5 Feb 2014 2:00pm - 4:00pm CRASSH Meeting Room


A Mellon Teaching Seminar


Dr Alexander Marr (Department of History of Art)
Dr Mary Laven (Faculty of History)

The Sensory Renaissance

The 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 huge scholarly interest 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. But, as is often the case with a well-established locus of research, certain clichés, stereotypes and misconceptions have taken hold. The ‘Sensory Renaissance’ opens up our subject to fresh discovery 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, our focus on the five senses will allow us to engage with the process of historical interpretation in a more self-conscious and honest fashion. Moreover – and crucially – our emphasis on sensory experience offers a counterbalance to conventional accounts that have tended to overemphasize the intellectual and elite foundations of the Renaissance.  It encourages us to re-think the assumptions on which this privileged historical category rests.

The course, which is structured around the five senses, will consider some of the most innovative and challenging methods and theories in the field. 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. Studying the ‘Sensory Renaissance’ demands first-hand examination of the visual and material culture of the period. 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.

The intention of this course is to build bridges not only between history and history of art, but also to connect with literary studies and anthropology, and to engage with curators. Both convenors bring to bear their own extensive experience as interdisciplinary scholars. Alex Marr is director of ‘Seeing Things’, a programme that links Cambridge, the Huntington Library and the University of Southern California, in order to open up possibilities for graduate students and senior scholars to develop cutting-edge research on early modern visual and material culture. Mary Laven is one of the Principal Investigators of an ERC-funded interdisciplinary project entitled ‘Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home, 1400-1600’.

Several sessions of the course will be co-taught (via video link) with Prof. Andrew Morall of the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture in New York.  At the end of the course, Drs Laven and Marr will run, in New York, a collaborative workshop at the BGC (25th March) and an object sesion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (26th March), which students will be invited to attend and for which accommodation may be provided (dates tbc).



A course programme and information on how to apply for a place on the course will be posted shortly.


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk