Despite the fact that art history beckoned to me through an Italian Renaissance piece (Masaccio’s Holy Trinity from Santa Maria Novella in Florence), I didn’t have a firm grasp on where I would land in th
e timeline of art history studies. I love John Singer Sargent, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and mostly I just liked art history after taking my survey class.
Then in the fall of my sophomore year, Agnes Scott College invited a graduate student as a visiting professor to teach “The Art of Spectacle in Baroque Rome.” I took it because it was one of two upper level art history classes semester (I took the other one too). Before we really studied the “spectacle” aspect of Baroque art, we quickly went through art historical means of looking at Baroque art, as well as actually looking at pieces.
One of the very first pieces of art that we saw in the semester was St. Cecilia by Stefano Maderno (1600) in St. Cecilia in Trastevere. The statue was made after the saint has been exhumed and supposedly her body was in perfect condition. The statue reflects her pose in her tomb. The statue subtlety shows St. Cecilia’s method of matyrdom: beheading, by having a shallow mark all the way around her neck. Her fingers are also posed to have three extended, two on one hand and one on the other, showing the trinity divided between the heavenly and the earthly.
This statue falls somewhere between the Renaissance and Baroque. Though a theatrical presentation, instead of an idealized figure, the statue lacks the dynamism of later Baroque works of art by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. But this was a moment for me. I could look at this art and see the art world hinge on a watershed moment towards Baroque excess and away from Renaissance decorum. And that’s when I knew that I would never want to be part of another period of art history.
I’ve enjoyed every art history class I’ve ever taken, including contemporary classes. And I especially appreciate the wide array of theories readily available to contemporary scholars. But what I really love in art that is widely accepted as canon and still being able to have a thought about it that is new and original.