Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Timothy McCall, Sean Roberts, & Giancarlo Fiorenza, eds.


This interdisciplinary volume draws on approaches from art history and cultural studies to investigate the manifestations of secrecy in printed books and drawings, staircases and narrative paintings, ecclesiastical furnishings and engravers’ tools. (EMS 11)

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Early Modern Studies, Vol. 11

Secrets in all their variety permeated early modern Europe, from the whispers of ambassadors at court to the emphatically publicized books of home remedies that flew from presses and booksellers’ shops. This interdisciplinary volume draws on approaches from art history and cultural studies to investigate the manifestations of secrecy in printed books and drawings, staircases and narrative paintings, ecclesiastical furnishings and engravers’ tools. Topics include how patrons of art and architecture deployed secrets to construct meanings and distinguish audiences, and how artists and patrons manipulated the content and display of the subject matter of artworks to create an aura of exclusive access and privilege. Essays examine the ways in which popes and princes skillfully deployed secrets in works of art to maximize social control, and how artists, printers, and folk healers promoted their wares through the impression of valuable, mysterious knowledge.

The authors contributing to the volume represent both established authorities in their field as well as emerging voices. This volume will have wide appeal for historians, art historians, and literary scholars, introducing readers to a fascinating and often unexplored component of early modern culture.

Secrecy was a prominent concern for early modern Europeans in many walks of life, not only statesmen and princes. Artists, craftsmen and those who were their patrons were no exception, as this fascinating collection of illustrated essays consistently shows. Treating a wide range of artistic products and practices, from engraving and acting to printing, architecture and painting, Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe breaks new ground in the study of visual secrets and their unveiling, chiefly in Italy, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Interwoven with the detailed analysis of material objects and archival documents are to be found fresh insights into the discourses of early modern philosophy, medicine, religion, cartography, politics, and gender.

—Jon R. Snyder, University of California,
Santa Barbara




Introduction: Revealing Early Modern Secrecy
       Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

1    The Visual Dynamics of (Un)veiling in Early Modern Culture
       Patricia Simons

2     On the Skins of Goats and Sheep: (Un)masking the Secrets of Nature in Early Modern Popular Culture
       William Eamon

3     Secrecy and the Production of Seignorial Space: The Coretto of Torrechiara
       Timothy McCall

4    Michelangelo’s Open Secrets
       Maria Ruvoldt

5    Hebrew, Hieroglyphs, and the Secrets of Divine Wisdom in Ludovico Mazzolino’s Devotional Paintings
       Giancarlo Fiorenza

6    A Secret Space for a Secret Keeper: Cardinal Bibbiena at the Vatican Palace
       Henry Dietrich Fernández

7    Networks of Urban Secrecy: Tamburi, Anonymous Denunciations, and the Production of the Gaze in Fifteenth-Century Florence
       Allie Terry-Fritsch

8    Tricks of the Trade: The Technical Secrets of Early Engraving
       Sean Roberts

9    The Alchemical Womb: Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum
       Lyle Massey

About the Contributors



William Eamon is Regents Professor of History, Distinguished Achievement Professor, and Dean of the Honors College at New Mexico State University. He is the author of Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Europe; The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy; and over fifty articles and book chapters on various aspects of early modern science and medicine. He is also the coeditor of Más allá de la Leyenda Negra: España y la Revolución Científica. He is currently at work on two book projects: “Science and Everyday Life in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1750”; and “Discovery and the Origins of Science.”

