The Materiality of Beauty. Approaches, Methods, and Problems in the Field of Beauty Studies

Conference report by Lisa Brunner

As is well known, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and what is considered beautiful is contextual. The itinerant symposium Medicine, Beauty, and the Body: Materials, Texts and Artifacts which took place from September 24 to 28, 2023 in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna explored this topic in an interdisciplinary way and examined the intertwining of beauty, health and medicine from antiquity to early modern Europe. The event was a cooperation between the programme “Figurations of Transitions” of the inter-university institution Science and Art of the Paris-Lodron-University Salzburg and the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, Schloss Ambras and the Museumsverband Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Not only the sheer diversity of sources in the field of historical beauty cultures became apparent, but also their circulation and transformation through time and space as well as their significance as social, political, religious, and economic variables. The practical approach of the event in particular showed new paths in the field of historical beauty studies.

The symposium dealt with the topic of beauty in various contexts, including its links to the disciplines of medicine and pharmacy. The first stop of the event was a guided tour by the historian and pharmacist Andreas Winkler through the Winkler City Pharmacy in Innsbruck. Owned by the family for several centuries, the pharmacy holds an important treasure of pharmaceutical history and, with its historical collection of pharmaceutical materials and texts, offers insights into the connection between pharmaceutical knowledge and historical beauty cultures. Beauty has been closely related to health since ancient times, because being beautiful ultimately also meant – for many centuries – being healthy. Likewise, cosmetics and medicine were interwoven and primarily concerned with achieving and maintaining natural beauty.1 The conference group took a closer look at the medical practices at the court of Archduke Ferdinand II and his wife Philippine Welser at Ambras Castle as well. Insights into early modern medical and pharmaceutical practice at Ambras are provided, among other things, by the records from Anna Welser’s medicine book, Philippine’s mother, as well as the medical objects in the Ambras collection and the ‘Bath of Philippine Welser’, both have been preserved to this day.2 In a workshop with curator Katharina Seidl, the working group was then able to gain a practical understanding of the production of early modern cosmetic products using historical recipes by Philippine Welser and her mother. Although historical recipes have aroused the interest of researchers in various contexts, their textual analysis as well as the attempt to reconstruct and examine them in laboratories have remained largely desiderata. Yet it is precisely the practical experimental approach that can provide new insights into the medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic modes of action and knowledge of earlier centuries, as the Beautiful Chemistry Project at the University of Auckland has shown in recent interdisciplinary investigations.3

Another station of the group was an open seminar at the programme “Figurations of Transitions” of the inter-university institution Science and Art (Paris Lodron University Salzburg / Mozarteum University Salzburg). In short presentations, the participants addressed questions and problems of methodological and theoretical approaches to source material in the field of historical cultures of beauty. Irene Calà (Munich) opened the discussion and explored the reception of ancient recipes in the Renaissance. She referred primarily to a work by the Italian physician Giovanni Marinello (Gli ornamenti delle donne trattì dalle scritture d’una Reina Greca, 1562). In Marinello’s writing, too, cosmetics is a branch of medicine and should support natural beauty, thus Marinello referred to ancient ideas, above all Galen. Montserrat Cabré (Cantabria), in turn, investigated the (in)visibility of female cosmetic competences in medieval and early modern texts, including writings such as Juan Vallé’s Regalo de la vida humana (1563) in her research. Cabré particularly noted the great influence of Muslim women in European texts on cosmetics. Timothy McCall (Villanova) examined the strong connection between beauty and political power in Renaissance ideals of masculinity. With his look at male beauty practices, he expanded the symposium’s field of investigation. The practices as well as recipes for the preservation of natural beauty by no means referred only to the female sex. Beauty was specifically instrumentalized to establish, support and expand political power. Using Barbara Gonzaga as an example, Christina Antenhofer (Salzburg) illustrated late medieval body care practices based on two preserved letters that provide insights into the use of certain care products – such as soaps – while travelling. Once again, during the ensuing discussion, it could be noted that personal hygiene was not a matter of gender; even for men in this period, hygiene and beauty were equally important. Erin Griffey (Auckland) focused her study on recipes for preserving youth in the early modern period. She identified myrrh, bitter almonds and milk as important ingredients in 85 collected anti-ageing recipes. The first results of her interdisciplinary research on the effectiveness of some recipes can be viewed on the project homepage Beautiful Chemistry Project as mentioned above. Katharina Seidl (Innsbruck) discussed early modern cosmetics in the pharmacopoeia by Philippine and Anna Welser at Ambras Castle. Of 258 recipes, Seidl identified 9 with cosmetic relevance and compared the described mode of action of the recipes with the explanations in well-known herbal books of the time, such as those of the Italian physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Beauty and cosmetics are always connected to a specific material culture, Romana Sammern (Salzburg) explored this connection using the example of cosmetic vessels. Sammern traced the history of the reception of these vessels from Ancient Egypt to the early modern period. The poor state of preservation, the lack of provenance research, as well as the sometimes-erroneous decoding on the use of certain objects make research on the materiality of beauty cultures considerably more problematic.

Furthermore, in the context of the discussion round, important pharmaceutical and medical writings in the possession of the University Library of Salzburg could be viewed thanks to the grateful support of Beatrix Knoll, Head of Special Collections there.

Together, the above-mentioned lecturers presented their research in a public collective lecture on the topic Doctoring Beauty. Beauty and Medicine in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe at the University of Salzburg. It became particularly clear that the topic of beauty studies touches on many different areas, such as medicine, pharmacy, alchemy, chemistry, botany, art, etc., and that interdisciplinary studies are therefore necessary for its exploration.

One of the last stops of the symposium group, was a visit to some of the medical manuscripts and books in the holdings of the Austrian National Library in Vienna focusing on the longue durée of the transmission of medical texts. Concentrating on material culture and artistic ideals of beauty, the rest of the symposium was dedicated to the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Starting with a guided tour through the exhibition Laura in Love by curator Konrad Schlegel, the group discussed then examples of beautiful bodies in paintings of the Picture Gallery and its storage with curator Gudrun Swoboda. This was followed by a tour around the Kunstkammer with curator Paulus Rainer and a visit to the Egyptian Collection and the storage with Regina Hölzl, Director of the Egyptian-Oriental Collection. Members of the group gave presentations on key artworks and objects related to beauty, highlighting how artists reflected and shaped beauty ideals in a range of media.

Above all, the itinerant symposium showed that not only interdisciplinary approaches are necessary for researching historical beauty cultures. Moreover, cooperation with non-university institutions such as libraries, archives, museums, and private individuals is equally important and profitable for research. Cultures of beauty have an astonishing history, whose knowledge and materials circulated, transformed, and were received in the most diverse forms and circles in different times and spaces.

