violent extremes mingled and even were played against one another by a government intent on preserving its precarious stability at all costs. Extreme left-wing groups were often infiltrated by spies from the extreme right, and vice versa. The strategy of “false flagging”—that is, of committing a crime in such a way as to pin responsibility on a particular political group—was a key mode of operation in the late sixties, one whose effect was not so much a successful laying of blame as a deeper destabilization of any identity behind political action. If a crime could be committed so as to look like the work of a leftist group, then the very ideal of activism—that of making direct, immediate dents in a political order—was shattered into a forest of signs, which were then subjected to the vagaries of representation and interpretation.

A period such as the anni di piombo presents a peculiar kind of problem to any historian (let alone a sound historian, as we will see). Unresolved crimes, violence without a culprit, were more rule than exception in this period—it was a time of “terror as usual,” to use Michael Taussig’s sinister oxymoron. Such crimes are always already embedded in a highly sensationalist public record dating back to the violent event itself and woven in a literary and visual corpus that spans, by now, decades. A violent event existed in a particular “climate of representation”—to use Lisa Gitelman’s phrase—through which the event was codified into reports that rooted themselves in the memory of the city’s inhabitants. The climate, in the case of 1970s Italy, was characterized by sensationalist public statements, such as Saragat’s intimation of biopolitical terror, which pointedly fails to identify any political purpose behind the violence other than the “destruction of life.” The sensationalism, though, was not a general matter of rhetoric, of overstatement, or even of metaphorical language. The historian can’t pretend to scrape it off as mere ideology, exposing the live historical flesh underneath. And this is why: in the history of Italian politics that begins with the explosion in Piazza Fontana and extends to the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, it was hardly ever the loss of life, the most concrete consequence of political violence, that was sensationalized; rather, it was precisely the unintelligibility, the impossibility of conclusive evidence regarding its perpetrators that was staged, proclaimed, bemoaned, and ultimately sold.

This climate of representation, in which unintelligibility is presented as a kind of standalone reality effect (that is, such a picture, or such a witness, is telling the truth because its contents or testimony are unclear), puts the historian in a peculiar double bind. We don’t know, for example, if Annarumma was intentionally murdered or died by accident, perhaps as a result of attempted self-defense. Nonetheless, reporting this particular or any event as a problem, as an unresolved issue, is to appropriate the mode of presentation of the event itself at the time of occurrence, making the historian complicit with the sensationalist press coverage. And yet it is also essentially impossible for the historian to resolve the mystery (and this is, of course, the mode of Italian microhistorians like Carlo Ginzburg, who directly engaged with the historiographical and political problem of the anni di piombo) and demystify the sensationalism: for all the putative resolutions of the Annarumma, Piazza Fontana, and Aldo Moro cases, none of them have yet amounted to an official legal resolution. Indeed, not only is the overblown mode of representation difficult to deflate into a legal resolution, but one could also argue that sensationalism in 1970s Italy aided, rather than defied, the exercise of the law: in response to the Moro murder, Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga passed a law (formulated on 15 December 1979 and passed on 8 February 1980) sanctioning mass incarcerations, unwarranted searches, and more severe punishment for terrorist activities, effectively turning the problem of unintelligibility into permission to persecute, rather than legally try, members of activist groups deemed suspicious.

This is not to say that the question of the aesthetic value, the performativity and complex sensationalism of the coverage of political violence at this point in Italian history hasn’t been examined by historians. It is, however, striking that, by and large, these analyses have focused on visual evidence, on either printed media or photography. Verbal media—newspaper articles, interviews, and so on—could also embody terror insofar as they were shown merely to report on what seemed unsettling documentary evidence. Of course visual evidence and its presentation were even more crucial to the building of such an atmosphere—from the typesetting of headlines, to the pictures included with the report, to the street-level “eyewitnesses” on which journalistic reports of this kind so heavily rely. Historians have since produced accounts of precisely the representational work performed by 1970s media, accounts that are largely based on an analysis of images and news clippings. In the case of Italy, a collective study was published in 2011 of an iconic image of Milan’s anni di piombo (a balaclava-wearing demonstrator pointing a gun at armed police), showing the work of representation evident in the technical features as well as press coverage of the photo. There is, on the other hand, a pronounced dearth of critical studies about sound media in these same circumstances. This is an odd lacuna. After all, this is a historical period in which recording technology allows for extensive sonic documentation—not to mention surveillance—of events that could then be broadcast or even circulated as recordings. Is this lack of a critical history of political sound recordings simply a sign that recorded sound has lost the race against visual media as a source of proof, and thus as the subject of historical critique? Or is it that the act of recording sound is considered by default less mediated (more presence than representation) than visual reproduction, and thus, again, less worthy of critical attention? And if so, how might we begin to think of a representational climate for sound in these decades? Continue reading …

In this essay, musicologist Delia Casadei homes in on the contradiction between the declared purpose of the LP I fatti di Milano and the sound recording it mobilizes toward that end. Drawing on both sound studies and Italian political philosophy, she argues that the record embodies and actively stages idiosyncratic but highly contemporary relationships between music and soundscape, between sound event and its technological reproduction, and ultimately between political event and the act of writing history.

