Time and the experience of narrative in Italian Renaissance art




Demos, Melissa Nicole

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For many centuries, painting and sculpture translated the written narratives into images for a host of audiences. Unlike the narratives expressed in literature, music, theater, and film, which develop over time, the static nature of painting and sculpture give them the appearance of being temporally frozen. As such, we tend to think of them as having the ability to evoke only a single moment of a given narrative. Such limitations were the product of scholarly debates of the eighteenth-century that argued that the pictorial arts should portray only a single and precise punctum temporis of any given story. Artists and art theorists of the Renaissance do not appear to have placed such stringent restrictions on visual narratives. Quite the contrary, among the art of the Italian Quattrocento and Cinquecento, one can find a variety of temporal expressions: from the split-second precision of a fixed instant, to the sequenced actions of continuous narratives, to the abridgement of collapsed narrative. Through close readings of both paintings and sculptures in relation to their source texts, this dissertation explores how narrative artwork suggested duration and the continuity of a storyline. It considers how some artists may have, wittingly or unwittingly, succeeded in lengthening the intrinsic timelines of their visual narratives through polynarrative approaches: for example, by juxtaposing multiple moments of a single narrative or by combining multiple narratives in a visually seamless manner that does not patently jeopardize the unities of space and time. This dissertation explores not only the polynarrative aspects of some works, it also investigates the importance of the role of the viewer and how the spectator’s process of reading and interaction with the image affects how the experience of narrative unfolds before them. The study presents a method of reading art that aims to serve as a critical model for future inquiries regarding the temporal natures of figurative narratives.


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