Rechte: CC-BY 4.0

Empfohlene Zitierweise: Lisa Brunner: „The Materiality of Beauty. Approaches, Methods, and Problems in the Field of Beauty Studies“, in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2023, S. 1-4. DOI: 10.25598/transitionen-2023-5 <>

  1. Irene Calà: „Some Cosmetic Recepies in Medieval Texts of Late Antiquity. Treatments for the Face in the Libri Mediciales of Aaetius Amidenus“, in: Meridies. Estudios de Historia y Patrimonio de La Edad Media 9 (2020), p. 2–14, here p. 3. []
  2. Katharina Seidl: “Leibärzte und medizinische Praxis am Hof Erzherzog Ferdinands II. im Spiegel der Ambraser Sammlungen”, in: In fürstlicher Nähe – Ärzte bei Hof (1450–1800), ed. by Marina Hilber, Elena Taddei, Innsbrucker Historische Studien 33, Innsbruck 2021, p. 111–126. []
  3. Erin Griffey: “Beautiful Experiments. Reading and Reconstructing Early Modern Cosmetic Recipes”, in: Embodied Experiences of Making in Early Modern Europe. The Body, Gender and Material Culture, ed. by Sarah Bendall and Serena Dyer, Amsterdam (forthcoming). []

LUCIFER sehen und lesen. Ein Blatt zu Dantes Inferno ca. 1595

Close Reading von Friederike Wille

Cornelius Galle (I) nach Cigoli: Lucifer, um 1590/1600. Kupferstich, 275 × 200 mm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. Bildnachweis: Public Domain
Cornelius Galle (I) nach Cigoli: Lucifer, um 1590/1600. Kupferstich, 275 × 200 mm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. Bildnachweis: Public Domain

Vor uns liegt ein Kupferstich auf Papier: er misst 27,5 cm in der Höhe und 20 cm in der Breite, ein handlich-mobiles, druckgraphisches Objekt also. Am unteren Rand, innerhalb des von feinen Linien markierten Druckrahmens der Platte, stehen die drei Signaturen der an der Produktion des Blatts Beteiligten: „L.Cigoli Florent. figuravit. Cornelius Galle sculpsit. C.Galle excudit“, entwerfender Florentiner Künstler („figuravit“), Kupferstecher („sculpsit“) und Verleger („excudit“). Das Blatt befindet sich heute im Amsterdamer Rijksmuseum.1

Ein geringfügig kleinerer, beschnittener Druck (26,2 cm × 19,3 cm) im British Museum in London trägt am unteren Rand nur die Marke des Verlegers aus Nürnberg: „B. Caimax excudit“.

Der in Florenz und Rom aktive Maler Ludovico Cigoli (1559–1613) hatte um 1595, wohl in Florenz, Zeichnungen als Vorlage für den Stich angefertigt.2 Er greift mit seiner Teufelsfigur eine Figuration Giovanni Stradanos von 1588 auf,3 die wiederum, nicht im Detail, aber in der monumentalen Anlage der Figur des Satans auf Botticellis Zeichnung vom Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts rekurriert.4 Vermutlich sollten die dann gestochenen Blätter zunächst als eine Art Anschauungsmaterial im Rahmen akademischer Vorlesungen und Debatten über Dante dienen. Gegen Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts waren regelrechte Wort- und Argumentschlachten unter Florentiner Intellektuellen, vornehmlich an den neu gegründeten Sprachakademien, um den Stellenwert von Dantes Dichtung im Allgemeinen und um die konkreten Formen seiner poetisch konstruierten Jenseitsräume im Besonderen ausgetragen worden. Das Londoner Blatt, in Nürnberg gedruckt und verlegt, zeigt, dass Cigolis gestochener Lucifer um 1600 auch überregional reüssierte: ein gleichsam intellektuell eingehegtes und doch ästhetisch eindrücklich neu formuliertes Bild des Teufels Dantescher Lesart, das im Medium des Kupferstichs Verbreitung findet.

In der Art eines Palimpsests wird das eigentliche „Bildnis“5 im monumentalen Urformat von seitlich abblätternden Papieren, die über das Bild geschoben scheinen, überlagert. Sie versuchen mit ihren Textkommentaren den die Betrachter*innen direkt und bedrohlich adressierenden Lucifer gleichsam zu zähmen: Lucifer scheint situiert in einer berechenbar gewordenen Hölle: Zeichnungen von Grund- und Aufriss des Danteschen Infernos sollen die Orientierung im Höllentrichter erleichtern und Lucifers Position am tiefsten Punkt dieser Geometrie bestimmen helfen. Auf dem rechten Dokument wiederum ruft der lateinische Text die poetisch fiktive Wanderung der beiden Dichter Dante und Vergil durch die, in der Commedia trista conca“ genannte Hölle auf6 und datiert sie markant und präzise durch die fett gedruckte Jahreszahl in der vorletzten Zeile in die Karwoche des Jahres 1300.

Die Figur des riesenhaften Lucifer, isoliert vor dunklem Grund, beherrscht die Komposition. Er blickt mit weit aufgerissenen Augen aus dem Bild. Seine zottige, bekrallte Linke greift in Richtung der Betrachter*innen und öffnet damit den Bildraum nach vorn. Aus seinen Schultern und der Brust wachsen die dramatisch beleuchteten Fledermausflügel, die, wie Dante beschrieb, beständig schlagen und den eisigen Wind erzeugen, der das dicke, transparente Eis am tiefsten Punkt der Hölle erzeugt.7 In diesem Eis steckt auch Lucifer selbst. Nur seine Büste mit den Flügeln ragt über dem gefrorenen Kozytus auf: „Der Herrscher des Schmerzensreiches ragte mit der halben Brust aus dem Eis hervor; und eher noch könnte ich mich mit einem Riesen messen, als die Riesen mit seinen Armen: Stell Dir jetzt vor, wie groß das Ganze sein muss, zu dem ein solcher Teil gehört!“ (Inferno 34, 28–33). Das Bild zeichnet nicht die erzählerische Perspektive des Jenseitswanderers nach, sondern kommt gleichsam dessen Aufforderung nach – vedi oggimai (Inferno 34, 32) – und stellt das ganze riesenhafte „Geschöpf, das einmal schön von Ansehen war“,8 das nun aber im Eis und im Mittelpunkt der Erde feststeckt, vor Augen. Der Spiegel des zugefrorenen Kozytus liegt wie ein scheibenförmiger Ring um Lucifers behaarten Körper. Von der Brust bis zu den Knien steckt er in der transparenten picciola spera (Inferno 34, 116), der in die Fläche des Bildes projizierten, gefrorenen Sphaira, die ihren Namen vom größten aller Sünder, dem Verräter Judas trägt: Giudecca (Inferno 34, 117). In ihr sind die Verdammten, die als Verräter an ihren Wohltätern den Tiefpunkt in Dantes Sündenhierarchie bilden, in unterschiedlichsten Haltungen starr auf immer eingefroren. Judas selbst wird von Lucifer zermalmt, auf ewig. Aus dem Maul ragen nur die Beine dieses schlimmsten aller Verräter.

