Eurotrash? Modern Simulacra of Renaissance Art

International Conference


Renaissance Studies has repeatedly grappled with the functions of antiquity in the construction of early modern notions of history and cultural identity. In this conference, we wish to extend temporal and geographical horizons to address the afterlife of Renaissance and early modern cultural forms in global modernity. We wish to examine critically the creation and survival of early modern models and icons in the global and mass culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, and assess how these appropria-tions of the past bear upon Renaissance Studies. In his ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’, Aby Warburg traced the forms of antique life and art through to his own time. He understood the continuum of the transmission and translation of motifs, and the truth of misunderstandings. Not least because of the impact of new media, the way in which contemporary global mass culture circulates images that spring from and still define the Renaissance is open to debate. Our main question is: did Modernity need the Renaissance? We aim to address issues relating to the reproduction and dissemination of Renaissance forms, be they pictorial, sculptural, architectural, cinematographic, digital or literary, beyond the dichotomy of ‘high & low’. It is natural that the Renaissance should frame such discussions, for it was during this period that notions of originality, replication, copying, and faking were first systematically debated, theorized, and put into action. It thus offers a productive field for the examination of the historical import of such issues in the digital age. We will focus, moreover, on the ‘hyper-real simulacrum’ (Baudrillard), the mimetic representation that does more than simply reproduce, but offers something experientially analogous to the imagined ‘original’, which it transforms (Barthes). We will concentrate on the theoretical commonalities between the papers and ask question such as:

• What are the political and religious implications of Renaissance replicas today?

• How does the simulacrum reconstruct and transform the original and which truth does it symptomatically reveal about it?

• What impact do simulacra have on the original works and contexts? (Cf. the impact of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ on the Louvre’s new display of the Mona Lisa.)

• Are Renaissance simulacra a symptom of the post-colonial globalization or marginalization of European culture and heritage?

• Can replicas and simulacra create a new site of original experience?

• Are materials and techniques important for replicas? (Cf. the replication of Michelangelo’s Carrara marble sculptures at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, Los Angeles.)

• When does the replica or imitation of early modern art become an autonomous, hyper-real simulacrum?

• Are replicas and simulacra models of historical and cultural transmission? (Cf. the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary Queen of the World in Montreal, 1875–94, as a the replication of St. Peter's, Rome.)

• Do cultures differ from another according to different strategies of appropriation?

We will offer papers that address particular simulacra (recreations of places, works of art, or particular events) and their contexts. These study cases shall help in understanding the theoretical implications of the simulacrum for today’s notions and practices of history. With attention to materials, cross-cultural, and political contexts, as well as to survivals of meaning, we wish to open up discussion of the Renaissance’s presence in global modernity and of the simulacrum as a model of historical transmission and interpretation.



Adrian W. B. Randolph (Dartmouth College)

Tristan Weddigen (University of Zurich)

Session 1

Chair: Beate Fricke (University of California, Berkeley)

JOHANNES ENDRES (University of California Riverside)

Freud’s Renaissance. How the Early Modern Artist Became Popular

Freud’s reception of Renaissance art and the Renaissance artist had a major effect on the popularization of the era and some of its central figures. His essays on Leonardo and Michelangelo have not only attracted the interest of scholars in the fields of psychoanalysis and critical theory, they also created a standard in how to approach the Renaissance era as such. The reason for the pervasiveness and success of ‘Freud’s model’ lies in a radical change of perspective: one that for the first time combined the admiration of the Renaissance with the idea of its psychological commensurability. The contribution will on the one hand critically examine Freud’s strategies of ‘reading’ the Renaissance, while it will on the other hand focus on Freud’s relevance for the intellectual proliferation of Renaissance’s ‘anima’.

JOSEPH IMORDE (University of Siegen)

Michelangelo’s David Globalized

Probably no other work of the Italian Renaissance left stronger traces in our daily popular culture than Michelangelo’s ‘David’. He is part of our ‘collective memory’ and personifies for almost everyone a heroic form of beauty, strength and wellness. This may be one of the reasons that we can find repro-duction of the sculpture almost everywhere in the world. His presence in camp and trash can be understood as a profanation and at the same time proliferation of an idealistic image of the young male body – an image that was then and that is now open for all kinds of ideological reading and misreading. The presentation will try to map the range of appreciation and appropriation of this notorious master piece (from David Hasselhoff to Homer Simpson) and combine the analysis of some examples with theoretical considerations about the role of the simulacrum in contemporary mass culture.

