The Sensual Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance played a critical role in the construction of the modern disciplines of History and History of Art and remains one of the great landmarks in our construction of the European past. As a topic, it continues to attract a high number of graduate students, working across the disciplines of social history, political history, intellectual history, the history of art and architecture, visual and material culture, modern languages, literary studies, and the history and philosophy of science. In Cambridge, this ongoing popularity reflects the strong and well-established presence of Italian Renaissance scholars in the Faculties of Architecture and History of Art, Modern and Medieval Languages, and History, as well as those based at the Fitzwilliam Museum. And yet, despite this high density of scholars and students with shared interests, never before has the opportunity arisen in this University to offer an interdisciplinary graduate course on the Italian Renaissance.

We propose a course that will offer a new, interdisciplinary account of the Italian Renaissance, making best use of Cambridge’s intellectual and material resources.  Its aim is fourfold.  First, to challenge traditional presentations of the Renaissance by introducing students to the most recent developments and methods in the field.  Second, to present information in a period-sensitive way that respects actors’ categories.  Third, to draw upon cross-disciplinary expertise in the University and to integrate currently under-utilised research resources (especially from University Museums) into the course.  Fourth, to provide graduate students opportunities to undertake guided research on primary sources in Cambridge, especially objects and images in the University Museums.

To achieve these aims, the course will approach the Renaissance through the lens of sensuality and the syllabus will be structured around the five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.  The course will be centred on Italian material (a reading knowledge of Italian will not be necessary) but will, where appropriate, branch out to other regions in Europe for the purposes of comparison and contextualisation.  Approaching the Renaissance through sensuality has many benefits.  First, it will introduce students to some of the field’s most up-to-date and challenging methods and theories. As our indicative bibliography shows, the Renaissance sensorium has undergone energetic examination in recent years by scholars from a wide range of disciplines and remains a topic of great potential for further research.  Participants will examine, through focused case studies, such interdisciplinary topics as embodiment, gender and sexuality, visual and material culture, and religious experience, and will be introduced to unfamiliar primary sources.

The five senses allow us to consider the Renaissance through period-appropriate categories and structures that were familiar to and actively discussed by contemporaries at many levels of society. While we cannot hope to eliminate anachronism from our perceptions, by organising our syllabus in this way we seek to encourage students to engage with the process of historical interpretation in a more self-conscious and honest fashion.  Moreover – and crucially – sensuality offers a counterbalance to conventional accounts that have tended to overemphasise the intellective and elite foundations of the Renaissance.  It will encourage students to re-think the assumptions on which this privileged historical category rests.

Studying the Renaissance through the senses demands examining the visual and material culture of the period, providing an opportunity to deploy Cambridge’s rich primary sources in this area.  Students will be taught through direct engagement with objects in the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Whipple Museum, and the University Library’s Special Collections, including prints and paintings, ceramics, glassware and woodwork, scientific instruments, and rare books.  Additionally, students will have the opportunity to undertake guided, focused research on individual objects in University collections, presenting their work to the conveners and their peers at the end of the course.


Research Interests

My work is grounded in the social and cultural history of early modern Italy and Europe, and I have particular interests in religion, gender, sociability, and material culture. My first book, Virgins of Venice, explored the experience of women living in convents at the time of the Counter-Reformation. Published by Penguin, and translated into seven languages, it was awarded the 2002 John Llewellyn Rhys prize. My second book, Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East emphasises the importance of miracles, gifts and friendship to the Jesuits' mission. Awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, I am on leave during the period 2011-14 and am now pursuing a new project: ‘Objects of Devotion: The Material Culture of Italian Renaissance Piety’. I am also one of the Principal Investigators of an interdisciplinary project, funded by the European Research Council: 'Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Renaissance Italian Household'.


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