In der Mitte der durchsichtigen Eiskugel und im genauen Zentrum des gesamten Blattes ist, anstelle des Geschlechts Lucifers, das CENTRUM MUNDI im Oval der Inschrift in Großbuchstaben markiert: Der Dreh- und Angelpunkt des Universums ist auch der des Blattes: centrum ist lesbar, wohingegen mundi auf dem Kopf steht.9 Um das Bild im Sinne von Dantes Commedia weiter lesen zu können, müsste das Blatt um 180 Grad gedreht werden. Die Klauenfüße Lucifers, wenn wir für einen Moment noch im Kippbild der ersten Ansicht bleiben, ragen in den dunklen Grund einer Felshöhle, der „natural burella“ (Inferno, 34,98), im Innern der südlichen Erdhalbkugel. Lucifer, der so drohend aus dem Bild blickt, steckt unbeweglich im tiefsten Punkt des Universums und gleichzeitig auch in der geometrisierten Ordnung des Bildes fest. Er ist stumm. Und, wie Dante es beschreibt, laufen ihm Tränen aus den Augen. „con sei occhi piangea, e per tre menti gocciava ‘l pianto“ (Inferno 34, 53–54). Erst jetzt erkennt man auch die beiden seitlichen, schmalen und komplett verschatteten Profile des teuflischen Dreikopfs.10 Cigoli hat nur das mittlere Antlitz beleuchtet und mit Hörnern versehen. So hat er ein Gesicht Satans, des großen Widersachers, geschaffen11 und den Betrachtenden damit ein kommunikatives Gegenüber zu sehen gegeben, das bei Dante so nicht angelegt war.

Wohl auch erst auf einen zweiten Blick erkennt man die beiden Jenseitswanderer aus der Commedia an diesem gigantischen Teufelskörper: Dante und Vergil, beide lorbeerbekrönt als Dichter apostrophiert, sind wiederkehrend als winziges Figurenpaar gezeigt und wie in Traktat-Illustrationen zum besseren Verständnis mit D und V markiert. Die hier im Bild auch das menschliche Maß verkörpernden Figuren aus der Literatur erscheinen diesem exorbitant großen Riesen gleichsam angeheftet: Zuerst direkt vor der Brust Lucifers auf dem zugefrorenen Kozytus: Vergil schultert den ängstlichen Dante. Dann zwängt sich das Paar zwischen Eisfläche und Teufelskörper, um weiter unten schon halb gedreht zu Seiten des centrum mundi ans Fell des Riesen geklammert zu erscheinen. Schließlich, und dazu muss man das Blatt nun drehen und Lucifer auf den Kopf stellen, sieht man, dass Vergil Dante auf dem Felsen abgesetzt hat und beide dann weiter oben, neben den Krallen des Ungeheuers, dort wo Licht auf den Felsen fällt, den Aufstieg zur Oberfläche der südlichen Hemisphäre beginnen. Die Dynamik der ursprünglich sprachlichen Schilderung der dramatischen Reise durch den Erdmittelpunkt am Körper des Teufels erscheint hier übersetzt in die äußerliche Handhabung des physischen Blattes. Auch erst jetzt, in dieser um 180 Grad gedrehten Position des Stichs, kann man den dritten lateinischen Text lesen, der plan im Blatt verankert, nicht abblätternd, die Beschreibung von Lucifers aus dem Eis aufragenden Oberkörper nach Dante präsentiert: zur Authentifizierung des zuvor schon Gesehenen nennt die vierzeilige Inschrift den Namen des Autors und die konkrete Stelle im Werk: „Dante Alegherius, cap 34 Inf. canit videsse…“. „Dante Alighieri singt im 34. Kapitel des Inferno, dass er gesehen hat, wie der 4000 Fuß in die Höhe aufragende Lucifer den Kozytus in der Mitte durchbohrt“ und wie die sechs beständig schlagenden, knorpeligen Fledermausflügel das Land gefrieren lassen, das nach Judas benannt ist. Ausführlich sind die drei Gesichter beschrieben, die am Kamm des Schädels zusammenlaufen und es ist der Hauptsünder Judas benannt, der Kopf voran im Maul des Teufels steckt. Schwarz auf weiß und schattenlos liest man jetzt nach, was in der ersten Ansicht des Blattes, plastisch und raumgreifend figuriert im dramatisch beleuchteten Helldunkel des Blattgrundes, bereits ins Auge gesprungen war.

Der originale, volkssprachliche Text von Dantes poema sacro ist auf dem Blatt im Wortlaut so gut wie nicht präsent. Wie gesehen, wird Dantes Beschreibung des „imperador del doloroso regno“ (Inferno 34, 28), des Herrschers der Hölle, aus dem letzten Gesang des Inferno nur verkürzt und in lateinischer Gelehrtensprache paraphrasiert präsentiert. Nur ein einziges wörtliches Zitat aus der Commedia, die „TRISTA CONCA“ (Inferno 9, 16) ist auf dem rechten sich aufrollenden Blatt in Majuskeln ausgestellt. Links gegenüber am Bildrand, auf dem identisch sich aufrollenden Dokument, wird der poetischen Rede von der „düsteren Mulde“12 ein Klarheit und Überblick suggerierendes Höllendiagramm mit Index entgegengesetzt. Dantes für die Imagination der Lesenden offene Begriff der CONCA ist auf unserem Blatt augenfällig der starren Geometrie von Schnitt und Grundriss des Höllentrichters konfrontiert. Der Architekt und Mathematiker Antonio Manetti aus Florenz, der in der Inschrift figuriert, hatte Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts die Gestalt der Hölle als Trichter zu rekonstruieren und ihre Ausmaße zu berechnen versucht.13 Und auch der junge Galileo Galilei will in einer Florentiner Vorlesung 1587, mit dem Arm des Riesen als Maßstab, Dantes Hölle mathematisch exakt erfassen.14 In diesem Klima entwarf Cigoli unser Blatt. Die Figur des Teufels mit ihren weit aufgerissenen Augen scheint sich allerdings von den angehefteten Kommentaren, Beglaubigungen und Schemata emanzipiert zu haben, ja sich sogar gegen den literarischen Text, der sie geschaffen hat, zu behaupten als zentrale Figur der hybriden Komposition: über die imposante Gestalt ist denn auch hell vor dunklem Grund aufleuchtend das Wort LUCIFER in der Art einer Capitalis monumentalis gesetzt. Dante hatte seinen „Herrscher des Schmerzensreichs“ an keiner Stelle der Commedia Lucifer genannt. Vergil spricht von ihm als „Dis“: „Ecco Dite“ (Inferno 34, 20) stellt er ihn dem Jenseitswanderer vor. Dis ist für Vergil der Name des Gottes der Unterwelt, das lateinische Pendant zum griechischen Pluto. Auch vermo, Wurm,15 nennt ihn die Commedia und „Belzebù“ (Inferno 34, 127), aber nicht Lucifer.16 „Wenn er denn einst so schön war, wie er jetzt hässlich ist, und dennoch gegen seinen Schöpfer die Brauen hochzog, dann muss ja aus ihm alles Böse hervorgegangen sein“ (Inferno 34, 28–30). Dante spielt also neben all den anderen Assoziationen durchaus auch auf den hochmütigen Lucifer an, den vor seinem Fall hellsten und schönsten aller Engel und damit Geschöpf Gottes. Aber individuiert und beim Namen genannt wird er bei Dante explizit nicht. Und, anders als auf dem Stich, auch nicht zur genaueren Betrachtung ausgestellt: Vergil mahnt vielmehr zur Eile: „doch die Nacht steigt wieder herauf, es ist nunmehr Zeit, dass wir weggehen, wir haben ja alles gesehen“ (Inferno 34, 68–69). Der dauerhaft und sichtbar in schwarz und weiß und allen Schattierungen dazwischen argumentierende Kupferstich hingegen, stellt knappe 300 Jahre nach Dantes literarischem Entwurf Lucifer gut beleuchtet zur eingehenden Betrachtung aus. Er legt ihn wörtlich in die Hände von Betrachter*innen, die Lucifer nun gestochen scharf sehen, die aber auch die sprachlichen Glossen lesen können, indem sie das Blatt immer wieder drehen und somit um den Mittelpunkt der Erde kreisen.

