Iconologies and Iconospheres of the Sea, ca. 1200–1650, III: Liquid Materialities

Hannah Baader

Cristofano Gaffurri after a drawing by Jacopo Ligozzi, Table with a view of the harbour of Livorno, detail, 1601–04. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

The project investigates the interdependencies of art and nature and the production of knowledge in mainly Western, pre-modern worlds, by studying the medieval and earlymodern iconologies of seas and oceans. It does so by considering seas and oceans as geological formations in flux and as spaces that are generate powerful iconospheres. The project looks at pre-modern technologies, practices, crafts and poetics, as parts of ocean-bound visual processes and examines their transformations, driven by cosmology, theology, the history of geography, early oceanography, seafaring, as well as maritime trade, European conquest, imagination and even utopias.

The project studies nautical and maritime metaphors and iconologies together with thalassic architectures such as ships and harbours. Its particular focus is on seas and oceans as natural formations that generate a large reservoir of tropes and rhetorical as well as mental figurations and images. These figurations had strong impacts on pre-modern political thought, religious belief, as well as on aesthetics, and they touch upon the problems of representation. Among them are the contrasts of beauty and terror, creation and destruction, movement and stillness, noise and silence, surface and depth, endless voyages, etc.

In the final part of a series of investigations on the iconospheres of seas and oceans – dealing with islands and city islands, circumnavigation, cartographies and utopias, hydrology, but also historiographies – the project focuses on the question of materiality in the visual representations and perceptions of salty waters: the specific ways artists and craftsmen imitate the visual effects of the seascapes by using materials or forms that reproduce these visualities. Among these aesthetic experiments are mosaics that, with their shimmering and vibrant surfaces, recreate the motion and the reflections of light on waterscapes. Other artists work with elaborate strokes or lines evoking the dynamics of waves, such as Andrea Mantegna in his Battle of the Sea Monsters or Titian in his woodcut The Crossing of the Red Sea, both technically innovative works within their respective media. Antonio Tempesta painted on a veined stone slab in order to represent the destructive waves of the Red Sea, whereas Florentine artists working in pietre dure created seascapes out of single stone slabs – using stones like Lineato d’Arno or Paesino. They worked with thinly and very precisely cut pieces of stone (the so-called commesso technique), such as those in the 1604 table from the Medici collection, a work based on a lost drawing by Jacopo Ligozzi. It shows the harbour of Livorno with its many lighthouses. By far the largest part of the image in stone is dedicated to the seascape. Here, the veins of the lapis lazuli are transformed into waves, whereas the tiny spots of glistening gold within the stone are to be read as the spume of the waves.


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