The Renaissance of Origins: Beginnings, Genesis and Creation in the Art of the 15th and 16th Centuries

International Symposium
Tel Aviv University – Art History Department
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – Centre d’Histoire de l’Art de la Renaissance
May 14-16, 2018 (Tel Aviv) May 28-30, 2018 (Paris)

On Tuesday, June 19 at 10:00 am, Professor Claudia La Malfa (see biography), professor of AUR's B.A. Art History, will present her paper 'Della Composizione del Mondo: Vasari and the masters vasai'at this prestigious international symposium to be held in both Tel Aviv and Paris. 


In his encyclopaedic Della Composizione del Mondo colle sue cascioni (On the Composition of the World and its Causes) of 1282, Ristoro d’Arezzo includes a long account on ancient Aretine pottery. Ristoro marvels how local artisan of the old age transformed red local clay into spectacular vases where “one can find such wonderful sculpted and incised [images] that one can determine the age of the people depicted, whether the weather is clear or overcast, and whether the figure is in the distance or nearby (se la figura parea de logne o de presso)”. These vases, that archaeologist today refer to as terra sigillata and are dated between 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D., were highly admired in the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari was well acquainted with the ancient Tuscan vases, as he was born in Arezzo from a family of potters (vasari that is in Italian those who make clay pots: vasi - vasai). He believed that Donatello’s creation of the schiacciato was due, not only to the Roman cameos, but also to the influence of “the ancient vases of Arezzo”. In the live of his grand-father Lazzaro, Vasari describes how his father Giorgio, in search of ancient models, found in the area around Arezzo an ancient oven with vases, some of which were well preserved, and how they were shown to Lorenzo de’ Medici. This paper seeks to explore how Aretine terra sigillata was crucial in the formation of the myth of a lost ancient age admired by Renaissance artists and collectors.

About the symposium

The question of origins has fascinated and provoked speculations like no other major question in the history of western thought. The possibility of revealing and illuminating what happened at the beginning of time and of reconstructing an uninterrupted chain of events relating the present to an immemorial past continues to challenge and inspire scholars. This perennial and relentless search for origins of things, humans and, above all, the universe constitutes what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “structural invariant.”

Efforts to unveil the mystery of the origins of the universe have lost none of their vigor in recent times. Astronomers and physicists, in particular, tend to announce the imminent revelation of a secret that has hitherto escaped human knowledge; however, they are hardly the only ones engage in this pursuit. The question of origins - and this is its peculiarity - straddles the confines of science and myth, reason and imagination. As Michel Cazenave reminds us, “objective knowledge of the phenomenal world often appears today as the site of an image that the visionary experiences of myth and mysticism have explored, backwards and forwards.”

From the end of the 14th century to the beginning of the 17th century, a pronounced interest in origins emerged across multiple fields of knowledge. The 15th and 16th centuries, witnessed the revival of great fresco cycles devoted to the creation of the world, inspired by sources ranging from the bible to Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid, Pimander (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) and Boccaccio. Other cycles revolved around the origins of humanity and the first human beings (focusing in particular on the figure of the "wild man.”) Pictorial cycles depicting time and the interactions of the elements that reflect the life of the cosmos as well as the power of nature were incorporated into the artificial grottos and gardens of the 16th century.

In the fields of visual arts and literature, the last three decades have seen the publication of fundamental works that have addressed the question of origins and highlighted its importance during the Renaissance. Michel Jeanneret (Perpetuum mobile. Métamorphoses des corps et des oeuvres de Vinci à Montaigne, 1997) has broadened this perspective, focusing on works that portray this meditation on “the charm of origins,” on “the mystery of birth,” on “attraction for beginnings”: in short, all this “idea of the inchoate” that lies at the heart of the humanist project of the Renaissance. For artists, portrayals of origins are often inseparable from myths surrounding the birth of art and the creation of the first works of art. This process echoes the creation of the world and its transition from chaos to cosmos, from “darkness” to “light,” from indeterminacy to achievement.

This conference seeks to introduce a variety of different approaches and interpretations of the concept of “origins” within the visual arts during the Renaissance. However, to consider the question of origins necessitates establishing a distinction between an original beginning such as the creation of the world, an event which initiated historical time, and the symbolic exercises of re-creation that follow it. These phenomena of echo or aemulatio are defined by their manifest desire to capture the primal energy of the original beginning. Such re-creations attempt to reproduce the vitality inherent in the original beginning, and are characterized, above all, by a fundamental desire to reestablish a link to an ideal and initial origin.

The question of origins prompts a wide range of ideas and notions will be examined during the conference, starting with those relating to beginnings, genesis, and creation of the world; or, in other words, all that is considered as belonging to a primordial time outside of history. A reflection on origins also entails, however, an interrogation on the very notion of history and time, of genesis and its premises, - core and cradle, cause and agent, foundation and engine, generation and genealogy, ancestry and descent, as well as touching on issues of provenance, kinship, lineage, destiny, and originality. One might ever consider archaism, derived from the Greek arkhè, which refers to both commencement and commandment. All of these notions can also be expressed visually, through iconographic as well as meta-iconographic mechanisms.

This conference seeks to reconsider the full complexity of the topic of origins in the visual arts of the Renaissance. Relying on specific case studies and close readings of works of art, we will examine the conditions underlying the emergence and existence of a figurative discourse on origins. What are the themes, motifs or figures that more specifically reflect such a phenomenon? What might be the reasons for the use of such figures related to the theme of origins? Topics of inquiry may include but are not limited to:

1. Theological representations: how did artists tackle the problem of representing the creation of the world drawing from cosmogonic accounts? What biblical or pagan sources did they turn to and how did this impact their exegesis and reinterpretation of the subjects of light and darkness, chaos, prima materia, separation of the elements, etc.

2. The origin of humanity and original humanities: how were anthropogenic narratives represented (Adam and Eve, Prometheus animating man, Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Golem, etc.)? How did representations of the “wild man” (Pan, satyrs and fauns, Man of the Woods, and indigenous peoples of the Americas in the eyes of the first Europeans, among others) feed into this.

3. The science of origins: how were the sciences deployed in works of art which depicted the order and organization of the world, as well as the process of generation - genetics - in nature. How did the burgeoning fields of mineralogy, botany, zoology, chemistry and alchemy, cosmography and astronomy (mappae mundi, grottoes, automata, etc.) interact with the question of origins in the visual arts.

4. The politics of origins: origins are always politicized. From the myth of the caput mundi (Christian golden age and renovatio ecclesiae) to the myth of the golden age (mito etrusco, etc.), what were the ideological motivations/ramifications underpinning how cities, nations and individuals represented their historical or biological origins (Michelangelo being the most celebrated example of the later)?

5. Artistic and poetic genesis: artists played on the analogy between the creation of the world and the artistic process both in the field of humanist accounts of the birth of art and in images depicting moments of artistic creation. How were the origins of art and the art of origins intertwined?

Rather than a general discourse, the conference aims to introduce papers that will disclose the common tendency of Renaissance art to focus on the poetic potentialities of origins. We seek to examine through various orientations and ramifications how the question of origins was to reemerge in the early modern period, relating to specific works of art and/or sources.