Elusive Materiality

I believe that art history owes part of its allure to the complex mixture it provides of ideal and materiality: it is often too simple to forget that artworks, indeed, are objects. We may argue for hours about the depth of the messages they are supposed to convey, but yet we must admit that they are artifacts produced by a certain person in a specific time and place. The materials the artist chose and the technique he employed are not necessarily the result of a great mind facing elevated questions: they may well be the result of necessity, or part of the commission.

During a supervision I was once asked why a frescoed church would be painted this way in the Fourteenth Century; in other words, why fresco and not other means of wall decoration? I spent ten abundant minutes enumerating the potential reasons for this: naturalism of fresco as opposed to the staticity of mosaic, a new interest in narration against the Medieval hieratic style… Complex reasons instead of a simple, direct answer: fresco was the most obvious choice because it is durable and relatively not expensive if compared to other techniques; furthermore, it is even likely that the artist did not have much space in the decision, rather receiving specific indications by the patron. While I was traveling throughout the hyperuranium, the answer was lurking on Earth.


Madonna di Santa Margherita, Parmigianino, 1529, oil on panel, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Looking at the works of great Mannerist masters such as Parmigianino, we might easily forget that we are dealing with concrete, solid objects. The Madonna di Santa Margherita is indeed a notable example. The pale complexion of the characters stands out as if they are the source of light in the painting, the Child being its visual focus and bright epicenter. Hands are delicate and elongated, arranged in stylish gestures. Parmigianino’s figures are consistent and noble, although their volume is uncertain, their weight inconsistent, although they still maintain some hint of solidity. The same could not be said, for instance, in regards to a later Mannerist master, El Greco, whose scenes are vaporous and characters tend to blend with the surrounding world.


St Sebastian, El Greco, 1577-8, oil on canvas, Madrid, Prado

Indeed, works like this provide a wonderful case study for the complex relation between materiality and art: the two are necessarily intertwined, and yet several artists deeply questioned their mutual role, trying to dwarf the presence of the material medium or, on the contrary, highlighting it in a powerful trompe-l’oeil: looking at Giulio Romano’s frescoes in Mantua, for instance, we are drawn into a whirlpool of clouds and falling architectures. We take part in the scene of destruction and perceive, as the depicted characters, the weight of the world collapsing around us, over our heads.


Sala dei giganti, Giulio Romano, 1532-5, fresco, Mantua, Palazzo Te

The relation between medium and ideal is a notable aspect of Mannerism: as artists tried to find new ways to express themselves beyond the great masters of the High Renaissance, they put painting and sculpture to their limits. Virtuosity and grace became far more importance, in some cases, than the actual meaning of the work of art; for the artists of the time this meant surpassing the limits imposed by the artwork’s materiality.


artstor.com (featured image)


El Greco

Giulio Romano

Recent Posts

Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *