September 20, 1999
Volume 52, No. 5
McPhee, Campbell explore artists' 'Lives' in new course
"What's in a Life?" That's the question Sarah McPhee and Jean Campbell asked students in an intriguing new art history course last spring on "Artistic Biography in Early Modern Europe."
"The individual artist's life as a focus of historical study is one of the marked developments of the Renaissance," explained McPhee, assistant professor of art history. "From the 16th century onward, biography has been one of the dominant modes of historical art writing. Our seminar considered artists' biographies as literature, as historical record and as aesthetic theory."
Together, McPhee and Campbell took students from antiquity to modern times, considering the basic concepts of biography and artistic writing. Both instructors consider the teaching experience one of the best they have had at Emory. For what McPhee termed as "an extraordinarily demanding course," the students produced high-level critical analyses and a series of imaginative essays.
During the semester they examined numerous texts, ranging from Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists to Liebert's psychoanalytic treatment of Michelangelo's life. Beginning with Plutarch's Lives and Pliny's Natural History, students studied such medieval forms as saints' lives and troubadour vidas, learning the various modes and techniques that would contribute to the writing of full-blown artists' lives in the Renaissance.
Campbell explained that in one form of late-medieval life writing, authors composed "vite" of poets solely based on their poetry, with little or no knowledge of the poets' actual lives. In the same way, early writings about artists were often less indicative of something specific about a particular artist than about an attribute of his or her art, or of artists in general. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, writers of artists' lives continued to employ stock stories, or "commonplaces," many of which originated in ancient life writing. A typical life might tell of an artist painting a pictorial element like a fly or a curtain with such stunning illusionism that it fooled observers into thinking it was real.
In one course assignment, students were asked to write an artist's thoroughly fictional biography, using only three untitled works by Venetian painter Giorgione as a foundation. Not allowed to incorporate any facts about the artist's real life, they were challenged to figure out some sort of biography for him. The students, with backgrounds in art history, film studies, English and Italian studies, approached the task in different ways. They ordered the three paintings--one of three philosophers in a landscape, another a nativity and the third an image of the three ages of man-in a storyline to give structure to Giorgione's life.
For their final papers, students took on the challenge of incorporating specific evidence of an individual artist's life into their work. Each wrote a "Life" of either Artemisia Gentileschi or Caravaggio in a style different from their own, modeled on one of the early modern writers they had studied. Carolyn Miller, a film studies student, wrote on Caravaggio in the manner of Cellini, a Renaissance autobiographer. She imagined Caravaggio dictating his life story to a young nurse as he lay dying.
"What's in a Life?" relates to one of Campbell's long-term projects, writing a vita of the 14th century Sienese artist Simone Martini. "The general idea of my project is to use late medieval poetic models like Dante's Vita Nuova to illuminate the problem of talking about an artist's identity in a period of history in which individual artistic identities are only beginning to emerge," Campbell said.
Campbell joined Emory's art history department in 1997 and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in Italian Renaissance art history. Her field of expertise is relationships between art, poetry and the civic culture of 14th century Tuscany. She published The Game of Courting and the Art of the Commune of San Gimagnano in 1997 and currently is working on a new book, Between Fear and Security: Remembering the City in Fourteenth Century Tuscany.
McPhee came to Emory in 1995 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Baroque art and architecture, and her research focuses on 17th and 18th century Italian architecture and drawings. McPhee recently published a book on the drawings of the 18th century Italian architect Filippo Juvarra. She is completing Bernini and the Bell Towers of St. Peter's, a book that concerns the life of the sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini and his contributions to the design of the basilica of St. Peter's.
"In my current book project I have tried to assess the role of artistic biography (specifically the 17th century biographies of Bernini) in shaping, and often distorting, the standard narratives of historic events that have come down to us in secondary literature," McPhee said.
When "What's in a Life" was offered last spring, it was cross-listed as an Italian studies course, an association that will be reinforced in the future. Both Campbell and McPhee speak Italian and use it in their research, and they are eager proponents of language study at Emory; they received a grant to develop the course as part of the University's Language Across the Curriculum program. Instead of working entirely in translation, the next time the course is offered students will have the option of completing certain readings in their original version and joining an extra weekly session to discuss texts and issues in Italian.