Purity and Contamination in Renaissance Art and Architecture

Purity and contamination have long figured in the accounts of the European Renaissance. Scholars, in the last few decades alone, have mapped the role these ideas have played in debates about godliness and sin, cleanliness, gender, and ethnicity, among other domains. Less thoroughly studied, though, is how these two intertwined categories informed European approaches to art and the built environment, both as it was created and experienced. It is precisely this lacuna that our conference aims to address.

As a concept and a practical concern, purity preoccupied early modern Europeans fundamentally, touching virtually every aspect of their lives. Its impact is apparent in phenomena ranging from efforts to keep liturgical practices untainted to theoretical distinctions between good and bad government. Purity was also imbricated with the desire to banish craft from art, as well as with claims about the primacy of vision over other bodily experiences. Meanwhile, the pure ‘stuff’ of art and architecture—alabaster in Spain, Carrara marble, or Istrian limestone, for instance—could be yoked to local or national identities. And worked immaculately, it could connote physical hygiene, flawless genealogy, or spiritual sanctity. For some, purity has even figured as the defining concept of the Renaissance, distinguishing that period from those before or after.

Where pure materials might be associated with nature, their contaminated counterparts more often aligned with culture. Indeed, art itself was sometimes deemed contaminated, with the human hand cast as a foreign agent that transformed—and thus tainted—nature’s raw materials. If contamination, following this logic, allowed makers to supersede nature, it also fed broader anxieties about trustworthiness, transparency, and decorum. In the marketplace, for example, adulteration and counterfeiting—contamination’s offspring—were topics of perennial concern: influencing, among other things, the measures Europeans took to guarantee the genuineness of their wares, whether through seals, stamps, or signatures. In other contexts, contaminated materials might be likened to witchcraft, alchemy, physical decay, or foreignness. Yet such discourses—indeed the very idea of what contamination was—differed dramatically from one place or institutional context to another. And certain practices even confounded these distinctions entirely.

Taking ideas like these as a point of departure, this one-day conference plots some of the myriad ways in which concerns for material purity—and contamination—shaped the artistic and architectural pursuits of early modern Europeans. The aim is not to treat these phenomena comprehensively, or to fit them within a coherent framework, but rather to recover historical instances in which they assumed particular salience: in the materials that practitioners adopted; in how they manipulated them; and in the responses (physiological, verbal, textual) that such activity provoked. To this end, participants will present case studies drawn from diverse periods and places in multiple practices, teasing out the contradictions and complexities inherent in early modern approaches to matter, but also the broader conceptual and ideological conditions that determined how matter was defined and understood.

A concluding roundtable will bring together a distinguished group of scholars and museum curators to debate the methodological strengths and limitations of the two categories, as well as their relevance beyond the domain of Renaissance studies.

This event is the Fall 2016 New England Renaissance Conference. It is co-organized by Lauren Jacobi (Assistant Professor, HTC, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Daniel Zolli (Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Research Institute), sponsored by MIT's Department of Architecture and School of Architecture and Planning, and generously supported by a Council for the Arts Grant and a HASS Award.

Registration and Admission

Registration is required to attend this event as space is limited.  It opens in early August and closes on Sept. 20, 2016

Conference Schedule

9:00 am .. Check in

9:30 am .. Welcome: Arindam Dutta (MIT) and Touba Ghadessi (NERC/Wheaton College) and Introductory Remarks: Lauren Jacobi (MIT) and Daniel Zolli (The Getty)

9:50-11:10 am .. Session I: Liquidity and Materiality

  • Moderator: David Karmon (Holy Cross)
  • 9:50 Joseph Ackley (Barnard) — Perceiving Gold in Fifteenth-century German Painting and Sculpture: The Hallwyl Reliquary in Appearance and Substance
  • 10:15 Amy Bloch (SUNY, Albany) — The Practice of Goldsmithery and Fifteenth-Century Florentine Sculpture
  • 10:40 Michael Waters (Columbia) — Cannons, Columns, and Candelabra: Objects of Interchange in Late Fifteenth-Century Italy
  • Discussion

11:20 am .. Keynote Address: Felipe Pereda (Harvard) — Carnal Blood, Spiritual Milk, and the Politics of Purity in Early Modern Spain

12:10-1:15 pm .. Lunch Recess

1:15-2:15 pm .. Session II: Place and Placelessness

  • Moderator: Stephanie Leone (Boston College)  
  • 1:15 Niall Atkinson (University of Chicago) — Taking Architectural Theory on the Road: Renaissance Travelers and the Geographic Imagination
  • 1:40 Cristelle Baskins (Tufts) — Who is a Habsburg Now? Transculturation and the Early Modern Maghreb
  • Discussion

2:15-3:45 pm .. Session III: Hybridity and Hybrid Practices

  • Moderator: Jessica Maier (Mount Holyoke)
  • 2:15 Carolyn Yerkes (Princeton) — Inhabited Sculptures, Lethal Weapons
  • 2:40 Lorenzo Buonanno (UMass, Boston) — Taming the Chimera: Jacopo Sansovino and the Rhetoric of the Hybrid
  • 3:05 Christopher Nygren (University of Pittsburgh) — The Splendor of Impurity: Painted Stones and the Matter of Early Modern Art
  • Discussion

3:45-4:15 pm .. Afternoon Intermission

4:15-5:15 pm .. Session IV: Finishing

  • Moderator: Nathaniel Silver (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)
  • 4:15 Rachel Boyd (Columbia) — Pulitezza: The Shining Surfaces of Della Robbia Sculpture and Their Renaissance Connotations
  • 4:40 Carolina Mangone (Princeton) — Displaying Michelangelo’s Non-finito: Erosion, Accretion, Excavation
  • Discussion

5:15-6:00 pm .. Roundtable

  • Moderator: Jodi Cranston (Boston University)
  • Michael Cole (Columbia)
  • Caroline Jones (MIT)
  • Joseph Leo Koerner (Harvard)
  • Pamela Smith (Columbia)
  • Luke Syson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • Jane Tylus (NYU)

6:00-7:00 pm .. Meet and Greet 

Registration is required.