DELIA CASADEI is an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley. She researches the relation between voice, sound reproduction, and ideologies of language, with special attention to the twentieth century, Italy, and matters of nationhood and race.

Men, Women, and Demonic Possession

His Belly, Her Seed: Gender and Medicine in Early Modern Demonic Possession

by Boyd Brogan

The essay begins:

“Not by chance is the possessed body essentially female,” wrote Michel de Certeau in 1975. Few since have disagreed. Up to the close of the last century, studies of early modern demonic possession were dominated by psychoanalytic perspectives, and it seems fair to say that such perspectives are more than usually likely to produce an association between possession and the female body. Scholars such as John Demos, Lyndal Roper, Robin Briggs, and Steven Connor were no crude Freudians and often preferred Melanie Klein’s emphasis on motherhood to de Certeau’s Lacanian prioritization of language. But they were all working within a tradition, derived ultimately from Freud’s predecessor Jean-Martin Charcot, that viewed possession through the lens of hysteria; and despite regular attempts to extend it to male patients, hysteria remains fundamentally associated with femininity. Since both Freud and Charcot were influenced by their own studies of possession, moreover, the apparently natural “fit” between their theories and these phenomena is less convincing than their advocates sometimes assume.

More recent studies have reached the same conclusion as de Certeau from a different and more strictly historicist angle. Nancy Caciola and Moshe Sluhovsky both agree that possession was linked to femininity but trace this link to premodern medical concepts of gender rather than twentieth-century psychiatric ones. Yet the assertions of these historicist scholars are interestingly close to those of the psychoanalytic studies that preceded them. Sluhovsky’s claim “The history of possession is a history of bodies. . . . It is therefore inevitably a gendered history” echoes the program of Roper’s provocatively titled Oedipus and the Devil: to investigate “the irrational and unconscious . . . the body . . . and the relation of these two to sexual difference.” Both assume that a history of the body must be a history of what Roper calls “the physiological and psychological reality” of gender.Similarly, it seems no great leap from the “porosity” and “openness” that Caciola finds in medieval female anatomy to Steven Connor’s Lacanian association of possession with “invaginated hollowness” and cultural perceptions of “the castration or deficiency of the female body.”

A similar trend has been apparent in medical historiography. Much of the most significant work on early modern medicine and the gendered body has been generated by the sustained and hostile reaction against the “one-sex model” propounded in Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex. After Laqueur sensationally claimed that the premodern era lacked a binary concept of gender, a series of major studies devoted themselves to reassessing, and to some extent rebuilding, the anatomical and physiological premises of early modern sexual difference. Much of this work has focused on medical writings on womb diseases. These scholars have broken with the notion that illnesses of this type can be “retrospectively diagnosed” as hysteria. But they have also, it might be argued, subtly confirmed it, by emphasizing the extent to which the womb was indeed viewed as a potent source of mental and physical illnesses that were unique to women. Since some of these illnesses, such as suffocation of the womb, possessed cultural associations with demonic possession, studies like these offer powerful support for the notion that possession too was a kind of female malady.

This article takes as its starting point a series of early modern exorcisms that challenge these premises. The Denham exorcisms of 1585–86 featured a male demoniac, Richard Mainy, who claimed to have a woman’s illness, the disease known as “suffocation of the womb.” They also included a possessed woman, Sara Williams, who underwent apparently sexualized exorcisms centered around her genitals. These narratives may seem at first sight to confirm the existing scholarly picture: a possessed man feminized by a cross-gendered illness and a woman subjected to a “sexual script.” But early moderns, I suggest, would have read them differently. For them, the possessions of Richard Mainy and Sara Williams would have presented a reminder of the similarities rather than the differences between the sexes, and the different but related kinds of plenitude—sexual, humoral, demonic—that affected both. Continue reading …

In this article Boyd Brogan reconsiders the gendering of the early modern body from the perspectives of exorcism and medicine, challenging the emphasis on sexual difference that has guided a generation of work in both these fields. He argues that even the most recent historicist approaches to early modern possession and illness remain shaped by psychoanalytic interpretations that associate possession with hysteria. The article takes as its starting point the sixteenth-century demoniac Richard Mainy, who claimed to suffer from the gynecological condition known as “suffocation of the womb,” which modern historians have often identified as hysteria. Rather than offering a prescient example of “male hysteria,” Brogan argues that Mainy’s statements about his illness reveal the important historical relationship between suffocation of the womb and other convulsive or “falling” illnesses such as epilepsy. It was this wider category of illnesses, affecting both men and women, that was associated with demonic possession in this period. Both possession and the diseases that resembled it, moreover, were linked to early modern theories of sexual physiology that stressed the similarities rather than the differences between male and female sexuality.

BOYD BROGAN is a Centre for Future Health Research Fellow in the Department of History, University of York. He works on sexual abstinence and illness in premodern medicine and on epilepsy, hysteria, and demonic possession from the early modern period to the twentieth century.