Henry Dietrich Fernández was a senior lecturer in the Departments of Architecture and Interior Architecture for the Rhode Island School of Design. He received his BA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978, his M.Arch. from Harvard University in 1982, and his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2005, with a dissertation entitled “Bramante’s Architectural Legacy in the Vatican Palace: A Study in Papal Routes.” He published several articles on this subject, including “The Patrimony of St. Peter: The Papal Court at Rome, c. 1450–1700” (in John Adamson, ed., The Princely Courts of Europe, 1999), “Raphael’s Bibbiena Chapel in the Vatican Palace” (in Tristan Weddigen et al., Functions and Decoration in the Vatican Palace, 2003), “Avignon to Rome: The Making of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere as a Patron of Architecture” (in Ian Verstegen, ed., Patronage and Dynasty: The Rise of the Della Rovere in Renaissance Italy, 2007), “A Temporary Home: Bramante’s Conclave Hall for Julius II” (in Silvia Evangelisti and Sandra Cavallo, eds., Domestic Institutional Interiors in Early Modern Europe, 2010). His last published essay will be “Le Corbusier: Towards the Origins of Architecture” in Konrad Buhagiar, ed., “The Founding Myths of Architecture” (Artifice, forthcoming). His fellowships and awards included a Scott Opler Foundation grant and a Kress Fellowship at the Warburg Institute. Shortly before his death in 2009 he received a contract from Yale University Press for a volume entitled “Bramante and Raphael in Renaissance Rome,” which was to have been the first English language full-length study of Raphael as architect. Many of his ideas concerning the understanding of the topography and culture of early sixteenth-century Rome were synthesized by his wife, Caroline P. Murphy, in The Pope’s Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice Della Rovere (2005). He died of complications relating to Diabetes Type 2 on September 2, 2009.

Giancarlo Fiorenza is associate professor in the Department of Art and Design at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His book, Dosso Dossi: Paintings of Myth, Magic, and the Antique, was published by the Pennsylvania State University Press in 2008. He has also published essays on such artists as Primaticcio, Piero di Cosimo, and Giuseppe Cades. He is currently working on the lively cross-fertilization of the arts and humanist culture in Renaissance Bologna, and has essays forthcoming on the early mythological engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi.

Lyle Massey is associate professor of art history and visual studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective (2007) and editor of The Treatise on Perspective (2003). She has also published several articles on early modern anatomical images and gender.

Timothy McCall is assistant professor of art history in the Department of History at Villanova University, Pennsylvania. His research primarily investigates gender, power, and visual culture in fifteenth-century Italian courts. He has published in journals including Renaissance Studies and Studies in Iconography and was recently a fellow at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Forthcoming studies investigate clothing, bodies, and masculinity in fifteenth-century Italy; a related book project is entitled “Brilliant Bodies: Men at Court in Early Renaissance Italy.”

Sean Roberts is assistant professor in the Art History Department at the University of Southern California. His research interests span the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries across Europe and the Mediterranean world and include the relationship between the histories of art, technology, and ideology. He has published in journals including Imago Mundi, Print Quarterly and Renaissance Studies and is the author of Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography (2013).

Maria Ruvoldt received her PhD from Columbia University and has been assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Music at Fordham University since 2006. Her publications include The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep and Dreams (2004); “Michelangelo’s Dream” (Art Bulletin, 2003); and “Michelangelo’s Slaves and the Gift of Liberty” (Renaissance Quarterly, 2012).

Patricia Simons is professor in history of art at the University of Michigan, author of The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History (2011), and coeditor of Patronage, Art, and Society in Renaissance Italy (1987). Her numerous essays analyzing the visual and material culture of Renaissance Europe focus on the representation of gender and sexuality in such modes as portraiture, mythology, medical discourse, and humor.

Allie Terry-Fritsch is associate professor of Italian art history at Bowling Green State University. She is the author of several articles and book chapters on Renaissance viewership, including the humanist reception of Fra Angelico at San Marco, the Medici political context for Donatello’s David, and the transformation of the Bargello from prison to museum, and is the editor of Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (2012). She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Somaesthetics and the Renaissance: Viewing Bodies at Work in Early Modern Italy.”


The wide range of matters addressed in this volume makes it a fascinating and varied read for anyone interested in Renaissance culture.

—Dr. Kenneth Borris, Renaissance and Reformation, Spring 2016

This book stands out for the diversity of secrets it investigates. Yet, in all this diversity, its focus on the performance of secrecy and the sociability of secrets lends it coherence. This is a worthy addition to the growing literature on secrecy in early modern cultures of knowledge.

—Sven Dupre, Isis, 106:1, March 2015

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