Seeing and Describing. Early Modern Arts and their Accounts in the Iberian Worlds


This course will train students to read and analyze primary sources of the Early Modern period in the original Spanish (and some in Portuguese), while reflecting on a set of interdisciplinary questions that are central to the disciplines of art history, history, anthropology, and philosophy.

With the expansion projects of Portugal and Spain throughout the world between the 15th and the 17 th centuries, travelers, conquistadors, missionaries, art theorists, and collectors were suddenly challenged by the encounter with a myriad new forms, images, objects, sculptures, cities, monuments, and techniques—those produced and developed in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They recorded their emotions, surprise, reactions, and desires in written texts, mainly written in Spanish (and Portuguese) encompassing chronicles, letters, inventories, and artistic treatises. Several of these texts were printed and translated into other languages, becoming accessible to a larger audience. In this seminar we will study how the intensity of these simultaneous visual experiences of the objects encountered in the four parts of the world—or observed once they were sent to Europe—was translated into textual accounts, which often also included drawings and engravings. Participating in the long-lasting tradition of “ekphrasis,” (a description of or comment on a work of art) the texts written in the context of the Iberian expansion reinvent the art of describing artworks in unexpected ways. Compared with ancient texts addressing objects and images, the challenge of the Early Modern Iberian descriptions was driven by new intellectual challenges: to think of the “opening of the world” and its variety via the novelty of the objects; to relate the world and its forms through a common, almost “atemporal,” antiquity of the globe that would enable different societies and their histories to synchronize; to redefine the humanity via the artistic capacities and skills to make and to create. We will read a great corpus of these primary sources, mainly written in Spanish, as well as secondary sources (classic studies along with the most recent contributions), which will help us envision the art-historical, anthropological, and philosophical implications of these unstudied texts.

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This is an advanced class taught in Spanish for majors of the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures.
Students -both undergraduate and graduate- from other departments and programs —Art History, History, Anthropology, ICLS, etc.— with a good knowledge of Spanish, are also welcome.

External Resources

A wikischolar site with readings and discussion board will be accessible to registered students.