Photography, Late Medieval and Renaissance Revivalisms, and the Teaching of the Fine and Applied Arts in Post-Unification Italy
2023-2024 (January - June)
Nicoletta Leonardi is a professor of art history and photographic history at Brera Academy of Fine Arts (Milan). Her work is based on the overcoming of the history of photography as a medium-specific discipline in favour of a systemic approach to the study of different media as integrated networks of technologies, artifacts, materialities, and imaginings. She has authored two monographs and several edited volumes, among which Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (co-edited with S. Natale, Penn State UP 2018). One of her most recent outputs is an essay entitled “Spiritualism and the material performance of cameraless photography: Notes on and around a séance with Eusapia Palladino,” in Philosophy of Photography (2022).
This project investigates how in post-unification Italy photography was a powerful vehicle for the dissemination of late medieval and Renaissance revivals and, as such, it became a foundational teaching tool within art academies and schools of applied arts. By looking at unexplored archival resources within these educational institutions, it argues that in the process of creation of an imagined national community with its roots back at the time of Italian municipalities and signorie, the photographic medium perfectly matched the taste for revivalist immersive experiences and forms of re-enactment circulating across society at the dawn of modernity and industrialization. This revivalist collective mood ran through literature, theater, the fine and applied arts, ephemeral architectural constructs and settings for urban festivities, trade exhibitions and fairs, costume parties and parades, diorama and panorama spectacles, magic lantern projections, peep shows, photographs both in their two and three dimensional “stereoscopic” versions, as well as the first forms of cinematic representation of movement. It is within this mediascape that photography entered the space of education. Conceived as vicarious substitutes of the experience of reality, the mechanical images were immediately accepted as analogues of the reproduced originals, and used for drawing from life and architectural sketching as part of an education built on the repurposing of a glorious past lived in the present.