Eyewitnessing Through Prints

Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of the Council of Trent

by Evonne Levy

The essay begins:

I look at a good painting . . . with as much pleasure as I take in reading of a good story [historia]. Both are the work of painters: one paints with words, the other tells the story with his brush. —Leon Battista Alberti

What happened when the most important genre of Renaissance painting, the historia (a “visual history”), built its images on scenes of eyewitnessed current events disseminated in the new medium of print? Is it a coincidence that a new claim to the eyewitnessing of current events in paint occurred in the fifteenth century, around the time that print made such palpably new histories available to a wide audience? While this essay will not undertake to prove that mechanical reproducibility put pressure on the historia to disseminate events as they appeared and as they happened, it will attempt to show the transformative encounter of these two things. A series of representations of a signal historical event enables us to see the convergence of the eyewitnessed image and print in action, and I propose to treat the meeting of the Council of Trent (1545–63) as my example, in part out of perversity. This event, which was in reality a visually uninteresting series of meetings (rows of people talking) spanning decades, was represented in a way that was both more textured and detailed than previous such scenes. And the long arc of time over which the council met was dealt with visually by representing what appears to be a single moment, a radical (and arbitrary) condensation in pictures—in a manner equivalent to the boiling down of a long war, with its many skirmishes, by representing a single moment in a single battle that in itself may have been of no particular significance. We will see, though, that a visual history that looks right to the eye in a given instant is still an image that has been put to work by specific agents. It was usually not sufficient merely to show a historical event; the artist had to make sense of it, to interpret it, to declare a position. The historia remained intact, and yet the eyewitnessed image, by virtue of its visual media, also had a stimulating effect as evidence-based history. Continue reading …

In this essay Evonne Levy examines the collision of Renaissance narrative or historia in the visual arts and the eyewitnessed event and the pressure put on that convergence by the dissemination of the latter in the new print media. The example discussed here is the Council of Trent, a storyless but signal event that conformed with difficulty to an ideal “historia,” and one that was often depicted after eyewitnessed scenes of the event had already been disseminated in engravings. The veracity of the scene captured in a print created new chains of media: prints led to paintings, and to more prints, and images led to written history, rather than vice versa.

EVONNE LEVY is Professor of Early Modern Art History at the University of Toronto. She works on the art, architecture, and historiography of the baroque in Europe and Latin America.

New Special Issue, Representations 145

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 145, Winter 2019 (available free for a limited time from UC Press)

Special Issue
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

“If, as this issue suggests, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.” —from the editors’ introduction

The volume, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz, defines the category of “visual history” and introduces its operations in essays dealing with the impact of visual narratives on and within their historical contexts. It proposes that visual histories can be seen not simply as guides to the times, but as  guides to time itself.

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Upcoming in Representations 146: The Social Life of Pain: a special issue edited by Rachel Ablow, who provides an introduction, including essays by Darius Rejali on truth and torture, Nancy Scheper-Hughes on social representations of pain and the kidney trade, Mitchell Merback on pain and memory in the formation of early modern habitus, Shigehisa Kuriyama on the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of “good” pain, and an interview with Elaine Scarry. Coming in June.

 

Sneak Peak: Visual History Special Issue

Coming in March! (watch this space)

Representations 145
SPECIAL ISSUE
Visual History: The Past in Pictures
edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz

 

 

 

 

 

The following is adapted from the introduction to the issue by its editors, Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz:

Visual histories—pictorial accounts of the past—are as old as art, but they have been little recognized as constituting their own genre.

In the Western tradition, visual histories have since early modernity played an important role in geographic and economic expansion, imperialism, and capitalism and in the global circulation of information through reproducible media, from the printing press to photography, film, and digital media. As such, the rise and spread of visual history has an important legacy for contemporary culture. We see the news more than we read it; historical fictions and documentaries play on screens small and large to enormous audiences; new museums dedicated to national and world heritage exhibit the past and visualize historical narratives primarily through combinations of objects and images. The essays in this special issue of Representations, taken together, also delineate a centuries-long trajectory of visual history; one that has been variously embraced, ignored, and challenged by different audiences. There is little doubt that the contemporary digital-image revolution makes us now, more than ever, both able to see the long life of visual history and curious about its workings.

In proposing and exploring the notion of visual history, we aim to contribute to the study of images in the broadest sense, addressing all pictures and formats across categories such as fine art, popular or folk art, and nonart. Central to our approach is the belief that images not only reflect or provide access to a period’s views but also actively participate in creating those views in the first place. As the essays in the volume suggest, the history of images has an impact on the making of other images, which itself constitutes a valuable record of people’s past actions in the world. Additionally, the essays we present here investigate how images shape meaningful change rather than embodying, containing, or reflecting changes that happen elsewhere. Visual history is thus particularly important because it suggests that images have shaped how people lived in earlier times as much as they can be used in the present to address other issues that concern students of the past, among them evidence and truth claims, the organization and presentation of knowledge and information, and temporality and the experience of spatial and temporal distance.

If, as we suggest, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.

Table of Contents

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Pan-Optics Symposium at UC Berkeley March 6

 

Pan-Optics: Perspectives on Visual Privacy & Surveillance

March 6, 2014; Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall, 10:30-4:30

Advances in drone aircraft, networked cameras, and recent disclosures about the NSA’s international and domestic surveillance activities have stimulated public protests, outrage from activists, and new policy discussions among elected leaders. This symposium will highlight emerging perspectives on visual privacy and consider the state of the art from a variety of disciplines and professions, including technology, journalism, filmmaking and the arts.

Among the many presenters and panelists are Rebecca MacKinnon, Senior Research Fellow at the New American Foundation; Trevor Paglen, artist and social scientist; Ken Golberg, Faculty Director of the CITRIS Data & Democracy Initiative; and Kriss Ravetto, Director of the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures at UC Davis and author of the “Shadowed by Images: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and the Art of Surveillance” (Representations 111, Summer 2010).

For further information and to register, visit bit.ly/pan-optices2014.