Emanuela Vai

Emanuela Vai

Hanna Kiel Fellow
Monstrous Materialities: Representations of the Grotesque on Scrolls and Headstocks of Italian Renaissance Stringed Instruments (14th-17th c.)


Emanuela Vai is Research Associate at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, at the University of York. She collaborates with the University of Cambridge Museums and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Her research is located at the intersection of art history, architectural history, and musicology, and focuses on Renaissance visual and aural epistemologies and the affects, sensorialities, and soundscapes of Renaissance social life. Her work has been funded by the Society for Renaissance Studies and the Royal Historical Society, amongst others, and published by Bibliotheca Hertziana, Brepols, Olschki and Skira. Following the I Tatti Fellowship she will join Worcester College at the University of Oxford as Scott Opler Fellow.

Project Summary

Monsters, grotesque creatures, and the physiologically-distorted heads of humans and nonhumans were frequently carved into the scrolls and headstocks of Renaissance musical instruments. Yet these teratological figures have eluded critical attention. Musical instruments have been persistently theorized in terms of their functionality, their decorative elements conceived as secondary to the music they make and mentioned only insofar as they are ‘ornate.’ But what might the monstrous carvings, decorations, and protuberances of these instruments—often designed more for display than for music-making—say about the visual, material, and non-auditory dimensions of Renaissance and early modern musical culture? Approaching Renaissance musical instruments not only as ‘sounding objects’ but as visual and material objects permeated with physicality and affect, this research investigates how these grotesque figures mediate and bridge material and immaterial musical worlds. In doing so, it explores Renaissance ontologies and epistemologies of music, materiality, and making as well as practices of collecting and displaying instruments in the period, opening up new critical research fronts within the fields of Renaissance studies, material culture, and music and museum studies.