Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series. All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings. A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.
“Look But Don’t Touch: Sight-Touch Paradigms in Early Modern Architecture,” the project that I will pursue under a CRASSH/EMSI fellowship, examines an historical paradox underpinning our familiar emphasis on the isolated hegemony of vision. From museum displays to art historical study, we are well-accustomed to spoken, written, and implied instructions to look but not touch. Museums often exhibit objects in glass cases that prevent us from using both eye and hand, while images of objects projected onto a lecture hall screen allow us to see details that cannot be simultaneously reached with our hands. This repeated preference for a separation of eye and hand, however, developed out of an unprecedentedly close pairing of sight and touch in the wake of seventeenth-century scientific empiricism and the accompanying instruments of investigation. Before the seventeenth century, the viewer had stood at a distance from the surrounding environment, as philosophers and theologians argued that eye and ear – perceiving through light rays and vibrating particles – offered the most accurate sensory data. When philosophers began to pair eye and hand, examining the nature of each, they correspondingly splintered human perception into discrete moments and modes of comprehension; touch offered a finite range of data from immediate physical contact, while sight extended far into the distance. These philosophical discussions became a widespread basis for rethinking design and reception of the physical environment, for architects reworked building theory and design precisely in terms of the contrast between specific place and more far-reaching space and the corresponding sequence of moments of perception. The architectural book shifted from abstract design principles to the building history of a particular site, for instance, and mirrored interiors displayed and then denied spatial expansion. I consider this early modern shift in expectations of visual experience through a series of intertwined case studies across Italy, Austria, France, and England.