Frank Fehrenbach

Frank Fehrenbach

Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Visiting Professor
The Forces of Art in the Italian Renaissance
Frank Fehrenbach


Frank Fehrenbach is an art historian whose work focuses on the relationship between art, natural philosophy, and science in early modern Europe. He published widely on Leonardo da Vinci, most recently Leonardo da Vinci: Der Impetus der Bilder (Berlin, Matthes & Seitz 2019). His most recent book Quasi vivo. Lebendigkeit in der Italienischen Kunst der Frühen Neuzeit (Berlin, De Gruyter 2021) focuses on the concept of ‘enlivenment’ in Italian Renaissance art. Fehrenbach was a senior professor at Harvard University until 2013, when he was awarded an Alexander-von-Humboldt professorship at Hamburg University. He is currently co-director there of a Center for Advanced Studies “Imaginaria of Force.”


Project Summary

Fehrenbach’s project will attempt to examine the significance of theories of force in the visual arts in Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth century. The chronological coincidence between late scholastic impetus physics, the reformulation of physical and physiological optics, and the emergence of the modern image around 1300 serves as a point of departure. In contrast to the Aristotelian theory of “non-natural movement,” impetus physics, which was dominant until the seventeenth century, claims that the motor leaves an ‘impression’ in the projectile, which gives it a dynamic surplus. One of the starting hypotheses is that the physical concept of ‘impetus’ allows us to cast a light on aesthetic experiences that can be described as cause-effect correlations without needing to resort to numinous actors (God, angels, demons, souls). Giotto, one of the pioneers of the new image and its focus on physiological impression and psychological affect, features prominently in the most influential of all art histories, Giorgio Vasari's Vite. According to Vasari, the development of painting since Giotto is based on a continuous increase in ‘forza.’ Culminating with Michelangelo, this development reaches a maximum intensity. Fehrenbach’s project aims to shed light on the complex semantic framework of powers and forces in the field of early modern art.