Environment Affinity Group at SECAC


Environment Affinity Group at SECAC

This blog post was created in the context of our Methods class in which we (Sarah, Jackie, Clarisse) are working on the notion of environment. At SECAC we were exploring the ways in which current scholars are approaching their subjects through this methodological lens.

On Friday morning, we as a group attended a panel called “The Perils of Periodization, the Simplifications of Style: Revisiting Border Crossings in Medieval Art and Architecture”. Inspired by Ethan Matt Kavaler’s book Renaisance Gothic, the panel confronted the limitations of period labels based upon styles, and pushed for a deeper exploration of the specific geographic and temporal boundaries of a particular piece. Sarah Dillon, of Kingsborough Community College, presented a talk, “Italian Stained Glass of the Trecento: Late Medieval, Gothic, or Early Renaissance”. This talk in particular struck us as a particularly effective exploration of the impact of environment within art history. Her talk centered around three Italian stained glass windows from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: The Duccio Rose window in the Siena Cathedral, the Simone Martini window in the Chapel of St. Martin, and Taddeo Gaddi’s Baroncelli Chapel at Santa Croce. Critically addressing their origins in late Medieval Italy, Dillon argued that these windows represent just a small part of Italian works that defy traditional classifications of ‘Medieval’ or ‘Renaissance’.

Her analysis of the Duccio window was particularly exciting for our own academic pursuits dealing with the theme of environment. Analyzing the window and its location within the church, Dillon critically addressed the way that this window would have been visible to the thirteenth and fourteenth century viewer. Dillon drew compositional and iconographical connections between the window and the altarpiece situated below it (also a work of Duccio), and she further emphasized the relationship by addressing their specific locations within the church. The altarpiece and window not only iconographically inform one another but the window additionally illuminates the golden altarpiece, highlighting it with its many colors during the day.

The panel “Casting the ancient World for the Modern World” chaired by Carol Mattusch, from George Mason University, took a different approach to the notion of environment. Presenters discussed the plaster cast as a work of art itself, with its own history, and its complexity that is often overshadowed because of its devalued status of copy for which it has long suffered. Until recently, plaster casts were destroyed or lost because of this reception. Annetta Alexandrinis, from Cornell University, presented two recent exhibition projects: “Firing the Canon! The Cornell Casts and Their Discontents” (http://www.cornell.edu/video/firing-the-canon-cornell-plaster-casts ), and “Cast and Present: Replicating Antiquity in the Museum and the Academy,” (http://museum.cornell.edu/exhibitions/cast-and-present-replicating-antiquity-museum-and-academy )and demonstrated the documentary, as well as artistic, values of these objects for students who worked on these collaborative exhibitions at the university.

The plaster cast is particularly interesting in our discussion about environment: conceived by 19th century collectors as substitutes of the originals, plaster casts were praised for their pedagogical values in academies and museums, like at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Francesca Torello, from Carnegie School of Architecture, presented a paper on, “Exhibiting Architecture: Plaster Casts in Pittsburgh between Instruction and Professional Debate” which focused on the history of the creation of the collection of plaster casts by Andrew Carnegie between 1904 and 1906. His goal was to bring artworks from across the Atlantic to people in Pittsburgh who could not travel. The original environment of a façade of a church, or a specific architectural element, become lost. However, it allows for the selection of the most representative architectural and sculptural “marvels” that contribute to the creation of the encyclopedic museum. Art historians today can learn from these objects about the history of early 20th century taste, and conceive the plaster casts as works of art themselves, now that the idea of the fragmentary is well accepted.

Another aspect of environment we noticed at SECAC was present in the session entitled “Reconfiguring Knowledge: Making the Digital Humanities Visual”. Timothy Shea, of Duke University, presented his work “Digitizing Athens: Reconstructing the Urban Topography of Athens with GIS”, which stood for its methodology focused on notions of environment. The focus of this project on graves in Athens was rooted in the understanding of the original markers and their ancient environment, and how the roads would have informed the original viewer experience. There were similarities between Timothy Shea’s methods, and those found in a reading we completed earlier in the course by Lauren Hackworth Peterson. In “The Baker, His Tomb, His Wife, and Her Breadbasket: The Monument of Eurysaces in Rome” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177343), Peterson highlights the importance of context through the relation of urban cemeteries to the roads leading to and from the city. Similarly, the mapping project “Digitizing Athens” overlays the locations of known cemetery sites with their contemporary roads and emphasizes the relevance of funerary marker location.

Given our own research interests, it was informative for us to see how contemporary scholars are using the notion of environment in their work, implicitly or explicitly, through a variety of approaches. The viewer experience and the relationship of the object to its context provide a deeper understanding of artworks, and will inform our current research projects.

Sarah Conell, Jackie Lombard, and Clarisse Fava-Piz    


  • Environment
  • Graduate Work