 

Illustration above: Berengario’s depiction of a uterus in his Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam

 

1619 Project–Further Reading

On Sunday August 18 the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an initiative whose purpose, in the words of editor Jake Silverstein, is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 [the date of the first arrival of slaves on the North American continent] as our birth year. Doing so requires us to put the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

Although scholarship on slavery and its consequences has not been a singular focus of Representations, we have been publishing on the topic steadily over nearly four decades, and our archives reveal a surprisingly relevant cross section of critical readings on the subject. We highlight a few of them here in endorsement of The 1619 Project (all available free of charge through the end of September):

Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive
by Stephen Best

Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy
Eric Lott

“Democracy and Burnt Cork”: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights
by Michael Rogin

The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black
by Henry Louis Gates Jr

Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects
by Huey Copeland

The Accursed Share: Genealogy, Temporality, and the Problem of Value in Black Reparations Discourse
by Robert Wesley

Fugitive Justice
by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman

When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?
by Catherine Gallagher

Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupéé
by Bryan Wagner

Legal Terrors
by Colin Dyan

Plus: the special issues New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual, edited by Huey Copeland, Krista Thompson, and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and Redress, edited by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman

 

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.

Legacies of Pain

A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

from the section “The Embodiment of Pain”:

Margaret Lock’s and my 1987 essay, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” emerged out of our profound dissatisfaction with the limitations of our discipline and field of inquiry. What good, after all, was a medical anthropology that was simply a convenient application of anthropological ideas and methods to clinical models of illness, pain, suffering, and healing? We wanted our field to be transformative, both theoretically and in terms of praxis. So we began to sketch a framework suggesting what medical anthropology could do beyond an empathic handholding of doctors and patients. We questioned the body as a cultural, historical, medicalized, naturalized, and universal object. We introduced the notion of embodiment, or how people, individually and collectively, live in and experience the body-self. We devised a tripartite framework of the “three bodies”: the individual body/the body self; the social body; and the political body or the body politic. The three bodies represent, then, three different but overlapping levels of analysis and theory: the existential/phenomenological/ontological individual body; the social structural/symbolic (the social body); and the feminist/neo-Marxist, Foucauldian body as a site of power/knowledge (the political body).

The individual body is a given, biopsychological, existential reality. It refers to the processes of becoming and being a person, an embodied self. In this instance, the body is seen as unique, singular, individual, and personally experienced. At the same time, this “individual” body—conceived as the center of the perceiving, experiencing, thinking world—is always mediated through collective cultural meanings. The self-evident yet contradictory proposition is that humans both have and are bodies. Our bodies are simultaneously objects of and subject to our “selves.” We could say that we are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders to ourselves. The message of the American wellness movement at the time we were writing was rather crude: “It’s your body. Take care of it.” The concept of the body as property means that you own it and you have the responsibility to take care of it. But on a deeper level, the body is proof of one’s existence. It is through the body and its sensory and perceptual circuits that we are able to experience and differentiate among other objects and things in the world. The body, wrote Marcel Mauss, is the “first and most natural tool” of humans. But here’s the rub: how can one simultaneously be it and own it?

In his classic work The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that although humans are not unique in being embodied, they might be the only species that is en-selved, endowed with self-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-reflection. While primates and other animals grieve the death of their loved ones, only humans are painfully conscious of the limits of their being-in-the-world. Ludwig Binswanger, drawing on Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, writes of “thrownness”: the idea that individual bodies are “thrown” into a particular world, place, history, and existence without their choosing. Our genetic inheritance, generation, environment, and society; our family, race, culture, and history are thrown at us, as the raw materials out of which to create a life.

On the one hand, then, our bodies are the “tools” with which we perceive, think, and act in and on the world; on the other, bodies can seem to betray us, to defeat us. In extreme situations, our bodies can even seem to be obstacles to our freedom. Bodies can frustrate our basic needs and deepest desires. The suffering of transgender people is just one example of a body betrayed. One might, like Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid hero, lose a limb in a political attack on one’s life. Albie’s suffering during a long recovery eventually shaped him into a more open and compassionate human and an even better ANC (African National Congress) warrior. Albie was proud of his missing limb and refused to wear a prosthesis. He would wave his empty sleeve as if it were his flag of liberty, which I thought it was. Or, like Diane DeVries, one could be born without any limbs at all and refuse the sometimes very painful attempts to navigate on the remaining stumps. The pain was worth her self-perception as a unique beauty, an American Venus de Milo. Continue reading …

Pain is a deeply subjective experience that includes sensory, emotional, social, historical, and cultural components. The presence of suffering in the idiom of pain exposes the gap between individual bodies that refuse to suffer quietly and the violence of indifferent social, economic, and political orders. In this essay Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes the existential suffering of Brazilian sugarcane cutters who transform the unbearable shame of hunger into a more acceptable bodily syndrome of nervous rage. Who, after all, wants to suffer and die like a dog? Her second example of the precariousness of pain is the muted suffering and longing of impoverished kidney sellers in Moldova who suffer a missing kidney that they experience as an angry and ghostly organ that will not allow the sellers to forget what they have done to themselves.

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES is Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology and Professor of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley. She is the author of many books, including Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Ireland (1979, 2001), and Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1993). As founding director of Organs Watch, she is a consultant on human trafficking of organs for the EU, Interpol, the UN Office on Human Trafficking, and the Vatican. Her forthcoming books are The Ghosts of Colonia Montes de Oca: A Hidden Subtext of Argentina’s Dirty War and Kidney Hunter: Trafficking with the Organs Traffickers.

