Getting Lost in the Italian Renaissance: Traveling and the Geographies of Disorientation
Niall Atkinson is Associate Professor of Art History and the College at the University of Chicago. His research focuses the experience of space and the reception of architecture in the Italian Renaissance, which has led to an ongoing investigation of the connections between sound and the built environment. He has explored these themes in several articles as well as his first book, The Noisy Renaissance: Sound Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life (Penn State, 2016). His current projects include a digital analysis and reconstruction of the Renaissance soundscape as well as collaborations on mapping the 1427 Florentine catasto and practices of walking in early modern Rome.
Traditionally understood as a time of discovery - of lost texts, a lost ancient heritage, lost technologies - the Renaissance story of a relentless drive toward new forms of knowledge and the progressive journey towards modernity obscures the fits and starts that characterize early modern European experiments in mapping territories and encountering foreign peoples, places, and things. This project, therefore, recasts the idea of being "lost" as a central, if unwanted, condition of those who viewed the world on the move, encountering it at all levels, from the most familiar local spaces to the most exotic foreign territories. Whether on business or pilgrimage, Italian travelers repeatedly sought ways of understanding the relationship between a city's inhabitants and the networks, both economic and architectural, within which they lived. They inspected walls, wandered through streets, and paid close attention to social activities. They also scrutinized the surrounding environment, noting climate, hydrology, geological features, and agricultural techniques. These analyses of space and society correspond to Renaissance theories of good architectural design, which formalized the relationship between building and context. They constituted common descriptive tools applied to the natural and built environment: as a critical mode of reception and as a principle of good design. They were ways of imagining a better world while providing the foundations for assessing diverse urban cultures.