Die Teufelsgestalt auf unserem Blatt setzt auf Überwältigung und Affizierung der Betrachter*innen, die sich von ihr direkt, im Blick und durch die Geste, adressiert sehen: das personifizierte Böse als veritables, nahsichtiges Gegenüber.17 Dies bedarf zunächst weder einer Vermittlung durch Texte, noch der Filterung durch die Person des Dichters. Unter den Text- und Kommentarschichten, unter dem nacherzählten Plot der Geschichte und mathematischen Beschreibungen, kommt also das nahezu Inkommensurable selbst als Bild zum Vorschein und lässt Schriftdokumente, die Zahlen und Daten nennen, gleichsam sich aufrollen und abblättern. Und doch figuriert Lucifer nur als Geschöpf und Gegenstand von Texten auf einem Blatt in der Größe einer Buchseite: Dante fingit, Dante canit, Manetti descripsit.18 Das ist der Rahmen, in dem der papierne Lucifer seinen Auftritt hat, trotz seiner ästhetisch reich orchestrierten visuellen Präsenz.

Um 1600 endet eine erste fulminante Bildgeschichte der Commedia.19 Das Blatt zieht noch einmal Text, Kommentar und Bild zusammen. Es thematisiert Maßstäblichkeiten und Relationen, auch der Rezeption, indem es oszilliert zwischen protowissenschaftlicher Aneignung, literarischer Paraphrase und visueller Anschauung eines eigentlich Unschaubaren. Eine eigene Art von Evidenz entsteht zwischen dem Sichtbaren und Sagbaren in dieser komplexen Komposition, die Lucifer sehen und erlesen lässt.



„Dantes Aligerius cap. 34. Inf. canit vidisse se Luciferum longitudine pedum 4000. medium perforantem Cocytum. Sunt autem sex eius alae instar vespertilionis catilagieae triplici vento congelatae: três vero unius capitis fácies horrenda sub cristã iunguntur. dextra earum lutea; laeva aethiopis instar prorsus nigra; media, quae et anterior, rubicunda est. singula capita proditorem dentibus ut aridum linum disrampunt. Iudas Iscariotes capite inverso unguibus insuper dilaniatur: a quo infima Cocyti glacies sphaerica nuncupatut Iudecca: quo in loco suoram proditores dominoram defixi torquentur.“


„Damnatos ob admissa per incontinentiam fingit Dantes in superiori eaque dimidia inferae vallis parte: ab eo dicta TRISTA CONCA. Damnatos autem ob admissa per pravitatem et feritatem, in infima inferorum parte, quam urbem Ditis appellat. Sed poêtis ad Luciferum venientibus, Virgilius Dantem sibi brachiis collo innexis a tergo adhaerentem humeris tulit; perque costarum villos, usque ad medium Luciferum (ubi est centrum mundi) cum eo descendit: turn capitibus, ubi Poetaram pedes erant, circinando et inter vellera prorependo locatis, per femoris pilos cum eodem Dante ascendens in oppositum nobis Haemispherium ad Luceferi crara Dantem adduxit sub Occasum isthic, nobis sub ortum Solis. A feria 2. maioris hebdom. an. sal. 1300. cum dies 7. huic itineri impendisset, ipso Paschatis die se in caelum pervenisse Dantes confinxit“


„Sciographia et Ichnographia dimidiae urbis Ditis, prout è Dantis poëmate descripsit Ant. Manettius Florent. A. Circus v. irae, styx palus. Β. Moenia urbis igne candentia. C. Circus vi. Haereseos et coemiterium pomoerii. D. Circus vii. violentia in tres gyros distinctus. E. Circus viii, fraudis in X bulgias. F. Circus ix. proditionis Cocytus in 4. sphaeras glaciei circa centram mundi. G. Gigantum puteus. H. Flegia navicula. I. Minotauras. K. Turris Eumenidum. L. Porta urbis Ditis. M. Geryon poetas per aërem humeris ferens.”

Editorial Peer Review
Rechte: CC-BY 4.0

Empfohlene Zitierweise: Friederike Wille: „LUCIFER lesen und sehen. Ein Blatt zu Dantes Inferno ca. 1595“, in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2022, S. 18. DOI: 10.25598/transitionen-2022-3 <>

