Gemma Cornetti (SAS) - 2017-18 Students

The Social Life of Early Modern Italian Portrait Prints

This project proposes a fresh perspective on the study of Italian early modern print and portraiture, by drawing on the agenda of two academic disciplines: Art history and anthropology. Following the view of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai on the social life of things, this research looks at printed portraits as ‘things’ with a commodity potential. By the term commodity Appadurai means ‘things in a certain situation’, and by commodity potential, ‘the standards and criteria (symbolic, classificatory, and moral) that define the exchangeability of things in any particular social and historical context; with a focus on the things that are exchanged, it is possible to argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics, construed broadly’ (Appadurai, 1986). In this respect, the exchangeability of printed portraits consists precisely, but not exclusively, in the juxtaposition of being at the same time substitution for the person they represent and the person itself; the politics which creates a relationship between the exchangeability of printed portraits and their value is fundamentally a politics of knowledge.

My research aims at investigating the criteria underpinning the exchangeability of portrait prints and the role they played in the making and sharing of knowledge in early modern Italy. The production and circulation of such images can illuminate intersections among intellectual networks in Renaissance cultural history and consumption, which is ‘subject to social control and political redefinition’ (Appadurai, 1986).

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