Caroline van Eck: Appealing to the simulacra in the chambers of memory: 17th-century accounts of idolatry

Wissenschaftliches Kolloquium / Colloquio scientifico

After weathering a pest epidemic, the people of Rome offered to erect a statue to Pope Alexander VII in gratitude for his quick and effective action to contain the spread of the disease. Alexander refused, because he feared accusations of presumption and idolatry. His contemporary Louis XIV did accept a statue erected during his lifetime to celebrate his victory over the Dutch, Germans and Spanish in 1672. In both cases, the debates following the refusal or acceptance led to new ways of thinking about idolatry. In Rome, Sforza Pallavicino developed a new, psychological, understanding of idolatry, drawing on Aristotelian and scholastic memory theories. In Paris, François Lemée developed a proto-ethnographic account of idolatry. Although these authors draw on very different conceptual domains to explain why viewers treat statues as living beings, and use different arguments to exonerate their princes from accusations of presumption, they both contribute towards a new departure in the understanding of idolatry. It is no longer, or not completely, rejected as an aberration, a religious error or a form of primitivism, but instead seen as a universal characteristic of the way human beings relate to images, or as part of a normal psychological process.

Caroline van Eck is Professor of Art and Architecture to 1800 at Leiden University. She has also taught at the University of Amsterdam, Ghent, Groningen and Yale, and was a visiting fellow at the Warburg Institute and the Yale Centre for British Art.

Recent and forthcoming publications include: Classical Rhetoric and the Arts in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge 2007; with Stijn Bussels (eds.), The Arts, the Theatre and Theatricality in EarlyModern Europe, special issue of Art History 32/2 (Spring 2010); Enargeia ou fétichisme: Le rejet de l'image vivante dans les discours sur l'art des années 1750, in: C. Michel and J. Lichtenstein (eds.), De la Quête des règles au discours sur les fins. Les mutations des discours sur l'art en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Lausanne 2011 [in press]; Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne and the Life of Art, in: U. Fleckner, I. Wenderholm and H. Ziegler (eds.), Bildmagie, Hamburg [in press]. The books resulting from the Art and Agency project will be published in a series, published jointly by Akademie Verlag, Berlin, the Warburg-Haus, Hamburg, and Leiden University Press.

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