Session 2

Chair: Julia Gelshorn (University of Vienna)

MELISSA RENN (Harvard Art Museums)

Even Better than the Real Thing? Life Magazine’s Illuminations

This paper is a case study of Illuminations, an exhibition that ‘Life’, with the assistance of the American Federation of Arts, organized in 1956. Part of the larger educational mission of ‘Life’, ‘Illuminations’ consisted of full-size color photographic reproductions of what ‘Life’ considered the fifty greatest works of art, from Giotto to Mondrian, and included a scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, which ‘Life’ installed on the ceiling as part of the show. Opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘Illuminations’ traveled throughout the United States before it was exported abroad. The exhibition promised to take the visitor on a virtual ‘15.000-mile journey’, emphasizing that it was an opportunity for many to see these works, all together in one place, for the first time. Drawing on the writings of Barthes, Baudrillard, and Benjamin, the paper examines how, through technological innovations in mechanical reproduction, ‘Life’ brought works of art from all over the world to new audiences and further examines the implications of the appropriation, reproduction, and dissemination of the art of the Western canon.

JEANETTE KOHL (University of California Riverside)

He-Man and It-Girl. The Afterlife of the Machiavellian Prince in Contemporary Political Imagery

Putin, Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, Sarkozy: At the beginning of the 21st century, a new generation of political rulers create images of contemporary leadership, largely inspired by modern popular culture and fashion. Yet on a closer look, their ‘self-fashioning’ draws heavily on Renaissance iconography – for good reasons: The Machiavellian prince sported a combination of sexual prowess with antique clichés of military command and intellectual authority, as reflected in the images of equestrian statues and bust portraits. In post-modern times, one would suspect that such traditional image concepts had moved to the realm of kitsch and conservative shelf decoration. This paper, however, will investigate the serious afterlife of Renaissance concepts of heroism in recent contemporary political representation, asking three central questions: How do political leaders and public figures create an image related to Renaissance ideals? In what ways is this reflected in their public commissions? And what is female politicians’ public persona?

BEAT WYSS (Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design)

Vasari’s Chimaera and Totemism in Modern Art

The icon of the ‘Lupa Capitolina’, mass reproduced in every size, on squares, desks, and letterheads, during the Annitrenta represented the ‘Romanità’ of the Mussolini regime. Since 2006 we know the bronze to be a medieval simulacrum. Nevertheless, it still works as a totem of cultural identity. The paper will discuss the ‘simulacrum’ and ’totemism’ as terms that both connote two different but constitutive processes in the fabrication of cultural identity. Giorgio Vasari emphasized the totemistic value of Etruscan culture. The discovery of the ‘Chimaera’ in Arezzo plays a crucial role in his concept of ‘rinascita’. There are primarily subjects of extinguished cultures that are fit for totemization in the strict Freudian sense. Transatlantic Modernism follows Vasari’s ‘rinascita’ pattern by cannibalizing the cultural heritage of colonized natives, harvested in ethnological museums, as models of contemporary art.

Session 3

Chair: Stefan Neuner (University of Basel)

JÖRG SCHELLER (Swiss Institute for Art Research, Zurich)

Oration on the Dignity of Muscle. The Afterlife of Humanist Thought in Bodybuilding and Fitness

At first glance, the fitness and bodybuilding movement is a genuine modern invention. The paper presents some heuristic hypotheses in which Renaissance humanist thought and the today’s ‘body craze’ are interpreted as two distinct yet genealogically interconnected phenomena – not in terms of direct, deliberate transfers, but rather by applying a poststructuralist approach to the afterlife of mentalities and episteme in varying ‘historical a priori’ (Michel Foucault). The basic assumption is that seminal motives of Pico della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ have resurfaced in the manifestos and image policies of bodybuilding and fitness promoters. The humanist ideal of constant quest for knowledge and increased human capacities in general translates into the constant quest for somatic ascension and somatic self-transgression. Hence bodybuilding is here considered as an attempt to transcend flesh precisely through flesh with a view to accomplishing an ideal form of the self, finally resulting in the sublime postmodern aestheticization of the body.

VALENTIN NUSSBAUM (National Taiwan Normal University)

Renaissance ‘de façade’. Treacherous Survival in Brian de Palma’s Obsession

Haunted by the idea of the recreation of the same, Brian de Palma’s ‘Obsession’ questions the issue of the simulacra. It is not by chance that Florence and the façade of San Miniato al Monte are both the stage and décor of the pivotal scene of the movie: the ‘resurrection’ of Michael Courtland’s deceased wife in the person of an art restorer named Sandra Portinari. This specific setting, as well as Sandra’s profession, seems to fit perfectly with Aby Warburg’s concept of survival and rebirth commonly related to the city as the cradle of the Renaissance. This first layer of interpretation has also to be discussed in term of fiction and simulation. The artistic background related to Florence is a perfect pretext to address the issue of the artificial creation, and the treacherous machination, which has been staged to deceive Courtland.