  1. Siehe auch: Manfred Sellink: „Lucifer“, in: Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 35,2 (1987), S. 91–104. []
  2. Rote Kreide, Feder in brauner Tinte, blau laviert, 26 × 20 cm, Florenz, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi (GDSU 8951 F): vgl.: Michael Brunner: Die Illustrierung von Dantes Divina Commedia in der Zeit der Dante-Debatte (1570–1600), München 1999, S. 306–307. Sowie GDSU 123201 F: braune Tusche, laviert mit den flankierenden Textblättern (blank) seitlich angedeutet, hier auch bereits der Titel LUCIFER). Vgl. Jasmin Mersmann: Ludovico Cigoli. Formen der Wahrheit um 1600, Berlin 2016, S. 90–100. []
  3. Florenz, GDSU 2739F. []
  4. Vgl. Hein-Th. Schulze Altcappenberg (Hg.): Sandro Botticelli. Der Bilderzyklus zu Dantes Göttlicher Komödie, Berlin 2000, S. 130 – 131. []
  5. Vgl. Daniel Arasse: Bildnisse des Teufels, Berlin 2012. []
  6. Dantes fingit“ in der Mitte der ersten Zeile und „ab eo (Dante) dicta TRISTA CONCA“ am Anfang der zweiten Zeile. []
  7. Inferno 34, 48–52: „Segel auf dem Meer sah ich noch nie so groß, Federn hatten sie nicht, vielmehr waren sie wie bei den Fledermäusen. Und er schüttelte sie so heftig, dass dreifacher Wind davon ausging. Daran lag es, dass der Kozytus völlig gefroren war.“ Prosaübersetzung von Hartmut Köhler: Dante Alighieri, La Commedia, I Inferno, Stuttgart 2010. Auch alle folgenden Übersetzungen, wenn nicht anders angegeben, von Hartmut Köhler. []
  8. Inferno 34, 18: la creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante. []
  9. Dante verlegt den Mittelpunkt der Welt vom Omphalos, dem Nabel, nach weiter unten, dorthin „wo Schenkel und Hüfte sich treffen“, Inferno 34, 75–78. []
  10. Als pervertiertes Spiegelbild der göttlichen Trinität, zusammengesetzt aus dem ethnischen Material der Ökumene: „oh wie groß war nicht mein Befremden, als ich an seinem Kopf drei Gesichter sah. Eines vorne und das war rot (…) das rechte schien gelblich weiß; das linke glich denen, die dort hausen, wo der Nil herabfließt.“ Inferno 34, 37 – 45. []
  11. Vgl. zu Geschichte, Etymologie und Theologie der Namen Satan, Teufel, Lucifer z.B.: Luther Link: Der Teufel. Eine Maske ohne Gesicht, München 1997 oder Kurt Flasch: Der Teufel und seine Engel. Die neue Biographie, München 2015. []
  12. Übers. v. Kurt Flasch: Dante, Commedia. In deutscher Prosaübersetzung, Frankfurt 2011, S. 40. []
  13. Girolamo Benivieni: Dialogo di Antonio Manetti cittadino fiorentino circa al sito, forma et misure dell’Inferno di Dante Alighieri poeta excellentissimo, Anhang der Giunta-Edition der Commedia, Florenz 1506. Vgl. Henrik Engel: Dantes Inferno. Zur Geschichte der Höllenvermessung und des Höllentrichtermotivs, München 2006, hier S. 75–86. []
  14. Vgl. Jasmin Mersmann: Ludovico Cigoli. Formen der Wahrheit um 1600, Berlin 2016, im Kapitel Dichtung und Wahrheit. Die Vermessung der Hölle, bes. S. 94–95. []
  15. „…che ´l mondo fora“ Inferno 34, 108 []
  16. In den Kommentaren allerdings, etwa im ottimo commento von 1333, wird die Teufelsgestalt bereits als Lucifer bezeichnet, „l’angelo tenebroso Lucifer“, vgl. Dartmouth Dante Project [], ottimo commento zu Inferno 34, 68–69. []
  17. Bei Dante ist das ganz anders beschrieben und so auch z.B. von Botticelli dargestellt: Satan ist vollkommen mit dem Zermalmen der drei schlimmsten Verräter der Weltgeschichte, Brutus, Cassius und Judas, beschäftigt, eine introvertierte Maschinerie des ewigen Bestrafens. Er nimmt keine Notiz von Dante und Vergil. []
  18. Vgl. die Inschriften des Blatts. []
  19. Vgl. Friederike Wille: „Dante in der bildenden Kunst“, in: Dante. Ein offenes Buch, Ausst.-Kat. Weimar, hg. v. Edoardo Costadura u. Karl Ph. Ellerbrock, Berlin, München 2015, S. 59–73. Gleichzeitig beginnt mit dem späten 16. Jahrhundert eine andere Geschichte des Teufels: er wird „zu einer zentralen diskursiven Größe“ in Teufelsbüchern, Hexen- und Dämonenschriften, vgl. dazu (und zum Teufelsbündner Dr. Johann Faustus) Christian Kiening: Erfahrungen der Zeit 1350–1600, Göttingen 2022, insbes. das Kapitel Teuflische Zeit, S. 237–248. []

The idea of “modern art” in Renaissance Italy

Essay by Robert Brennan

The Italian Renaissance has long been studied as a point of origin for “modern” ideas about art. This approach, which can be traced back to figures like Giorgio Vasari and Jacob Burckhardt, remains central in scholarship on Renaissance art to this day. For example, on the first page of a recent textbook on Italian Renaissance art, Stephen Campbell and Michael Cole begin by laying out two contrary views of the period. To Renaissance writers like Lorenzo Ghiberti, they explain, the Renaissance meant the rebirth of classical antiquity; “to others, however, it has seemed that the importance of Italian art after about 1400 lay not in its return to origins but in the emergence of something entirely new and characteristically modern – the idea of art itself.”1

In recent decades one of the most widely influential representatives of this latter view has been Hans Belting’s classic book, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, in which the Renaissance marks a period of transition from “the era of images” into “the era of art.”2 In the Middle Ages, Belting argues, a principle function of images was to embody the unmediated presence of the sacred, but this function was disrupted by the Renaissance and Reformation, when images instead came to be treated as works of art, governed by conventions of authorship and aesthetic interpretation. 

While this outlook has certainly made a lasting contribution to Renaissance art history, it has also given rise to certain blind spots and misconceptions in the field. For example, it is often assumed that the word “art” underwent a radical change of meaning in the Renaissance, anticipating the later, post-Enlightenment notion of the “fine arts” as an autonomous field of creative activity.3 However, close readings of period texts often suggest the opposite. Michael Cole, for example, drew this conclusion in his important study of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini: “Cellini’s art and writing suggest that the kind of practical reason that Aristotelian tradition had long associated with the mechanical arts is the kind of thinking that really matters.”4 Hans Belting made a similar observation about Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550/68), the most canonical history of art written during the Renaissance. In Vasari, Belting writes, the Italian word arte “carries the double meaning of a learnable craft and an objective science”: in other words, it continues to operate within the established, medieval scheme of mechanical and liberal arts.5 For this reason, Likeness and Presence was explicitly not about the “idea” of art, but rather the “function” of art: Belting’s argument, ultimately, is that the Renaissance began to treat images as art before it was possible to describe them fully as such.6

My recent book, Painting as a Modern Art in Early Renaissance Italy, takes a different approach to these traditional themes. Rather than seeking out correspondences between Renaissance and modern ideas about art, it accepts the definition of “art” (ars) found in Renaissance sources, and strives to understand how artists and writers of the period themselves thought about the prospect of “modern art” (ars moderna). Focusing on a group of sources written between the 1390s and 1440s, it finds that throughout this period, the idea of art remained remarkably consistent with standard definitions passed down from medieval times. That is, art continued to be conceived as recta ratio factibilium: a phrase that can be translated loosely as “the right way of making things” – the surest, straightest path to the best results.7

Art historians have traditionally dismissed this concept as irrelevant to the analysis of painting and sculpture, arguing that it defines art as a mere means to an end, encompassing what would today be classified as “skills,” “crafts,” “technologies,” and scholarly “disciplines,” rather than singling out the distinctively “aesthetic” qualities of painting or poetry.8 These objections are valid to an extent, but they fail to recognize the intricacy of the medieval concept and its centrality to the practice of painting in the period. While it is true, for example, that virtually any field of productive activity could be conceived as an art in the Middle Ages, boundaries still existed between art and non-art, such that it was possible to paint with or without “art,” and similarly, to evaluate paintings with or without the criteria specific to “art.” 