Hollywood’s Bible

The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

by Aaron Rich

The essay begins:

Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Despite decades of being considered quite conventional, the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme has recently enjoyed a renewal of interest. The 2010 exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in its catalog and in an accompanying collection of essays, argued that Gérôme was in fact a pioneer of modern painting. The exhibition and its publications make the case that Gérôme’s work is in fact protocinematic—in its engagement with subjects of large-scale spectacle, its circulation in secondary formats such as prints and photographs, and its use of strategies of duration and anticipation. While several authors discussed a few of his Roman paintings, such as Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You (1859), The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1862–83), and Pollice Verso (1872), missing from their discussions was the fact that Hollywood studios actually used copies of these paintings in their background research for productions of films set in ancient Rome. An examination of the materials used as visual guidance for the 1951 production by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the Roman melodrama Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes it clear that Gérôme’s paintings of the Circus Maximus, along with many other images of the ancient city by academic artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Thomas Couture, and hundreds of popular illustrations and photographs of ancient sites, were used by Hollywood studios to understand and recreate the look and material culture of antiquity in a way the audience would recognize and enjoy.

Still from Quo Vadis

By the mid-1920s, nearly every Hollywood studio had already established a research library where extensive collections of visual materials, including illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as photographs, postcards, cartes de visite, stereo-view slides, maps, building blueprints, technical manuals, prints of paintings, and drawings were housed and managed. Their staff compiled these images into what they called “research bibles,” scrapbooks of thematically organized images. To obtain images that might help suggest a design for a prop or set, researchers scoured their own libraries; those of other studios; outside picture collections in the public libraries of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris; the Huntington Library; the libraries of the major universities of Los Angeles; the picture and photo collections of many state historical libraries; and the collections of other film services, such as Western Costume Company, the film industry’s largest costume maker. Research bibles helped film workers in managerial and craft departments—including producers, directors, writers, art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup designers, set decorators, and prop builders—visualize all sorts of mundane details, whether they were bowls, tables, and lamps or more exotic items like chariots, military uniforms, and fountains, to create believable cinematic environments. These multivolume collections could be reproduced, allowing every department to use the same visual sources simultaneously. The art department would see images of costumes, and the props department would see images of hair and makeup; all of a film’s creative crew had access to the same visual field. As a typical example, the Quo Vadis research bible contained five volumes, each focusing on a different element of the production: locations, costumes, sets, props, and sculpture from the ancient world.

Hollywood studio films made through the 1960s were part of a much larger “republic of images.” The depictions of the world, its people, and its material culture found in films circulated within a larger system of modern visual media that included illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials. Much like the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, within which ideas and essays circulated among a class of learned people throughout Europe and North America, this twentieth-century visual network allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge about the ancient and modern world throughout a broad, decentralized area. When producing movies, filmmakers were inspired by images gathered from a diverse set of illustrated sources that were recognizable to viewers precisely because such pictures were already circulating throughout many popular forms of media.

Scholarship regarding the research undertaken for Hollywood films has for the most part focused on issues of historical accuracy. In so doing, historians have often assumed that the films in question were simply renarrating written historical discourse, emphasizing the attention filmmakers showed to how these narratives were previously presented in literature, rather than considering how Hollywood cinema has recirculated a body of visual knowledge of the world of the past. Such scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that film research was largely picture-centered, using methods related to earlier visual practices from the centuries before the advent of cinema, and that Hollywood research departments were less concerned with accuracy than with gathering a large quantity of visual media about a time and place. It did not matter, for example, that statuary in antiquity was frequently polychromatic, richly decorated in bright colors; by the twentieth century, the film audience familiar with printed and projected depictions of ancient Rome would have assumed that the white marble sculpture most often depicted was historically accurate.

Stephen Bann has explained how inauthentic historical narratives and objects were popular with scholars and audiences alike from 1750 through the late nineteenth century. “The critical preoccupation with authenticity and the transgressive wish to simulate authenticity are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin,” he explained. But in Hollywood, all materials relating to a film’s subject, time period, characters, and material culture were considered when creating a film; authenticity was merely a marketing flourish. Standard practice in the industry involved visual research that considered a tremendous range of illustrated media from popular and scholarly sources, which together contributed to what Bann has called “historical poetics.” Such a practice combined historical details with entertainment and spectacle, often with a tinge of irony, to interest, amuse, and educate the audience. This heterogeneous mix of source materials also structured history museums, dioramas, panoramas, historical literature, and historical painting in the nineteenth century, and it is the most common way modern people have experienced history for the past three centuries. In this way, the question of whether or not a film presents an authentic historical narrative misses the point; Hollywood filmmakers were much more interested in presenting familiar images that the audience would recognize from many earlier and well-circulated depictions of the past, regardless of their historical validity.