Session 4

Chair: Wolfgang Brückle (University of Bern)

DOUGLAS N. DOW (Kansas State University)

History and the Hyperreal: Assassin’s Creed II, Simulation, and the Historical Act

The video game ‘Assassin’s Creed II’ unfolds in expansive environments that represent the country-side and cities of late quattrocento Italy. This paper examines the game’s ‘Florence’, which contains many recognizable monuments, omits others and modifies the city’s plan. In light of Baudrillard’s logic, this ‘Florence’ is a simulation that colonizes the gamer’s experience of the ‘real’. Furthermore, the detailed environments of the game fit Baudrillard’s definition of hyperrealism. This hyperreal ‘Florence’ ‘rejuvenates the fiction’ of the ‘real’ Florence, which, dotted with replicas and neo-Gothic facades, is itself a simulation (Baudrillard’s Disneyland). Finally, the game is a mise en abyme. Its ‘Florence’ is constructed in the mind of the game’s character who explores the memories of a dead ancestor to uncover ancient wisdom. Thus, the gamer assumes the role of the historian, both of whom resurrect the lost people, places and events of the Renaissance in the pursuit of knowledge.

JENS BAUMGARTEN (Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil)

A Sacred Las Vegas in São Paulo: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Foundation of Brazilian Art History

Postcolonial theory defines the ‘in between’ as a central theoretical and methodological position. As an early Brazilian position in the art historical discourse in the first half of the 20th Century, it had its predecessors in the modernist concepts of ‘anthropophagy’. This ‘digestion’ of different cultures created a genuine autochthonous Brazilian art is related to concepts of Renaissance and Baroque from a European perspective. Parallel to the modernist art production, a variety of different simulacra were created in a complex visual system – constructing and deconstructing layers of identity discourses. The art historical debate depreciated, for example, copies of Michelangelo’s Sixtine Chapel in Brazilian churches of the 20th century as kitsch. The focus of the paper will be on the aesthetic, religious, and political contexts and on the problem of the Western canon of art in regards to South America and the proper definition and place of postcolonial debates.

Session 5

Chair: Mateusz Kapustka University of Zurich

ARNOLD BARETZKY (University of Leipzig)

‘Palaces for the Working Class’. Neo-Renaissance in Eastern European Architecture and Mass Culture under Stalin

According to the theory of Socialist Realism, the art doctrine of the Stalinist Soviet Union and its satellite states, the Renaissance was an epoch characterized by a particularly strong revolutionary impetus. Consequently, it was seen as a significant part of the ‘progressive traditions’ that were to form the base for the establishment of socialist culture. The reference to the Renaissance model was most obvious in architecture. Renaissance forms were even used for new mass housing complexes. The construction of these ‘Palaces for the Working Class’ was accompanied by enormous multi-media propaganda campaigns in newspapers, books, posters, cinema newsreels and even popular films. In this way, Renaissance forms were granted an afterlife not only in housing sites of the working class but also in the visual mass culture of socialist modernity. This paper focuses both on the adaptation of Renaissance forms in Stalinist architecture and their dissemination through mass-media propaganda.

BERTHOLD HUB (University of Vienna)

African Renaissance? A Simulacrum of St. Peter’s Basilica in Côte d’Ivoire

The world’s largest church building stands in Yamoussoukro, the new capital of Côte d’Ivoire. The Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is an imitation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Designed in 1985 by the Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury and consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1990, its renaissance and baroque architecture and interior decoration epitomize European aesthetic and reli-gious traditions. The 300.000.000 USD building decorated with Italian marble and French stained glass raises questions about post-colonial identity and the representation of rulership in a poverty-stricken and multicultural country. This paper will also discuss the ideological uses and abuses of renaissance and baroque architectural styles within globalism, the notion of the simulacrum competing with its archetype, the channels and meanings of ‘influence’, and the ‘migration of forms’ through mass media.

MARTINO STIERLI (University of Basel)

Re-enacting Venice: Postmodern Reproductions of La Serenissima

For postmodernism, a return to authenticity is neither feasible nor desirable because it never existed in the first place. The inevitability of ‘repetition’ has been the topic of great concern in cultural theory (Baudrillard, Eco). On the contrary, critics like Genette have indicated that ‘second degree’ artefacts resulting from postmodern strategies of production are not debased copies, but produce their own reality. What deserves attention is not their secondary nature, but their inherent constructedness. The reproduction of the Renaissance imagery of Venice will be discussed by looking at ‘Venice of America’ (near Los Angeles) and the ‘Venetian’ resorts in Las Vegas and Macao. The paper will argue that these ‘replications’ do not intend to substitute the ‘authentic’ with the artificial. Rather, the mechanisms of such scenographic displays may be compared with what film and literary theory call the ‘suspension of disbelief’.