A Reformer’s Itinerary: The Power of the Image After Trent
Grace Harpster is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her work explores the art of early modern Italy and its global Catholic networks, with a particular interest in the consequences of post-Tridentine reform for the status of the image. Recent publications include “Figino’s Efficacy: Portraits, Votives, and their Makers after Trent,” in the Oxford Art Journal and an article on the printed Jesuit martyr portraits for the Journal of Jesuit Studies. Other interests include the history of restoration, early modern understandings of medium and material, and anthropological interventions into art history.
Harpster’s first book project, A Reformer’s Itinerary: The Power of the Image After Trent, uses the story of a particular reformer, cardinal-archbishop Carlo Borromeo (1538–84), to argue that the pressures of religious reform increased the authority of the image. The word itinerary, used at the time to describe travel, pilgrimage, or structured prayer, orders the book, tracing Borromeo’s movements across the Italian peninsula as he sought to implement Tridentine reforms. Borromeo visited, inspected, worshipped, consecrated, consulted, restored, and condoned sacred images. He prayed before polychrome sculptures in Varallo and left votive offerings for a cult statue in Loreto. He inspected churches in Milan, altered paintings in Rome, and pestered the Duke Cosimo I of Florence for a copy of the city’s most prized miraculous image. Together, Borromeo’s itineraries demonstrate that the project of Catholic reform led to an increased belief in the power of sacred images to act as truthful testimony, to uncover sacred histories, and to produce miraculous objects. The relationship between art and Catholic reform has often been cast as a conflict between the free-wheeling artist and the controlling cleric, but Borromeo’s own history of response shows that the late sixteenth century, a period unceremoniously referred to as late Renaissance, late Mannerist, or early Baroque, was an apex in this tradition of potent images, one with far-reaching consequences for a history of art.