6 November 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Elsje van Kessel (School of Art History)
In our third session, led by Elsje van Kessel from the School of Art History, we explored the possibilities and potential pitfalls of using images as historical evidence. Art exhibitions in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Paris, one of Elsje’s current research interests, served as an example of the challenges that come with the reconstruction and analysis of ephemeral events in the past. The session’s preparatory reading—the introduction (pp. 9-19) and fifth chapter (‘Material Culture through Images’, pp. 81-102) of Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (2001)—helped to identify some of those challenges.
A brief introduction round revealed that many us are working with visual evidence in one way or another. Dani Berrow (School of Modern Languages) fact-checks visual sources for a major American TV show; Sean Heath (School of History) examines the wide variety of seventeenth and eighteenth-century media, including paintings and statues, in which Saint Louis (1214-1270) was celebrated and discussed; Bram van Leuveren (School of Modern Languages) uses engravings in livrets or programme booklets of sixteenth and seventeenth-century French court festivals to reconstruct the reception conditions of theatrical entertainments.
Elsje developed an interest in early modern art exhibitions during her PhD studies at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands where she analysed the uses of paintings in the daily lives of sixteenth-century Venetians. Central to her research was the performative function of these paintings in e.g. rituals and processions. Rather than ‘mere’ representations of an empirical world, they became part of an elaborate scenario that regulated people’s viewing experience. This process can be gauged in a woodcut engraving from Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a much-copied Medieval Latin guide for pilgrims and tourists to the city of Rome, in which a priest shows an image of Christ to the faithful (see image 1). The image takes on a distinct sense of agency, as it’s not only meant to be looked upon, but also to be praised and worshipped. It evokes, in other words, the ‘immediate presence’ of Christ himself.
Image 1: Priest showing an image of Christ to the faithful (woodcut engraving from Mirabilia Urbis Romae, c. 1400).
Elsje explained that artists started to exhibit their work from the late seventeenth-century onwards. Before that time, ‘art’ (in the more general understanding of ‘artefact’) and the exhibition thereof was inextricably bound up with religion and politics, and therefore didn’t fulfil a strictly autonomous function as it would do nowadays in e.g. museums and galleries. Canaletto’s La festa di San Rocco (c. 1735, see image 2) is a good example of how a painting may function as ‘documentary’ evidence for the way in which Venetian artists displayed their work at the feast day of Saint Roch on 16 August. At the same time, we should be aware of Canaletto’s attempts to artistically enhance the scene: his painting primarily served to ‘advertise’ the annual art exhibition for British tourists. Not surprisingly, Canaletto was well-known for his architectural fantasies or capricci, which took their cue from real-world buildings and cities, but were rearranged in the painter’s imagination; see Burke, pp. 85-86.
Image 2: La festa di San Rocco, Canaletto (c. 1735, The National Gallery, London).
It was common among early modern artists to reference or ‘quote’ existing artworks—what we may call the visual equivalent of intertextuality; see Burke, pp. 96-97. Also Canaletto seemed to have included work of contemporaries in La festa di San Rocco, even though the paintings in question haven’t been identified yet. Elsje provided several other examples of the phenomenon, including Hubert Robert’s painting Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine (1793, see image 3) and David Allan’s engraving The Foulis Academy Exhibition (late eighteenth-century, see image 4). Robert, who was involved in the foundation of the Musée du Louvre himself, gives a romanticised depiction of the Grande Galerie, glorifying some of the treasures of Western civilisation: Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (right) and the Apollo Belvedere (left, note also the artist at work).
Image 3: Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine, Hubert Robert (1793, Musée du Louvre).
Allan’s The Foulis Academy Exhibition provides rare evidence of an art exhibition in Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth-century, held at the inner court of the University of Glasgow. The engraver referenced Raphael’s Transfiguration (on the right wall in the foreground) and Ruben’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den (on the tower).
Image 4: The Foulis Academy Exhibition, David Allan (late eighteenth-century, Mitchell Library, Glasgow).
Just as the historian of the early modern period (and beyond) needs to reconstruct the multifaceted contexts in which images were produced, distributed and consumed, so is the curator of buildings, gardens and (urban) landscapes required to make decisions about the kind of historical traces that she wishes to preserve for posterity. The curation team of The Loo Palace in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn, for example, recently restored the palace’s gardens to their original seventeenth-century condition. The Baroque taste of stadholder-king William III and his wife Mary II of England was thus clearly favoured over that of their nineteenth and twentieth-century successors.
To familiarise a twenty-first-century audience with a long bygone age, the curator is forced to make concessions and to use her imagination to evoke the ‘feel’ of a particular historical period; more on this in Burke, pp. 88-102. The paintings at the Château Royal de Blois, for instance, probably weren’t there 400 years ago, but they do convey a sense of ‘what it was like’ to live during that period. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe already understood ‘’wie schwer ist es (…) das Wesen immer lebendig vor sich zu halten und nicht durch das Wort zu töten‘‘ [‘’how difficult it is … to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with the word’’]; in Goethes Werke in XIV Bänden, vol. 13, ed. by Erich Trunz, Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1950, p. 492.
Elsje ended the session on a note of caution. She reminded us to always identify and locate the copyright-holders of the images you want to use in scholarly publications. Even though pre-1900 visual sources are no longer copyrighted, pictures of them probably are. Note that the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, among others, offer free public domain images.
Image 5: Elsje van Kessel.
Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith from the School of History will lead our next session on 20 November (2-4pm, Buchanan Building, room 306). ‘’Making the Archive: Storing and Retrieving your Sources’’ enables you to make informed decisions about how best to store and organize records collected from French archives. It discusses a wide range of computer-based systems (e.g. Zotero, iPhoto) and poses the question how effective these are when faced with multiple languages and archaic spellings.
Written by Bram van Leuveren