RSA Washington 2012

Looking Good in Renaissance Europe –
2 sessions at RSA Washington, 2012.

For abstracts for  the sessions, see below. Times and locations will be given in September, when the RSA programme becomes available.

How did people in Renaissance Europe manipulate their appearance through changes to their faces and bodies? How were items such as make up, hair dye, face waters and hair remover purchased, made and used? How were they understood more broadly within renaissance culture, and linked to health, or artistic and literary canons of beauty. Recent research on renaissance cosmetics, advice books and exercise has allowed us new insights into everyday practices of beauty and health.
Subjects for discussion could include:
– a consideration of the relationship of the construction of body image to renaissance visual culture;
– metaphors of “making up”, pretending and masking;
– how norms of beauty serve to exclude certain groups through means such as skin or hair colour;
– diet, exercise and its relationship to social status;
– how outer beauty and “complexion” was believed to reflect and affect inner states
-the opposition to cosmetics and beautifying the body
-the use of cosmetic tropes and ingredients in renaissance performance and theatre

For more information, contact the organisers:
Dr Jill Burke (Senior Lecturer, Italian Renaissance Art, University of Edinburgh,
Dr Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Courses and Research, Shakespeare’s Globe and Research Fellow, King’s College London, )

Abstracts (these are provisional and subject to editing)

Panel 1: Beauty and Identity
Chaired by Farah Karim-Coooper

“Zelmane’s Spiritual Androgyny and Boyish Beauty in Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1593)”
John Ellis-Etchison, Rice University.
Sidney constructs the gender-bending and -blending figure of Pyrocles/Zelmane as a site of interrogation for early modern ideas regarding gender and sexuality. Sidney’s text reveals that Pyrocles/Zelmane embodies a unique form of androgyny that offers a valence between psychological and physical identities of masculinity and femininity. Emotionally and morally, s/he represents what is best described as a spiritual androgyne, while physiologically s/he enacts a passion-inciting desirable ambiguity and ambiguous desirability that epitomizes the early modern figure of the ‘beautiful boy.’ Through Sidney’s depiction of this psychologically and physically ambiguous, but internally and externally beautiful androgyne, he challenges popular beliefs regarding natural gender roles, innate moral capacity, and heteronormative sexuality. Moreover, Pyrocles/Zelmane personifies the early modern idea of self-fashioning and Sidney’s belief in unlimited human potential. Therefore, it is through Sidney’s androgynous construction of Pyrocles/Zelmane that he is able to create true parity between the genders.

“Looking for the Elusive: Beauty and Its Other in Othello
Renuka Gusain, Wayne State University
Iago’s statement “there is a daily beauty in Cassio’s life that makes me ugly” suggests an intersubjective relation between beauty and ugliness. What is the other of beauty and what does it reveals about beauty and selfhood? I discuss Othello in relation to Vishal Bhardwaj’s cinematic adaptation, Omkara, to explore beauty’s intimate relationship with race, caste and deformity, and examine how the other of beauty (variously perceived as blackness, unattractiveness, cultural otherness) gets ‘seen’ as a marker of the marginalized other. If beauty is, as philosopher Alexander Nehamas describes, “an emblem of what we lack” and “a call to look attentively at the world and see how little we see”, then of all characters, ironically, it is Iago who looks for and, paradoxically, ‘sees’ the necessary elusiveness of beauty and selfhood.

“Staging Ugliness”
Andrea Stevens, University of Illinois
Much of the action in Thomas Heywood’s Love’s Mistress (1634) revolves around a wondrous “box of beauty” entrusted to Psyche and sent from Proserpine to Venus. Capable of achieving wonders, this box of beauty later gets substituted for a “box full of ugly painting”. Used by the Clown, thinking to make himself an object of polymorphous, glowing appeal, he instead deforms himself, to predictably comic effect.

Heywood’s misdirected box of beauty illuminates the relationship of painted special effects to forms of authority within and without the world of the play and the playhouse.  This talk addresses this question of “authority” with respect to the role of cosmetics in the staging of ugliness, the illusion of which requires complicated acts of cosmetic addition and subtraction.  The “box of painting” will be discussed as physical prop, as trope, and as an important object of exchange between men and women.

Panel 2: Materiality
Chaired by Jill Burke

“Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Culinary Cosmetics, and the Performance of Race”
Jennifer Park, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
In this paper, I look at Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and cosmetics in the context of the culinary preservative culture of early modern England. The role of cosmetics as part of early modern culinary culture, in addition to their much-explored role in beauty and the theater, has fascinating underexplored ramifications on emerging ethnographic, racial, and racist discourses. The very strong public objections to cosmetics, which included the “ethnocentric fear of foreign ingredients and commodities of a cosmetic nature,” were at odds with the domesticity of cosmetic production and its widespread private use among early modern English women. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s only female protagonist of color, presents a fascinating case study for the investigation of the intersections and interrelations of these issues. Her representation on stage as “doing the Egyptian” historicizes the performativity of race and gender at a time when Egyptians were becoming a cosmetically performative phenomenon in early modern society.

“Dapper Doctors: The Implications of the Early Modern Physician’s Appearance”
Sarah Elizabeth Parker, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The Hippocratic corpus at several points, alongside specifications for proper ethical behavior towards patients and their families, insists that the medical practitioner must take special care with his appearance. The body’s physical appearance played an important role in medicine because interpreting the body’s external signs was central to the proper diagnosis of illness. The doctor in turn was expected to appear healthy lest he raise doubts about his power to maintain health in his own person and therefore the health of his patients. This paper explores how Renaissance doctors responded to the Hippocratic injunction to look good at an historical moment when the recuperation of Hippocrates was an important and fruitful point of debate in the medical world. Taking Rabelais’ direct engagement with this question in the dedicatory epistle of his Quart Livre as a starting point, I argue that Renaissance doctors had a unique understanding of appearance, seeing it as a sign pointing to the relative health and well-being of a person. Rather than a superficial danger, attention to appearance was a profound sign of health, spiritual responsibility, and prudence.

“Looking in the Mirror: The Toilet of Venus in Renaissance Art”
Genevieve Warwick,  University of Glasgow
Born of the sea, Venus embodied a cultural imaginary of bathing as well as beauty.  She was common to baths and fountains, where her sculptural form was multiplied by reflections in the water. The Renaissance typology of the Toilet of Venus compressed this history of Venus reflections into the motif of the mirror-as-metaphor for painting.  Seated or reclining, Venus attends to her toilet with the aid of Cupid, who holds up a mirror in which the goddess sees/shows herself from another point of view.  If Venus represents the concept of art as beauty, here she is painting as mise-en-abyme, the early modern image within the image.  What does she/we see? Through this motif the paper will study the idealised depiction of the female form in conjunction with textual descriptions of/prescriptions for feminine beauty in early modern Europe.

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