Defining Community Through Laughter

Along with a dear colleague, Sandra Cheng, I am co-chairing two sessions at the upcoming Renaissance Society of America annual meeting in beautiful Venice, Italy.  Our sessions are on Friday, April 9 at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on Isola San Giorgio Maggiore.

Professor David Levine will be serving as our respondent, facilitating wide-ranging fruitful discussions on the interplay between Northern and Southern European comic art of the Early Modern period.

The “Defining Community Through Laughter” session times/topics are as follows:


Friday, 9 April 2010 2:00–3:30

Fondazione Cini – Sala del Consiglio


ROBIN L. O’BRYAN, INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA Mad Hatters and Punning Dwarfs: Power and Parody in the Renaissance Courts The presence of dwarfs in the Italian courts assured elite audiences of merriment and laughter, inspired as much by the dwarfs’ comic antics as by their physical deformations. But dwarfs also functioned as princely status symbols, becoming important features of the court’s propaganda. We see this paradox at work in two frescoes in the Gonzaga palace in Mantua. In one, a dwarf squire sports a ridiculously-oversized headdress in the dynastic colors; in another a female dwarf makes an obscene gesture, a pun on Gonzaga political connections. This paper argues that the Medici pope, Leo X, had these works specifically in mind when he commissioned a fresco for the Vatican apartments. There, a vulgarly-attired dwarf holding a fantastic helmet over his head brazenly puns on Leo’s newly-achieved princely rank. Using the dwarf to mock the court(s) that disparaged his bourgeois origins, this double-edged parody undoubtedly gave Leo the last laugh.

KIMBERLEE A. CLOUTIER-BLAZZARD, MONTSERRAT COLLEGE OF ART The Elephant in the Living Room: Steen’s Parodic Portrait of the Schoutens The Dutch painter Jan Steen (ca. 1626–79) is well known for his topsy-turvy comic genre pieces. Steen’s handful of portraits, however, are typically viewed as conventionally decorous and flattering to his sitters. Even in his commissioned portraits, I propose Steen includes a comic mixture of genres and juxtapositions of levels of decorum that his erudite sitters found compelling. Steen’s witty, parodic images emulate the ancient serio-comical style.The focus of my paper is Steen’s Fantasy Interior (ca. 1663, Nelson Atkins Museum), a portrait of his friend Gerrit Gerritsz. Schouten, a Catholic brewer become landed-gentry. In the work, Steen contrasts Dutch social classes and family generations, comparing their looks and morals in parodic ways. Steen points to the folly of late-century forms of exclusionary classicizing etiquette and dress, proposing instead a medieval type of sociability as a preferable alternative — something Steen’s Catholic patrons preferred. Steen notes the disjunctions in the seventeenth-century social fabric and explores them in his portrait. Even as Steen humorously subverts viewer expectation, he practices a comedy of inclusion versus a satirical rejection of “societal outsiders.” Thus, hecreates an endlessly entertaining and provocative image that allowed Schouten both to celebrate and laugh at his own success simultaneously.


Friday, 9 April 2010 4:00–5:30

Fondazione Cini – Sala del Consiglio

SANDRA CHENG, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK CITY COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY Foolish Patrons and Greedy Dealers: Pier Francesco Mola’s Satirical Drawings of the Art World Pier Francesco Mola (1612–66), a painter based primarily in Rome, used caricature to unburden his frustrations and personal anxieties with patronage and the commerce of art. The highly personal nature of some drawings, which were often lewd, indicates they were never intended for public viewing, but to be shared between intimate friends. These satirical drawings offer unique insight to the Seicento art world by illustrating the dynamic between artists and patrons, and the emerging class of amateur art dealers. This paper examines caricatures related to Mola’s troubles with his patron, Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. The drawings also reflect the fluctuating status of the artist’s friendship with the connoisseur and amateur dealer Niccolò Simonelli, who was in the service of the Pamphilj prince. Drawing attention to Simonelli’s role as middleman between artists and collectors, Mola’s satirical drawings ultimately question the effects of commerce on their friendship.

ARIANE WILSON, RWTH AACHEN UNIVERSITY Laughter in Early Modern Architecture From grotesque faces as parodies of egg-and-dart patterns on a cornice in the Medici Chapel to drawings of anthropomorphic profiles for pilaster bases, Michelangelo integrated playfulness within settings of magnificence and spiritual grandeur. In addition to humor based on figurative representation that can be attached to classical “superiority” theories of laughter, more abstract conceptions of architectural “incongruity” as humor are suggested in Michelangelo’s work.Laughter in architecture is rarely examined. This paper seeks to understand the mechanisms of laughter in the production and reception of architecture. Architects’ intentions and critics’ reception will be examined in order to test the hypothesis of an aesthetic community created by the use of wit: while the grotesque may have addressed the common observer, humor in architectural structure — rather than in ornament — may have included only those versed in the very canons being subverted, thus contributing to the social delimitation of cultural circles.

FRANCESCA ALBERTI, UNIVERSITÉ PARIS I–PANTHEON SORBONNE Tintoretto’s Comic Narrative Paintings Tintoretto’s mythologies, painted around 1550–60, are emblematic comic paintings in which gods with human vices are mocked in a way that recalls the antique burlesque and its Renaissance revival. These anti-heroic paintings also function as figurative examples of beffe; deities are depicted in situations that insinuate clear narratives with satirical attacks to cuckoldry or sexual practices like sodomy, current in sixteenth-century Venice. In order to show how Danae becomes a perfect procuress, or Jupiter is pictured as bordello client, uccellato (that is, beffato) by a courtesan Leda, I compare these artworks with the more libertine and popular iconography in prints and illustrations. Furthermore, the comic aspects of the mythological representations will be investigated in relation to contemporary literature by the Venetian polygraphs. Tintoretto’s paintings were probably conceived to entertain Venetian studiosa gioventù for whom, as his biographer Carlo Ridolfi reports, he invented “capricci d’habiti & di motti faceti.”

For more information, visit the RSA Conference website.

And, please stay tuned as Sandra and I plan on publishing a corollary text to the conference proceedings.

2 Responses to “Defining Community Through Laughter”
  1. Finally I found some good content out there

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