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Dangerous Flight: Amerindian Featherwork, Michelangelo, and the Violence of Natural History

Jessica Maratsos, University of Cambridge

Wed, 4/24 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · A71 Louis A. Simpson Building

Program in Italian Studies

In Michelangelo’s drawings for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri the motifs of wings and feathers have long been understood to serve metaphorical ends, alluding simultaneously to Neoplatonic concepts of divine ascent and the dangerous allure of mortal desire.  In this paper, I propose that this double-edged hermeneutic, deeply informed by Dantean and Ovidian poetics of flight, could have also structured the early modern viewing and interpretation of Amerindian featherwork.  Both types of objects—the drawings (and their many copies in a wide range of media) and featherwork from the Americas—were collected and circulated among the same elite circles of patrons.  Cavalieri himself possessed featherwork admired by the great Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi.  Characterized by brilliant colours and scintillating surfaces, these imported objects enacted an almost otherworldly material transmutation that was particularly well-suited to those that portrayed Christian images.  Yet the peril of desire and physicality of violence aestheticized in Michelangelo’s works is made manifest in the very fabrication of these objects.  Crafted from the feathers of hummingbirds, their manufacture came about from destruction, just as the burgeoning pursuit of natural history was predicated upon similar processes of both literal and epistemological dismemberment.

Jessica Maratsos is currently Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Early Modern Italian Studies at Cambridge University.  Before taking up the post in Cambridge, she taught at a variety of institutions, including the American University of Paris, Columbia University, and Harvard University.  She has published on early modern art, religion, and literature in numerous edited volumes and journals, including the Sixteenth Century Journal, Art History, and The Art Bulletin.  Her first monograph, Pontormo and the Art of Devotion in Renaissance Italy, was published in 2021 with Cambridge University Press.

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