Frank Fehrenbach

Frank Fehrenbach

Francesco De Dombrowski Visiting Professor
The Forces of Art in the Italian Renaissance


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; other publications include books on Roman baroque fountains, early medieval Madonna statues, and, most recently, on the notion of vivacità in early modern Italian art (Quasi vivo. Lebendigkeit in der italienischen Kunst der Frühen Neuzeit, Berlin – Boston 2020). Fehrenbach was a senior professor at Harvard University until 2013, when he was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt professorship at Hamburg University. Since 2019, he is co-director of a Center for Advanced Study on “Imaginaria of Force” in Hamburg, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.


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 centuries. 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 17th 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 forces.