In Painting as a Modern Art, I argue that this type of distinction meant a great deal to Italian artists and scholars in the early phases of what we now call the Renaissance. To see this in practice, we can compare two sources written in Italian around the 1390s, one by a painter, Cennino Cennini, and the other by a literary writer named Franco Sacchetti. Both discuss the historical legacy of Giotto, the famous Florentine painter who died in 1337, and both situate Giotto’s legacy in relation to “modern” developments in painting. However, they do so in starkly different ways.

Cennini describes Giotto as the founder of a modern “art”: in his words, Giotto “changed the art of painting from Greek into Latin and made it modern.”9 He makes this statement in a handbook on painting that is largely concerned with practical instructions, such as how to grind pigments, how to prepare a panel, and how to apply paint. As I show in my book, however, the form and conceptual parameters of Cennini’s text are the same as those in a wider genre of medieval handbooks on the “arts” (artes), and within this genre, there was already a well-established sense of what it meant for an art to be “modern.” Within this paradigm, to make an art modern was to put it on a new foundation in “science” (scientia) and rationalize its procedures accordingly, aligning the step-by-step process of production with the same underlying chain of cause and effect that lent structure and order to the workings of nature itself.

Cennini explicitly presents Aristotelian color theory as a foundation for the art of painting.10 The difference he describes between the “Greek” and “modern” art also corresponds with a concrete, step-by-step difference in the application of color, as becomes evident on comparison with a recently rediscovered fragment from a Byzantine treatise on painting.11 In the case of painting faces, for example, the Byzantine method distributes a variety of subtly contrasting hues across the shadows and highlights, as if to evoke the shifting, contingent appearance of a face in everyday conditions of ambient and reflected light. By contrast, Cennini’s method aims to paint how color ought to behave according to science – a pure, harmonic relation of hues, uncorrupted by the contingencies of perception. The difference thus reflects the way Cennini defines the “task” of painting in his prologue: “to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural phenomena, and to fix them with the hand, presenting what does not actually exist.”12

A very different view of modern painting arises in the second source on Giotto’s legacy mentioned above: a short story (novella) written by Franco Sacchetti in the 1390s.13 Sacchetti recounts a debate held among the leading Florentine artists of the mid-fourteenth century as to who the greatest painter had been aside from Giotto. Alberto Arnoldi, a prominent sculptor of the time, “resolves” the debate by arguing that a group of “modern painters” had in fact superseded Giotto: the women of Florence, experts in their use of makeup. In support of this claim, Alberto embarks on a long, detailed description of the feats of modern makeup: the improvement of complexion, the straightening of the nose, the reshaping of the eyes, the softening of the chin line, and so on. 

As I show in the book, each and every one of these cosmetic transformations corresponds with a conspicuous visual difference between “Greek” and “modern” paintings – a correspondence that has to be understood in light of the broader trajectory of painting in this period. Before Giotto’s lifetime, for example, the Virgin Mary had typically appeared as a venerable old matron, her neck, hair, and forehead hidden behind hoods and undergarments in the traditional Byzantine manner. Giotto was among the first Italian painters of his time to reveal her hair, and in his wake, the Virgin was increasingly represented as an attractive young maiden. Indeed, by the middle of the fourteenth century – when Sacchetti’s story was set – the costumes of fashionable young ladies in paintings had become virtually indistinguishable from those of the Virgin herself. Against this background, Alberto’s speech amounts to a fairly accurate description of one prominent aspect of modern painting. As he puts it, painting was getting better and better simply because it was depicting more and more beautiful people: people with better-shaped faces and blonder hair. 

In Sacchetti’s story, the leading painters of Florence all react to this view as a ludicrous joke – an utterly laughable way of looking at modern painting. The speech must therefore be understood as ironic, targeting a certain way of seeing and understanding modern painting, rather than the achievements of modern painters themselves. The implication is as follows. If modern painting was merely a matter of physical beautification, then recent, more “modern” painters could in fact be considered superior to Giotto. By the same token, however – and this was truly deplorable in the eyes of a misogynist like Sacchetti – modern painting would amount to little more than cosmetics. In the end, the object of Sacchetti’s criticism is an outlook that conflates the beauty of paintings with the beauty of the people that they represent, failing to recognize the intrinsic character of painting as an “art.”

What divides these two accounts of Giotto, then, is the concept of “art” itself: Cennini sees Giotto through the lens of “art,” whereas Sacchetti parodies a way of praising him that leaves “art” entirely out of the equation. A historical relationship between art and modernity thus emerges from these sources that has nothing to do with the birth of a new, distinctively modern idea of art. Rather, in both cases, it is the medieval concept of art as recta ratio factibilium that shapes and conditions what it means to be “modern.” For in this period, as throughout the Middle Ages, the word “modern” was still commonly used in an entirely prosaic way, synonymous with words like “recent.” In this sense, by 1350, the figures in more recent paintings really did look more charming, more fashionable, more beautiful than in Giotto. To insist that Giotto remained “modern” for decades and even centuries after his death was to cut against the grain of the word, prolonging the present that it encompassed. Cennini achieves this by locking Giotto’s legacy into what we might call an artificial present – a present palpable only to those familiar with the terms of the art. 

Further reading: Robert Brennan, Painting as a Modern Art in Renaissance Italy (London: Harvey Miller, 2019) 

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Citation: Robert Brennan: The idea of “modern art” in Renaissance Italy, in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2021, S. 1-5. DOI:10.25598/transitionen-2021-2. <>


