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Kress Talks with Cynthia Kok and Felicity Good

Tuesday 8 November 2022
Art History Book Launches
Example of mother-of-pearl’s iridescence. In “Mother-of-Pearl Secret Revealed,” Berkeley Lab News Center, November 25, 2008, accessed July 25, 2021, https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2008/11/25/mother-of-pearl-secret-revealed/.

Investigating Iridescence: Mother-of-Pearl and Early Modern Theories of Materiality, Light, and Liveliness

Color can be unstable—how did early modern artists and natural philosophers make sense of it? In particular, encounters with mother-of-pearl forced observers to notice the shell's iridescence. Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus of animal specimens included a print of shell roundels, delicately washed in pinks, greens, and blues to convey their essential iridescence. Art theorist Karel van Mander likewise developed the terms reflex-const and reverberatie that, resonating with Robert Hooke’s theory of “Light in the Object,” suggest an inner vibrative motion causes a material’s iridescence. Although reflectivity is often conceptualized as a surface quality, the motion inherent to iridescence suggested more complicated internal mechanisms—mother-of-pearl was even described as emanating light. This talk analyzes how mother-of-pearl’s dynamic iridescence challenged understandings of color, optics, light, and notions of liveliness. Iridescence required investigators across all disciplines to study not only the surface but also the physical structure of the object to reevaluate the boundary between tangible materiality and visual illusionism. In seeking to explain iridescence and the instability of perceived color, artists and natural philosophers generated new frameworks for interpreting the natural world around them.

Ludum Litterarium or Phrontisterium?: The Visual Culture of Childhood Education in Sixteenth-Century Antwerp

Dirk Vellert’s small woodcut print A Schoolroom with Teachers and Pupils (Antwerp, 1526) offers a glimpse into the educational landscape of early sixteenth-century Antwerp. The two-story interior—a makeshift urban classroom—is a bustling and crowded space filled with boys and girls of all ages who are depicted receiving instruction in vernacular reading, writing, and possibly arithmetic. Within the broader visual culture of early modern childhood education, images vary in tone from the serious, to the pragmatic, to the comical. Classrooms are imagined as well-ordered places for learning and as chaotic spaces populated by raucous children and frustrated schoolmasters. Representations of institutionalized learning produced in Antwerp correlates with the growing prominence of humanist writings on children and educational theory and with the swift expansion of and access to schools within the city. Writing of Antwerp, the renowned humanist Rudolph Agricola argued that sustained civil and economic success depended directly upon educating the next generation of skilled workers, local officials, and merchants. This talk investigates how formal education for children became a defining feature of early modern childhood and how related images reveal contemporaneous attitudes and anxieties surrounding the daily practices and larger ideological concerns of childhood education.

Dirk Jacobz Vellert, Schoolroom with Teachers and Pupils (Antwerp, 1526)

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