In 1568 Giorgio Vasari described how “copper engravings” had provided “the means of seeing various inventions [invenzioni] . . . and conveying to the ultramontanes a knowledge [cognizione] of many things.” Today we still often associate Renaissance image printing with communication, with broadened access to visual information, and with a collapse of space and, above all, of time. It is a cliché, but an enduring one: in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, historians of technology and art tell us, print quickened image dispersal and expanded the forms and places in which art could be, as Vasari’s statement suggests. Art in print, in such accounts, became equatable with expansion, “conveyance,” and speed.
But what if there were another side to this story? The book I have been completing at CASVA argues for a darker but more nuanced portrayal of Renaissance print’s relation to movement and time. For certain artists working in northern Europe between 1400 and 1700—for some of Vasari’s “ultramontanes”—a new kind of temporality emerged in art’s production and reception. In works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569), Hieronymus Cock (c. 1510–1570), Hercules Segers (c. 1590–c. 1638), and others, as well as in their interpretation, conditions appeared in which time was staggered and stretched and moments, epochs, and instants were reassembled.
Although time had always been a concern of philosophy, what was novel in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—the era, we might recall, of naturalists such as Conrad Gesner (1516–1565), astronomers such as Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), and, on the horizon, early geologists such as Nils Stensen (1638–1686)—was the complexity of the study of time (and motion), which became vaster in scale and, in many cases, uncoupled from a focus on purely human existence. Urban capitalism was just beginning to erode agrarian relations between work, seasons, and time. Human motion, to be sure, held a continued fascination for printmakers, as my book’s second chapter (on “
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