Thursday Lecture Series

How Much Knowledge is Just Enough? Anatomy for Artists in Early Modern Italy

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

In an allegory of painting dating from 1679-80, the Roman painter Carlo Maratti depicted various pursuits he deemed suitable for the young art student, specifying that while there was no limit to how much students could engage with antique sculpture, anatomy they ought to study only “as much as it is necessary.” This qualification, visible under the plinth that holds an écorché figure, was a pointed criticism of Carlo Cesi, a contemporary painter who advocated a more ambitious investigation of anatomy, as it has rightly been argued. But what is more significant is that Cesi too, like Maratti and other artists of the period, was struggling with the same epistemic predicament: if there was some clarity about the fact that artists ought not to study human anatomy like proper anatomists and physicians, how could they determine how much knowledge of the subject was enough? This talk analyzes some Italian responses to this predicament during the sixteenth and seventeenth century and how the features of the fields artists navigated – that is, art and science – gave meaning and weight to those responses. At another more general level, it is a reflection on what could be said about qualities and states of knowledge beyond certainty or the lack of it.

Image: Engraving by N. Dorigny, 1728, after Carlo Maratti, Wellcome Collection.