  1. Campbell, Stephen and Michael Cole: A New History of Italian Renaissance Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 2012, p. 10. []
  2. Belting, Hans: Bild und Kult. Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, Munich: C.H. Beck, 1990; id.: Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. []
  3. E.g. Kristeller, Paul Oskar: “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (I)”, in: Journal of the History of Ideas 12.4 (October 1951), pp. 496-527, and “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (II)”, in: Journal of the History of Ideas 13.1 (January 1952), pp. 17-46; Shiner, Larry: The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. []
  4. Cole, Michael: Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 159. []
  5. Belting, Hans: The End of the History of Art?, trans. Christopher Wood, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 74. On this point, see further Rubin, Patricia: Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 234-48. []
  6. Belting’s hesitation on this issue is evident in the “Forward” of the book. See Bild und Kult, 1990, p. 9: “Die ‘Kunst,’ wie sie der Autor hier verstehen möchte, setzt die Krise des alten Bildes und seine Neubewertung als Kunstwerk in der Renaissance voraus,” followed by the qualification: “Schon im 11. Jahrhundert besaß man in Byzanz eine philosophische Ästhetik des Bildes, wie sie der Westen erst in der Renaissance entwickelte.” In the English edition, by contrast: “Art, as it is studied by the discipline of Art History today, existed in the Middle Ages no less than it did afterwards. After the Middle Ages, however, art took on a different meaning and became acknowledged for its own sake…” (Belting, Likeness and Presence, 1994, p. xxi). []
  7. For a representative overview of such medieval definitions, see Merle, Hélène: “Ars: Usages du mot ars de l’Antiquité classique au XIIIe s.”, in: Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 28 (1986), pp. 95-133. []
  8. E.g. Schapiro, Meyer: “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” (1947), in: M.S.: Selected Papers: Romanesque Art, New York: George Braziller, 1993, p. 24; Ackerman, James: “On the Origins of Art History”, in: J.A.: Origins, Invention, Revision: Studying the History of Art and Architecture, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016, p. 21. []
  9. Cennini, Cennino: Il libro dell’arte, ed. by Fabio Frezzato, Vicenza: N Pozza, 2003, p. 63; id.: The Craftsman’s Handbook, trans. by Daniel V. Thompson, New York: Dover Publications, 1960, p. 2. []
  10. Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, ed. Frezzato, 2003, p. 88; Cennini, The Craftman’s Handbook, trans. Thompson, 1960, pp. 20-21; see Brennan, Painting as a Modern Art, 2019, pp. 61-66, and passim. []
  11. Parpulov, Georgi R. (i.a.): “A Byzantine Text on the Technique of Icon Painting,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 64 (2010), pp. 201-16. []
  12. Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, ed. Frezzato, 2003, p. 62; Cennini, The Craftman’s Handbook, trans. Thompson, 1960, p. 1. []
  13. Sacchetti, Franco: “Novella 136”, in: Il Trecentonovelle, ed. by Davide Puccini, Turin: UTEP, 2004, pp. 412-15; transl. in: F.S.: Tales from Sacchetti, trans. by Mary G. Steegmann, London: L.M. Dent & Co., 1908, pp. 114-16. []

“Art and Defects” in the Eye of a Beholder

Conference Report by Bob Muilwijk

The conference „Kunst und Gebrechen“ („Art and Defects“), which was scheduled from March 19th to March 21st and then postponed due to Covid-19, finally took place from November 5th through to November 7th. The second lockdown of the year in Austria demanded an altogether different setting than originally intended by the organizers Hildegard Fraueneder (Universität Mozarteum)Nora Grundtner and Manfred Kern (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg). Luckily, the online environment they provided for the conference proved an excellent alternative framework, save for the occasional turned off microphone giving the fitting illusion of mute speakers or deaf audiences.

The conference had a clear biographical focus: Most of the fourteen presentations sought to disentangle the influence any clear “defects” artists might have had on their work or their reception. Of course, this already poses a problem that many of the speakers addressed: the idea of “defects” presupposes a teleological norm, be it physical, mental or concerning age or gender, from which it is possible to deviate. A defect is a defect first and foremost in the eye of the beholder and, as Manfred Kern mentioned in his introduction, it can be seen not just as an impediment, but as a catalyst for artistic expression, too. As Dutch footballer Johan Cruijff once succinctly put it: “Every disadvantage has its advantage.”

Regarding deviation from a physical norm Nelly Janotka (Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte München) started out by discussing performances and works by Lisa Bufano, Mari Takayama and Stelarc in her opening presentation. By integrating prosthetics into her performances, which purposefully do not conform to the normative “whole” body, Bufano questions the necessity of such a norm, while Takayama creates self-portraits without any prosthetics and thus seems to ask a similar question: Must the “incomplete” body complete itself? Australian-Cypriot Stelarc, finally, with his attempt to permanently attach a prosthetic third arm to his body, seems to go above and beyond any possible norm for the human body.

Janotka’s presentation laid out three main variables that would define the following presentations: 1. What genre of art are we discussing? 2. What kind of “defect” is in play? 3. Is the “defect” positively or negatively connotated? 

Occasionally, presentations neatly clustered themselves with regard to these variables. This was, for example, the case with the literary and filmic depictions of blind female composer Maria Theresia Paradis and the sculptural and graphic depictions of deaf male composer Ludwig van Beethoven discussed by Julia Hinterberger (Universität Mozarteum) and Max Pommer (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena) respectively. While Paradis’ rise to musical fame was facilitated by her blindness, which made her eligible for financial support by empress Maria Theresia and an ensuing musical education, being both a blind and a female composer also rendered her something of a curiosity. (Such links between gender and reception were also the subject of Romana Sammern’s  (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) presentation on the biographies of female artists from the Renaissance up to now.) Klinger’s 1902 Beethoven sculpture, in a similar vein, bears testimony of his interpretation of the composer’s deafness as a final step in an artistic apotheosis, which is meant quite literally. In this, the sculptor draws on a long 19th century tradition including Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche, who all see Beethoven’s deafness as enabling rather than disabling: losing his hearing allowed him to “turn his eyes inwards”. As such, his “defect” places Beethoven not below, but above the normative “whole” man – the artist and his art start to transcend humanity, as portrayed by Joseph Adolf Lang in his 1905 aquatint “Beethoven in den Wolken thronend” (“Beethoven enthroned in the clouds”).

At this point, it should be pointed out that positively connoted “defects” seem more common in the discussed artists than negatively connoted ones, which probably has to do with a survivorship bias with regard to artistic reception. We simply do not notice those artists who failed to make it to the big league because of their “defects”.

This was made clear, too, by Peter Deutschmann (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg), who, starting out from Nikolaj Gogol’s short story Šinel’ (The Overcoat), discussed the three stuttering Russians Jurij Lotman, Michail Gasparov and Vladimir Sorokin. Lotman’s adage that “the best speaker is a bad speaker” because a bad speaker has to constantly think about what he is saying, surely makes sense in his particular case, but does not, for example, hold true for the classical philologist and verse theoretician Gasparov, whose lectures Deutschmann had attended in Moscow with no little amount of astonishment that the university let this man teach at all. In reciting verse, however, Gasparov’s stutter disappeared all but completely, which supports a hypothesis that his “defect” led him to grow to such great heights as a scholar of literature. 

