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conference report


Conference Report

Representing Space in the Renaissance

University of Warwick (28.7.05) 

‘Representing Space in the Renaissance’ was a one-day interdisciplinary conference organised by James Brown, a PhD candidate in the department of history at the University of Warwick; it formed part of the Warburg Institute/University of Warwick Research Training Programme: Resources and Techniques for the Study of Renaissance and Early Modern Culture, generously supported by the AHRC. Drawing on and partaking of the recent ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, postgraduate speakers from the universities of Delaware, London, Paris, Sydney, Venice, Warwick and York explored the ways in which a variety of early modern literary and visual media incorporated space into their representational strategies and, in turn, what their mobilisation of spatial motifs reveals about broader cultural configurations and concerns. The day was a great success, attracting over thirty-five delegates from throughout Europe and the UK. 

The opening session, entitled ‘Space and Visuality’, addressed some uses and meanings of space in a range of visual artefacts. Denis Ribouillault (Art History, University of Paris 1) placed the genre of landscape painting in Italian Renaissance Palaces in its wider spatial context, arguing convincingly that the display of topographical landscape cycles within the physical space of a palace was often carefully calculated to create a meaningful dialogue with the urban or rural landscape visible outside. Arthur DiFuria (Art History, University of Delaware) traced the influence of perspectival ‘Serlian backdrops’ on the print designs of Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck, while Samuel Bibby (Art History, University College London) brought some recent theorisations of space and vision to bear on Fra Filippo Lippi’s Bartolini-Salimbeni Tondo. 

The second session was entitled ‘Moral Geographies’, and investigated some ways in which issues of space entered into renaissance discourses of conduct and order. Tim Reinke-Williams (History, University of Warwick) explored the persistent motif of enclosed women in Jacobean drama, while Melissa Hollander (History, University of York) offered a fascinating micro-study of how the spatial and physical composition of a Scottish household was mobilised in depositions taken in relation to a fornication case that came before the Scottish church courts in 1596. Becca Hayes (English, University of Warwick) rounded off the session with a nuanced analysis of the numerous meanings affixed to London’s ‘underworld’ in Restoration literature. 

The final session examined renaissance forms of ‘Writing Space’. Jasenka Gudelj (Art History, School of Advanced Studies Venice/University of Zagreb) explored the representational techniques employed by fifteenth-century pilgrims in their descriptions of the antique architecture and urban space of Pula in Istria (now Croatia), while Nicholas Gordon (History, University of Sydney) used the famous story of the murder of the Florentine Buondelmonte to illustrate how space as a category of experience was self-consciously manipulated by political writers for ideological advantage, especially through the strategic deployment of emotive lieux de memoire. With an engagingly literal cosmological interpretation of ‘space’, Alice Eardley’s (English, University of Warwick) closing contribution explored the use and functioning of celestial bodies in the manuscript writings of Lady Hester Pulter.

The well-attended plenary, elegantly chaired by Dr. Beat Kümin, comprised a wide-ranging consideration of the ‘value-added’ by space to discussions of renaissance history and culture in their various disciplinary manifestations. Although recognised by all present as being ‘good to think’, some limitations of spatial approaches were considered; their tendency to obscure other important facets of early modern experience (not least time), and their disposition towards unhelpful binary applications (sacred/profane, urban/rural etc). It was also suggested that ‘place’ could have been substituted for ‘space’ in many of the day’s communications; however, a strong case for space was made with reference to Michel de Certeau’s dynamic understanding of the term (space as ‘practiced place’).