In the case of Quo Vadis, the film narrative contains true historical events, such as Nero’s setting fire to Rome in 64 CE or the spectacle of the crucifixions of early Christians. But the film also refers to thousands of images and elements from visual depictions of the city created, for the most part, not from the first century but from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Friedberg, referring to the late twentieth-century point of view, explains that history is “inexorably bound with images of a constructed past: a confusing blur of ‘simulated’ and ‘real.’” Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of ancient Rome that were widely circulated in prints and illustrated journals, the modern understanding of the city changed to fit those images, and in turn, twentieth-century films were designed to echo those earlier images, using them as inspiration for their recreations of the ancient capital.

Likewise, nineteenth-century academic painters looked to earlier depictions of the past, including earlier narrative paintings and antiquarian images, to find visual inspiration for invented details. Gérôme, for example, gathered a tremendous volume of visual materials and pioneered the use of photographs to help him to recreate the material culture of the distant lands that were frequently his subject. He claimed that his Roman painting Pollice Verso was a depiction of gladiators in the Circus Maximus superior to his earlier Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You because he had done more research on the armor and appearance of gladiators for the later picture. He explained that the accumulation of so many details helped to create an “accent of truth” that the audience would understand. Continue reading …

In this essay Aaron Rich shows describes the process by which Hollywood studio film productions through the 1960s used research to develop depictions of the past that would show audiences representations they would recognize and believe. He situates this research as part of a much larger and more complex republic of images through which pictures of the world, its people, and its material culture circulated within a system of modern media, including illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials of which movies were a part. Rich then makes the case that Hollywood cinema should be reconsidered an essential part of the twentieth-century perception of history, regardless of the accuracy of its depictions.

AARON RICH is a PhD candidate in the division of Cinema and Media Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. His dissertation, “The Hollywood Research Library: Visual Knowledge in the Republic of Images,” focuses on studio research departments that gathered images from popular media to guide craft departments in recreating the world and investigates how these picture collections emerge from a Western tradition of understanding and appreciating the past and present visually.

Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

by Billie Melman

The essay begins:

No one could have grasped the relationship between the discovery of civilizations of the remote past, the visualization of their antiquity, and modernity better than Charles Leonard Woolley. One of the most eminent archaeologists of the first half of the twentieth century, Woolley was a doyen of Near-Eastern ancient history, a manipulator of newly developed media, and a celebrity, who noted that “an appeal to the eye is the best way of awakening interest in a new form of knowledge” (that is, archaeology). His observation about the accessibility to mass audiences of a past that had hitherto been largely known only through texts, that had barely existed as a materiality, and that had to be literally dug up to be envisioned, is to be found in his popular manual, Digging Up the Past, which was based on a series of six talks broadcast on the BBC and first published in 1930. By that time Woolley had already written Ur of the Chaldees, which aimed at a popular reading public; had begun publishing the multivolume Excavations at Ur, for professionals; had regularly contributed to the British and North American press; and had toured Britain. As numerous British and American reviewers of the booklet remarked, it proved that archaeology “concerned everyone. Its subject is modern man.”

By 1930 Woolley had acquired a public presence and his imperial persona was that of both a discoverer of the material cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and representative of the British Museum working in a territory that was now, after the First World War, part of a new Middle-Eastern imperial order. His observation highlights a web that connected modern empires, the visions of the past that had evolved in them, the forms and technologies of the visual, and the era historians have come to designate “late modernity.” Of course visual representations and spectacles of antiquity and their consumption evolved before late modernity and the beginning of the twentieth century. As far back as antiquity itself, the Greeks and Romans were displaying ancient Egyptian monuments, which again became popular during the Renaissance, and throughout the eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries Egyptomania has had multiple incarnations. In Britain, North America, and France a craze for the Assyrian Empire followed the discovery of its material civilizations in the 1840s and 1850s. As Gábor Klaniczay and Michael Werner have observed, “multiple antiquities”—that is, numerous and sometimes contradictory images and representations of the ancient past—have evolved in “multiple modernities” in order to mobilize the ancient world for national and imperial ends.

Between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second, antiquity was reconceived and redefined in substantive and temporal terms; it was experienced and represented in new ways by international organizations, colonial administrators, archaeologists, and travelers. New forms, repertoires, and technologies of visualizing the distant past developed in tandem with new meanings of “the ancient” and particularly of “antiquities,” which at the time acquired unified legal definitions that were articulated in an international complex of agreements, institutions, and practices. The access of experts and varied publics to the remote past embodied in such antiquities was regulated by new colonial administrative apparatuses and mechanisms that monitored the study of ancient history; the circulation of knowledge about it; and the exposure, preservation, and display of its physical remains. Moreover, during this period, representation and display of the ancient past, how it was experienced—not least the manner and conditions under which it was actually seen—were dramatically affected by globalized technologies of transport and communication. These ranged from a commercially realigned press to new technologies of transport and documentation that combined speed and surveying capabilities, such as mechanized desert travel and aviation, particularly aerial photography.

This complex of definitions, representations, and displays of the remote past and the technologies implemented to discover it developed in a new world order, an order formulated in the peace treaties and agreements following the First World War whose crux was a new imperial regime based upon the mandates system. This system, based on hierarchical civilizational notions and the idea of rule as guardianship under international oversight, evolved in the territories that passed from the empires that had lost the war to its victors, mainly Britain (and its settler territories) and France. Within the mandate empires it was the Near-Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire, now Class A mandates, ruled by the two victors under the League of Nations’ oversight, that became the crucible of what League of Nations’ internationalists described as “the new regime of antiquities.”

