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Two new publications on Art and Living Presence

The studies of two researchers previously working within the VICI-project ‘Art, Agency and Living Presence’ are now published by Leiden University Press in conjunction with Akademie Verlag.

The Animated Image. Roman Theory on Naturalism, Vividness and Divine Power, written by Dr Stijn Bussels and Il Marmo Spirante. Sculpture and Experience in Seventeenth Century Rome, written by Dr Joris van Gastel both result from this project. Their books focus on the phenomenon of people responding to images as if they are alive and aim to understand and analyze works of art and the living presence responses they elicit not in terms of representation, but in terms of agency. By employing Alfred Gell’s theory of art’s agency, both authors look at the social network in which the visual or verbal image or object exerts agency.

The double character of artworks

The Animated Image addresses the entire range of contexts in which images were described by Roman authors as being animated, as well as the accounts that Roman writers produced to explain the animation of inanimate matter. Each chapter of the book takes as its starting point a text or series of related texts by an author of the imperial period, which allows Bussels to systematically explore how writers from all over the Roman Empire discussed the idea of the animation of visual and verbal images. By demonstrating how ‘beholders… were urged to be aware of the representational aspect of the work of art … but at the same time go along with the fiction or thinking they were witnessing a living being instead of a representation’, Bussels elaborates on the rhetorical contradiction that this attribution of animation by Roman authors entails, a paradox which he labels as ‘divided consciousness’. 

This idea of the paradoxical double character of works of art would eventually return in the written responses of spectators to baroque sculpture in seventeenth-century Rome. Focusing on the ‘manner in which the beholder’s engagement with sculpture is played out in contemporary poetry and other sources’, Van Gastel’s book Il Marmo Spirante explores the various ways in which sculptors of the Roman Baroque, including artists such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi, and Giuliano Finelli, orchestrated their work in order to transform cold, hard marble into seemingly living beings. In his research, Van Gastel understands these works as agents, vitalised by the spectator, the artist, and others interacting with the work.                    

Dr Michael Squire, Lecturer in Classical Greek Art at King’s College London, on The Animated Image:
‘Bussels’ most substantial achievement lies in bringing together such a disparate collection of texts and testimonia: this alone makes The Animated Image a useful starting point for anyone interested in Graeco-Roman visual ontologies.'

(...) it deserves to be widely applauded – both by classicists, and by the wider art-historical community.


Prof. Caroline van Eck (Leiden), on Il Marmo Spirante: 
‘A book of striking originality. Sculptures by baroque giants such as Gianlorenzo Bernini and Allessandro Algardi are explored from the perspective of the early-modern viewer, a viewer that was both moved and petrified by the apparent life encountered in the marble [...] the author employs a highly innovative interdisciplinary approach, combining more traditional art historical methods with literary analysis and modern insights in human perception.’ 

Further information

The Animated Image. Roman Theory on Naturalism, Vividness and Divine Power by Stijn Bussels on the website of Leiden University Press

Il Marmo Spirante. Sculpture and Experience in Seventeenth Century Rome by Joris van Gastel on the the website of Leiden University Press

- Read the full review by Michael Squire of The Animated Image

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