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Ekphrastic Image-making in Early Modern Europe and the Americas

Posted By Arthur J. DiFuria, Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Updated: Sunday, May 7, 2017

In epideictic oratory, ekphrasis is typically identified as an advanced rhetorical exercise that verbally reproduces the experience of viewing a person, place, or thing; more specifically, it often purports to replicate the experience of viewing a work of art.  Not only what was seen, but also how it was beheld, and the emotions attendant upon first viewing it, are implicitly construed as recoverable, indeed reproducible.  Ekphrasis describes the object of sight in vivid, imaginative, even hyperbolic terms, bodying it forth as something that having once been viewed, is now presently viewable or, better, visualizable, in the form of an image.  For this reason, the artisanal processes of drawing, painting, or sculpting were sometimes troped as instances of ekphrastic image-making; and conversely, ekphrasis could stand proxy for the making of images in various media.  This is to say that ekphrasis—as a rhetorical device, and as an analogue to a wide range of medially specific processes—operates complexly in the registers of time (making past experience present), affect (recovering and restaging affective experience), and mimesis (fashioning an image of something seen, or an image of a work of art).

 Ekphrasis was integral to the reception, discourse, and production of early modern art and poetry.  Amongst theoreticians and historians of art, Antonio di Tuccio di Manetti, Giorgio Vasari, Karel van Mander, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Arnold Houbraken, to name but a few, deployed the ekphrastic mode to richly varied effects. Moreover, one could plausibly argue that many examples of early modern art operate ekphrastically: they claim to reconstitute works of art that solely survived in the textual form of an ekphrasis; or they invite the beholder to respond to a picture in the way he responds to a stirringly ekphrastic image; or they call attention to their status as an image, in the way that ekphrasis, as a rhetorical figure, makes one conscious of the process of image-making; or finally, they foreground the artist’s or the viewer’s agency, in the way that the rhetor or auditor is adduced as agent of the image being verbally produced. Specific examples abound: the smooth yet virtually haptic surface textures of paintings by Jan van Eyck, the drolleries of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, the impossible architecture of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the anthropomorphic devices embedded in landscapes by Herri met de Bles, the antiquarian architectural fantasie of Maarten van Heemskerck and Hans Vredeman de Vries, or Francesco Borromini’s ‘moving’ concavities and convexities confronted viewers with visual and bodily experiences that call quotidian regimes of perception and cognition into question, challenging them to impose order by describing that novel experience in the form of an ekphrasis. In this particular sense, ekphrasis could operate as a normalizing instrument. Implicit in such uses of ekphrasis is the paragone of word and image, text and picture. Contrariwise, other kinds of picture or building proved resistant to ekphrastic manipulation, just as certain kinds of verbal image were neither visually nor spatially translatable.

 This session invites an expansive range of approaches to the ekphrastic tradition. Topics could include but are not limited to: the local origins of the ekphrastic tradition in various major artistic and literary centers such as Florence, Rome, Paris, and the Low Countries; the ekphrastic mode—be it visual or verbal—as courtly panegyric; ekphrastic responses to travel by artists and / or patrons, and in particular, ekphrastic responses to the new world; ekphrastic descriptions of buildings, ancient and modern, in architectural treatises; ekphrasis as an expression of antiquarianism and humanism both in text and in image; the visual functions of ekphrasis as an epideictic or probative instrument; ekphrastic accounts of historical events and the pictorial and sculptural images generated by these descriptions; the use of ekphrasis in the discourse and art of contemporary image debates; the relation of ekphrastic description to the use of topoi in early modern art writing; the human figure as a locus of ekphrastic display; landscape as an alternative locus for such display; ekphrasis in the service of the sacred; the role of ekphrasis in visual and textual exegesis; the operations of ekphrasis within patronage, collecting, and the art market; the form, function, and meaning of ekphrasis within various poetic-pictorial modes, such as the lyrical or the epic; ekphrasis as an emblematic device; and the intimacy of ekphrastic descriptions in epistolary writing.

Papers will be considered for publication in an anthology on the topic.

Send an abstract of no longer than 150 words and and CV to Arthur J. DiFuria ( and Walter S. Melion (

Deadline: June 2, 2017. 


Tags:  antiquarianism  Art History  artistic process  Early Modernity  ekphrasis  epideictic  hyperbole  image and text  making  mediality  reception  rhetoric  visualization 

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