As historians of visual imperial cultures have noted, the study of empires and colonialism is still largely separate from studies of their visualization and display. To be sure, a number of art and cultural historians have repeatedly noted the imperial aspects of visual cultures, notably of British and French cultures but also of German and Ottoman. But these historians have focused mainly on the long nineteenth century. Moreover, studies of the orientalist recovery of an ancient Near-Eastern past have been somewhat narrowly compartmentalized, usually emphasizing just one aspect, such as literature, painting, cartography, museums, colonial expositions, or the theater. Such studies have been somewhat cut off from research on fields of inquiry that emerged and expanded during the long nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth and produced knowledge about antiquity itself—from Assyriology and Egyptology to physical anthropology, paleontology, and geology, all of which offered historical narratives and analyses that were based on the practice of excavation. But most important, the study of new forms of looking at the remote past, despite its increasing attention to colonialism, has been largely shaped by a certain “methodological nationalism,” placing imperial visual culture within national frameworks. The nation or national state, whether it was the imperial state controlling colonial territories or the fledgling anticolonial national movements that emerged in India, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere, served historians of nationalism and archaeology, as well as art, not only as a thematic and geographical unit but also as an analytical tool to explain continuities and change in attitudes to the past.

My focus on the mandates era and the new interwar imperial order proposes an “entangled” visual history. Empires, and particularly modern empires, were characterized by the movement of people, goods, ideas and knowledge—and, we should add, by the circulation of objects, images, and repertoires of recounting and viewing the past. I propose to look at the interwar complex of the modern culture of antiquity from the metropolitan perspective, that of international institutions and organizations regulating excavation and exposure of antiquities to users and consumers throughout the British Empire and, finally, from the ground and even underground level—that is, from beneath the surface of excavation sites, the excavators’ point of view. Continue reading …

In this article historian Billie Melman explores the multiple visual presences of antiquity in the first half of the twentieth century and connects visual histories to the history of empires. She shows how archaeology mediated between the newly discovered material civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamian empires and experiences of modernity in the British Empire. Focusing on the spectacular archaeological discoveries at Ur, Tell Al-Muqayyar, in Southern Iraq, Melman demonstrates how the materiality of antiquity enabled its visualization in a variety of forms, from illustrations through photography and three-dimensional museum reconstructions.  

BILLIE MELMAN is Professor of Modern History at Tel Aviv University. She has written extensively on colonialism and culture, orientalism, and cross-cultural relations in the age of modern empires. She is completing a book on modernity, the rediscovery of antiquity, and imperial crisis during the first half of the twentieth century.

Géricault and French Restoration Historiography

The Medium Is the Messagerie

by Allan Doyle

The essay begins:

A lithographic vignette by Théodore Géricault depicting William the Conqueror lying in state was displayed at the Paris Salon of 1824, the first such exhibition to devote a section to lithography. The impact of this morbid scene was undoubtedly heightened by the recent death of its maker who, like the Norman conqueror of England, had died following a riding accident. The print is an outlier within the oeuvre of the artist, who did not participate in the Romantic vogue for historical motifs. Baron Isidore Taylor commissioned the print for the second volume of his Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France: Ancienne Normandie (1825). The artist also contributed to the same volume a second full-page print that depicted an interior view of Saint Nicolas, a deconsecrated Rouen church repurposed as a storage facility for a messagerie or carriage service.

Théodore Géricault, Église de Saint-Nicolas, 1824, Metropolitan Museum, New York

When viewed within the context of French cultural production during the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830), Géricault’s prints for Taylor’s project reveal themselves to be commentaries on Restoration visual history as much as they are examples of it. Where his Saint Nicolas equates a carriage parked in a deconsecrated church with the manufacture and dissemination of picturesque lithographs of historical motifs, his William the Conqueror figures the national past as an uncannily preserved royal corpse, seemingly frozen in a state of nondecay. On the one hand, the artist provides an allegory of image production in which lithography is presented as an essentially mobile medium capable of transporting the viewer back in time and across geographic space; and, on the other hand, he gives an example of the Romantic and picturesque mode of visual history brought to a state of arrest, suspended between an unrecoverable past and a future placed in perpetual deferral. Continue reading …

In this essay Allan Doyle analyzes the contributions of Théodore Géricault to the second volume of Baron Isidore Taylor, Charles Nodier, and Alphonse de Cailleux’s Voyages pittoresques: Normandie (1820; 1825) within the context of French Restoration historiography. He argues that Géricault’s prints are allegorical commentaries on the production of visual history during this period as much as they are examples of it.

ALLAN DOYLE is an art historian whose research focuses on the representation of history in nineteenth-century French art and visual culture. He is currently finishing a book on the afterlife of Michelangelo Buonarroti in French Romantic painting.

