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Date(s) - 10 Apr 2018
5:30 PM - 9:00 PM

Columbia University Faculty House

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Mark S. Weil, E, Desmond Lee Professor Emeritus

Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in Saint Louis

“Giorgio Ghisi, The Allegory of Life: A Dynastic and Rhetorical Reading”

In 1985 The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a comprehensive exhibition of the engravings of Giorgio Ghisi. In the exhibition catalog entry devoted to Ghisi’s most discussed engraving, The Allegory of Life, which is signed and dated 1561. In the catalog entry about the print Suzanne Boorsch wrote, “In the four centuries since it was created, this compelling and enigmatic image has, of all Ghisi’s engravings, provoked the most interest. It has been discussed in numerous commentaries, and yet no completely satisfactory explanation of its content has been offered.” Three-and-one-half decades later, Dr. Boorsch’s assessment continues to be true in spite of the ever increasing number of writings about the print.

In my paper I reconstruct the iconography and composition of the print by placing it firmly in the milieu of the Gonzaga of Mantua in general the political and creative life of Isabella d’Este in particular. In so doing, I trace the origin of the composition to Isabella’s ordering of a painting for her Studiolo from Raphael in 1515, a commission, which was transferred to Giulio Romano after Raphael’s death. The composition and its meaning developed to suit the changing personal and political fortunes of Isabella and her children until it was published in 1561.

I trace the personal allegorical meaning of the composition by 1] comparing and relating it to Andrea Mantegna’s paintings for the Studiolo, 2] relating the subject to specific events in the marriage Isabella and Francesco II Gonzaga, and 3] reading the manner in which the detail within the print relates its iconography to a rich variety of classical, biblical, medieval and contemporary sources. My intention in doing is to reveal something of the complexity of humanistic court rhetoric in sixteenth-century Italy.