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Members' Research Report Archive

Visual Cures: Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Italy

Frances Gage
, Buffalo State College, State University of New York
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, June 15 – August 15, 2011

Scholarship on collecting has tacitly affirmed Hans Belting’s argument, advanced in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image in the Era before Art (1994), that the Reformation brought about the abrupt decline of the miraculous cult object and the advent of art as it came into being in the Renaissance and the rise of the art collection. Joseph Koerner, writing more recently in The Reformation of the Image (2004), similarly locates the moment of the dissolution of the “sacred force” of icons and relics in the Reformation. Both of these scholars are primarily concerned with the role of the image in northern Europe. Historians of Italian art, such as Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, have identified a related phenomenon in the early sixteenth century: the giving way of the cult object to the cult of the artist. Recent research on the cult object in Renaissance Italy, however, strongly suggests that, far from declining in the Counter-Reformation period, this type of image actually flourished. The many implications of this observation, particularly for the history of collecting, have yet to be addressed. Since it can be demonstrated that in Italy the art object did not displace the cult object, the question inevitably arises of the conceptual and functional distinctions early modern Italians applied to these two types of image. Did they coexist within the very art collections that Belting argues eclipsed the cult object, and, if so, how were they regarded?

Scholars have long assumed that collected images in early modern Italy were regarded as inert objects of contemplation, admiration, or aesthetic judgment upon which symbolic values were projected. These interpretations have begun to be challenged by recent studies that reveal how widely Italians in this period attributed extraordinary powers to paintings displayed within the domestic realm. Many early modern Italian writers provide important testimony that images other than cult objects were thought to transform their beholders. Telling evidence of this conception emerges in one of the most important theoretical treatments of collecting in the early modern period, the chapter titled “Regole per comprare, collocare e conservare le pitture” in Considerazioni sulla pittura (c. 1619 – 1621) by Giulio Mancini (1559–1630). My examination of Mancini’s guidelines for collectors—first, in relation to his arguments concerning painting and health, set forth in the Considerazioni and in his other literary work, and, second, within the social, intellectual, and historical contexts of contemporary art collecting in Rome—paves the way for the major reappraisal I am undertaking of the function of secular images within seventeenth-century Roman collections. This reassessment is the basis of my book in progress.

During his long career in Rome (1592–1630), which is the subject of one of the chapters completed during my fellowship at CASVA, Mancini was a physician at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, and he became papal physician in 1623. He was also a broker and esteemed intendent of painting. His guidelines are routinely invoked in the history of collecting, but his most significant claim—that paintings should be collected primarily for their therapeutic and preservative effects—has been overlooked by nearly all writers on the subject. Mancini’s historical importance has been tied to his development of a theory of connoisseurship, but he must also be recognized as advocating the utility of art within the domestic context, in particular its ethical and medical functions. In this view, the collection—indeed, the entire domestic sphere—is filled with material objects that, under the command of the collector and paterfamilias, may produce varied effects on distinct classes of people in accordance with the nature of the object, the space, and the beholder. Mancini reveals that art collections were sites of negotiation between the ideas of the image as agent and as object of disinterested judgment on the part of a new class of informed beholders.

My book examines the varied mechanisms in paintings, whether miraculous, marvelous, didactic, or rhetorical, that, in the eyes of Mancini and other Roman collectors, could exert therapeutic and prophylactic effects within the domestic sphere. At CASVA, I investigated Mancini’s conception of how the composition of history painting, which mirrors the structure of a stratified society (wherein each individual performs an appropriate action in accordance with rank and office under the command of a ruler), should reinforce the idea of a harmonious and healthy social order, one that, in the unity of its parts, represents an analogue to the human body. Mancini developed these ideas in response to a perceived crisis in the genre of the istoria: the decline of monumental fresco painting and the corresponding rise of the cabinet picture. Although he promoted easel painting, Mancini betrayed anxiety about its tendency to promote sexual license and the values of the marketplace. Mancini argues in the Considerazioni that it was only by adhering to the values embodied in esteemed models of history painting, such as The Battle of Constantine by Raphael (1483–1520) and his school, that collectors might preserve the art of painting and its capacity to ensure the moral health and well-being of the individual and the civic body.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)

Italian, 1483 - 1520