The Papered Century

Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

by Susan L. Siegfried

Charles Thévenin, Prise de la Bastille, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The essay begins:

Anyone reflecting on the relation of the “image” to “history” in the eighteenth century, as I have been asked to do for this essay, must begin with Francis Haskell’s History and Its Images (1993), the major work on that subject. In a book of impressive scope and erudition, Haskell addressed an important problem: what is the impact of the visual arts on the historical imagination? His study, as he described it, explored “how, when, and why historians have tried to recapture the past, or at least a sense of the past, by adopting the infinitely seductive course of looking at the image that the past has left of itself.” He surveyed historians from Petrarch (1304–74) through Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) and examined how they used images as historical tools or as part of their historical method, addressing questions about the nature of visual evidence and the ground on which it is interpreted that such an investigation inevitably raised. Reading History and Its Images now, I am struck by two things. First is the dishearteningly negative verdict it passes on the consequence of images to historians; for all the authors he discusses, not one comes up to the mark of integrating images into narrative histories or of reckoning works of art as constitutive of history. Second is the surprisingly little impact History and Its Images has had within the field of art history, and in other disciplines for that matter, despite having been widely reviewed. A possible explanation may be that Haskell does not show why images mattered or how people engaged with them when they did. In keeping with his formation as a historian, he kept his sights firmly trained on major narratives written by professional historians such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89). What Haskell’s study leaves out, though it does suggest, is the interest taken in visualizing history and in concretizing textual accounts of it through material remains of the past and images of them.

Narrative was only one form that an interest in history took in the eighteenth century. People’s engagement with artifacts, images of them, and images that envisioned past events and personalities was extremely important and part of what might be called a larger historical imaginary. This visual engagement with the past fed indirectly into serious historical narratives. Gibbon said he was inspired to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by going to the Roman forum and seeing its extensive monumental architecture at first hand, even though no visual analysis or description of the ruins enters into his history. Haskell was so intent on pointing out the separation of visual experience and published histories, and on pointing out disparities between them, that he did not explore the power and draw of images and artifacts in their relation to a historical imaginary. Yet one could say that visual artifacts informed the period’s fervent interest in Roman antiquities and drew readers to Gibbon’s book. There was a subliminal relationship between images and texts, a give-and-take that makes visual representation difficult to separate from historical representation and also makes its agency difficult to define: visual experience played into an interest in history, just as knowledge of history prompted curiosity about material artifacts, events, and people of the past, but without a systematic connection between the visual and the textual.

This essay argues that an impulse to visualize history through prints, drawings, and paintings took hold during the eighteenth century, with consequences for the newly popular print media’s effect on conceptualizations of history that remain insistently elusive. It was as if history, which conventionally drew its authority from texts, needed a supporting network of images to bring one closer to the past and lend a reality to its accounts. Theories and concepts of history were never argued through images, but these “visual documents,” as one might call them, still seemed capable of bridging the gap between present and past. If the mounting accumulation of images that bore witness to history in the eighteenth century could be said to have exerted an influence on writing about historical processes and events, the French Revolution placed some in evidence. The Revolution was seen as the ultimate event produced by history up to that time. It changed history’s course, and its energies seem to have released visual images from the usual textual scaffolding that bore witness to events that were perceived as making history. This development implied that history, or at least a history of the Revolution, would need to, and have no choice but to, incorporate images in order to provide a complete record of events, though how far this view of visual testimony extended remains is, by its very nature, impossible to pin down.

Some basic questions about terms of reference might be posed at the outset. What conditions enabled an impulse to visualize history to develop during the eighteenth century and what forms did it take? Equally important, what was meant by “history” at the time? An interest in secular history was decidedly on the rise during this period, which expanded the possibilities for imagining the human’s relation to the world and to time. Sales and reviews of history books and geographies increased steadily relative to books of theology and jurisprudence, indicating inquisitiveness on the part of the reading public about those areas of knowledge. At the same time, visual images multiplied, especially in the form of prints but in other media as well. Every quantitative measure of material culture in the eighteenth century attests to continuing growth in the consumption and production of paintings, prints, drawings, illustrated books, illustrated journals, and decorative arts embellished with images, to say nothing of forms of visual spectacle and popular entertainment or of images produced from optical experiments in the natural sciences. This expansion of visual culture was especially marked during the second half of the century, when an increase in prosperity and education led to an increased demand for printed images of all sorts for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. There were so many printed images in circulation that the age was sometimes called “the papered century” or, in Germany, Papierkultur.

An impulse to visualize the past during this period can be divided into roughly two modalities: an antiquarian impulse to collect artifacts and to document them visually in drawings and prints, on the one hand, and an imaginary impulse to recreate scenes or events of the past through illusionistic renderings of them, on the other. In what follows, I look at examples from both realms, beginning with the documentary mode. This primarily took the form of objects, including prints, assembled in private collections and occasionally published. Here I shall focus on those collectors specifically interested in historical subjects. I then move to the imaginary mode, which envisioned past events visually as stories with actions and actors. I consider illustrations that were integrated into history books as well as large-scale history paintings that detached their representations of subjects from any originary texts. In the final section of the essay, I return to the documentary mode to consider the role of printed images during the French Revolution as creators of instant history.

