Helen Hills

Helen Hills

Robert Lehman Visiting Professor
Silver and salvation: the transformationality of silver ca. 1500-ca. 1750


Helen Hills is Professor of History of Art at the University of York. Her principal research interests include baroque and the inter-relationships amongst architecture, art, religious devotion, gender, politics and materiality, with particular interest in the marginalized and the marginalizing processes of art history. Books include The Matter of Miracles: Neapolitan baroque architecture and sanctity (Manchester University Press, 2016); Invisible City: The Architecture of Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan Convents (Oxford University Press, 2004) Best Book Prize USA Society for the Study of Early Modern Women; Rethinking the Baroque (Ashgate, 2011); New Approaches to Naples (2013); and Representing Emotions (2005)

Project Summary

Contemporary scholarship bifurcates silver geographically and temporally. On one hand, silver’s extraction in the so-called ‘New World’ is interpreted in political, ecological and sociological terms, in relation to world trade, the rise of capitalism and displaced labour.  But silver in Europe becomes objects to be appreciated, measure of wealth and refinement. Thus in travelling from Potosí across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe silver changes appearance, language, and disciplinary field—that is, epistemologically-- and the affect and politics of silver fall out of the picture in an inert ‘finished’ object. My project investigates silver as more than means or measure of empire and more than mere object of luxury, to ask how might these two stories, these two sides to the same coin, be brought together. How and why did silver extracted by force from the earth in the Andes become par excellence the marker of social, political and perhaps above all spiritual refinement in Europe? I am interested in how silver effaces its own traumatic history through discourses of refinement, brightness, and holiness. In this sense, trauma is also the trope of return, of recurrence and of a history that fails to connect shininess with its tarnish. Thus I investigate silver and salvation, baroque architecture in Europe—particularly in Italy under Spanish rule -- capitalism and colonialism together.