One is tempted to say that if someone achieves something while suffering from a “defect”, we (both the artists or, in this case, the scholars themselves as well as their audience) reflexively fall back into the assumption that every part of a story should have a narrative function – indeed, we fall back unto Nietzsche’s problematic quote, that “[t]hat which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

That such a reflex has a long tradition was illustrated by Georg Danek’s (Universität Wien) presentation on poets as seers in the epics of Greek antiquity. In the Odyssey, the blind singer Demidocus is portrayed as having received his talent for singing from the gods, who also (but not in turn!) robbed him of his eyesight. A similar binary opposition is present in the lame god Hephaestus, who nevertheless is the most fabled artist of all gods. This link between good and bad “gifts from the gods” becomes explicit in the Homeric figure of Tiresias, whose blindness is not just juxtaposed with his ability as a seer, but paradoxically connected to it in some sort of an exchange deal. Regarding Homer himself, who is traditionally portrayed as blind, too, a similar mechanic seems to be in play: the poet becomes a vātes – through his blindness. 

Dorothea Weber (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) consequently picked up the thread with Lucretius, while highlighting for example Democritus’ self-blinding in order not to impede his mind’s eye with his physical ones, as well as the link between poetry and philosophy on the one hand and insanity on the other made by Saint Jerome in his comments on Lucretius. This “knowledge” of Lucretius’ insanity, although first purported nearly five centuries after his death, influenced his reception: the poet-pilosopher was both admired and dismissed for being insane.

With their presentations both Gregor Schuhen (Universität Koblenz-Landau) and Jana Graul (Universität Hamburg) stayed in the realm of reciprocity between artistic genius and “defects”. Schuhen bridges the apparently wide chasm between Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus: Both in Cervantes’ early 17th century novel as in Mann’s adaptation of the Faustian story, Schuhen highlights a process which he calls “genius through insanity” – Mann has his protagonist Adrian Leverkühn purposefully infect himself with syphilis, which is referred to in the novel as the “genius-bestowing disease” [1]-. (This matches Mann’s view that physical discomfort is a boon for artists, which he expressed in several theoretical writings.) Here the intentional seeking out of a “defect” in the hopes for artistic productivity sets these works apart from others, whilst clearly placing them in a tradition that is already familiar with the positively connoted “defective artist”. Offering a third glance at this tradition after Danek and Weber, Ronny F. Schulz (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel), while not causally linking artistic skill and “defect” to one another, pointed out the prevalence of physical disability as a sign of poetic potency in 13th century German language poetry –  even when, similar to Mann’s Leverkühn, such “defects” are achieved by automutilation, as is the case in Ulrich von Lichtensteins Frauendienst (Service of Ladies).

Graul on the other hand reflects on both negative and positive consequences of the constant exposure to the risk of wavering health for artists in the early modern period, like Michelangelo. One can compare this mechanism to Thomas Bernhard’s excessive productivity, which he himself attributed to his ever impending death caused by his chronic lung disease.

Céline Roussel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) finds a similar positive twist to the “defect” of blindness in the works of blind authors Jacques Lusseyran, John Martin Hull and Georgina Kleege. Their “defect” is no totally inhibiting hindrance, but adds new dimensions to their literary work – they not only normalize blindness, but draw artistic force from it. 

Subsequently, Daniel Ehrmann’s (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) presentation, which focused mainly on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Friedrich Schiller and Adalbert Stifter, was something of an anomaly, because none of these three suffered from any “defects” that normally would have hindered them in their mode of artistic expression. That Lichtenberg suffered from quite serious physical deformities and that Schiller got severely ill, but survived, did not impede their possibility to write, but nevertheless limited their choice of genre (Lichtenberg’s decision for the aphorism, for example, in the eyes of Goethe) or influenced their productivity (Schiller’s increased output after his disease). Stifter’s case is particularly unusual, because in keeping a meticulous diary on his perfectly fine health, which he mostly describes as “good” or “very good”, he begins to perceive himself through this own writing as generally unhealthy: the non plus ultra of his self-diagnoses is not “healthy”, but “as if I were healthy”. That Stifter eventually commits suicide leaves Ehrmann and us in an interesting reversal to wonder not whether a “defect” influenced his writing, but if his writing himself created a “defect”.

An opposite view with regard to a reciprocity of artistic genius and “defects” was also offered. In his presentation on Spanish painter Francisco Goya, Andreas Emmelheinz (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) resists such assumptions – in Goya’s case, of a correlation between his concept of artistic melancholy and his sickness and conditions of old age. These do not heighten his productivity or raise the quality of his work – he simply “keeps growing older, but continues to learn”. The frequently made link between Ingeborg Bachmann’s “defects” and her work, too, was problematized by Marlen Mairhofer (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg). The reflex-like reading of Bachmann’s works as “pathotexts”, Mairhofer professes, deprives the author herself of her voice (which becomes replaced by the voices of any possible “defects”) and the reader of an adequate reading of her work. Emmelheinz and especially Mairhofer thus offered a refreshing counterpoint to seeing artists’ “defects” as a primarily positive influence on artistic expression on the one hand and at least as an indispensable tool to understanding their work on the other.

The conference thus spanned multiple artistic genres and offered plenty of different approaches to the subject. While broadening its scope even more might not have been beneficial, there were several i’s that remained undotted: I am thinking here, for example, of the categories ethnicityclass and perhaps religion. Concerning the first category one could discuss Polish poet Julian Tuwim, whose mastery of the Polish language is occasionally connected causally to his Jewish heritage: that he was no “real Pole” allowed him to write in ways “real Poles” could not. Such a trope is problematic, because it is generally agreed upon nowadays that ethnicity cannot be “defective”, but these mechanisms nonetheless are reminiscent of those discussed over the course of the conference and have been at play in the reception of artists for centuries. One could make a similar case about late Danish poet Yahya Hassan, who, being of Palastinian descent and raised in one of Denmark’s poorer neighborhoods in a Muslim family, deviates the literary establishment’s “norm” in more than one. Here, as, for example, with Maria Theresia Paradis, intersectionality enters the picture. In any case: while focusing on the artist’s “defects” can be productive (especially in regard to an artist’s reception), this also carries in itself the risk of clouding a perhaps clearer view of the artist’s work, which, in the end, is autonomous, too

Being organized in the framework of the cooperation between the Universität Salzburg and the Universität Mozarteum entitled “Wissenschaft und Kunst” (“Knowledge and the Arts”), such autonomous art was also originally intended to be an equally important part of the conference as the presentations. In this case, too, Covid-19, threw a spanner in the works. Although this “defect” could not be remedied, the conference, which took place under difficult circumstances, definitely met the high expectations it had raised.



[1] Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus. Translated from the German by John E. Woods. New York, Vintage 1999, p. 248.

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Empfohlene Zitierweise: Bob Muilwijk: [Tagungsbericht] “Art and Defects” in the Eye of a Beholder. Bericht zur Tagung „Kunst und Gebrechen“ [Veranstaltung des Programmbereichs “Figurationen des Übergangs”, interuniversitäre Kooperation “Wissenschaft und Kunst” zwischen Universität Salzburg / Universität Mozarteum, 5.-7.11.2020, Salzburg], in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2021, S. 1-5. DOI: 10.25598/transitionen-2021-1 <>

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