The term “history” was so broadly used in the eighteenth century that it can be confusing to readers today. It embraced everything from compilations of knowledge such as natural history to stories in the sense of “istoria” as defined in Giorgio Vasari’s sixteenth-century treatise on painting. The deceptive breadth of the concept is suggested by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville’s use of it in a long essay published in the Mercure de France in 1727. Dezallier (1680–1765), a royal administrator and lawyer, was an avid collector and writer on subjects ranging from gardening and natural history to the fine arts. In his essay, he advised collectors on how to organize a cabinet of curiosities, including sizeable collections of printed images. The publication of this essay in the Mercure attests to the rise of the private collector or connoisseur and the importance of connoisseurial knowledge as a social code of distinction and language of polite sociability. Regarding prints, Dezallier advised collectors to classify them by subject matter rather than by artist, contrary to the market’s preference for identification by author, and to place them under three broad categories: history, portraits, and landscapes. The prominence of histoire in this scheme is highly suggestive, but on closer inspection, Dezallier appears to have meant “history” in the traditional and benign sense of “story.” He divided the category into sacred and profane history, which was conventional enough, but then proceeded to correlate profane history with the artists Godfrey Kneller, John Closterman, Daniel Teniers, and Adriaen van Ostade. These were seventeenth-century painters of portraits and low-life genre scenes, and they strike us today as surprising choices to exemplify a category largely associated with political or diplomatic events or judicial transactions of the past, subjects those artists rarely, if ever, painted. What, then, did Dezallier mean by “history”? He certainly was not thinking of what we might consider social history or a history of changing customs or moeurs. The question becomes all the more insistent in light of Dezallier’s classification of subjects that we often regard as historical events—“marriages,” “funerals,” “entries,” “battles,” “sieges,” “army marches”—under the category of landscape, not under histoire. His classification scheme suggests that ceremonies were perceived as ahistorical, as transcending time by virtue of repeating ritual enactments of power, or alternatively as transpiring in space (like “landscape”) more than in time. In attempting to understand what he meant by “history,” it becomes relevant to consider his debt to a rhetorical mode of classifying the fine arts, a realm with which he was very familiar as an art collector and writer on art. In the fine arts, “history” encompassed anything with narrative; “portraits” referred to portrayals of individuals; and “landscape” embraced representations of the environment. His use of the term “history,” then, was period specific and inflected by practice and criticism within the realm of the fine arts. Continue reading …

In this essay Susan Siegfried explores an impulse to visualize history in eighteenth-century France. She focuses on massive compilations of printed images that assembled overviews of history as represented by artifacts, portraits, and events and compares that documentary mode of visualizing the past to imaginary reconstructions of historical events in illusionistic scenes as depicted in the radically different formats of book illustration and monumental history painting.  

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED is Denise Riley Collegiate Professor of the History of Art and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is completing a book on visual representations of fashion and costume in nineteenth-century Europe.

Eyewitnessing Through Prints

Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of the Council of Trent

by Evonne Levy

The essay begins:

I look at a good painting . . . with as much pleasure as I take in reading of a good story [historia]. Both are the work of painters: one paints with words, the other tells the story with his brush. —Leon Battista Alberti

What happened when the most important genre of Renaissance painting, the historia (a “visual history”), built its images on scenes of eyewitnessed current events disseminated in the new medium of print? Is it a coincidence that a new claim to the eyewitnessing of current events in paint occurred in the fifteenth century, around the time that print made such palpably new histories available to a wide audience? While this essay will not undertake to prove that mechanical reproducibility put pressure on the historia to disseminate events as they appeared and as they happened, it will attempt to show the transformative encounter of these two things. A series of representations of a signal historical event enables us to see the convergence of the eyewitnessed image and print in action, and I propose to treat the meeting of the Council of Trent (1545–63) as my example, in part out of perversity. This event, which was in reality a visually uninteresting series of meetings (rows of people talking) spanning decades, was represented in a way that was both more textured and detailed than previous such scenes. And the long arc of time over which the council met was dealt with visually by representing what appears to be a single moment, a radical (and arbitrary) condensation in pictures—in a manner equivalent to the boiling down of a long war, with its many skirmishes, by representing a single moment in a single battle that in itself may have been of no particular significance. We will see, though, that a visual history that looks right to the eye in a given instant is still an image that has been put to work by specific agents. It was usually not sufficient merely to show a historical event; the artist had to make sense of it, to interpret it, to declare a position. The historia remained intact, and yet the eyewitnessed image, by virtue of its visual media, also had a stimulating effect as evidence-based history. Continue reading …

In this essay Evonne Levy examines the collision of Renaissance narrative or historia in the visual arts and the eyewitnessed event and the pressure put on that convergence by the dissemination of the latter in the new print media. The example discussed here is the Council of Trent, a storyless but signal event that conformed with difficulty to an ideal “historia,” and one that was often depicted after eyewitnessed scenes of the event had already been disseminated in engravings. The veracity of the scene captured in a print created new chains of media: prints led to paintings, and to more prints, and images led to written history, rather than vice versa.

EVONNE LEVY is Professor of Early Modern Art History at the University of Toronto. She works on the art, architecture, and historiography of the baroque in Europe and Latin America.