I was really looking forward to attending the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that was held this year in New York City from March 27 to 29. This conference was the sixtieth in the RSAs history and because of the location turned out to be the largest in the Society’s history. The program book came to over 800 pages although an app was available for easy reference.
I was especially interested because the conference program showed a heavy emphasis on the art of the Venetian Renaissance. On Friday alone there were four consecutive sessions under the title, “Art, Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” In addition there was an early morning roundtable discussion entitled, “Early Modern Venetian Studies in the Twenty-First Century.”
I was only able to attend on Friday but looked forward to hearing from a mixture of leading scholars in the field and younger scholars anxious to establish their credentials. Before going any further I have to say that the panels I attended turned out to be disappointing for a variety of reasons that I will discuss below.
First, let me discuss the roundtable mentioned above. The abstract indicated that “this panel will bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of top scholars working in Venetian studies today to examine the current state of the field and to look forward to future directions of research.” There was indeed a distinguished group of professors from various distinguished universities who in turn briefly discussed their own work but in no way indicated any future directions in the field of Venetian studies.
One significant omission was the lack of any discussion of the role of the Internet. In his introduction the chairman of the panel spoke at length about a new publication of material from Venetian archives. Apparently, the publisher has printed less than a hundred copies of what sounded like a huge tome. Depending on demand a less expensive paperback version might be available in a few years.
Is this where Renaissance studies are going? Why shouldn’t this book be instantly and inexpensively available to a much wider audience? Medieval manuscripts used to be available only to a few until the appearance of moveable type. Why did these scholars fail to discuss the Internet and its uses in the twenty first century?
In the question period one member of the audience asked if Venetian studies might go into decline in this century after a meteoric rise in the past century. This question finally elicited a spirited if inconclusive discussion among the panel. Ironically, the discussion came to an end after an Italian scholar in the audience lamented the decline of modern Venice. Actually, he claimed that Venice was dying, not so much because of the threatening waters but from contemporary mis-management and corruption. It was a somber end to the roundtable.
I will only say a few words about the next two panels I attended, both under the title, “Art. Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” First, the future of Venetian studies would appear to include an excessive interest in funerary tombs and monuments. It is as if scholars, both old and new, believe that all that needs to be said about the great masterworks of the Venetian Renaissance has been said. Now they will work in fallow fields of little artistic value.
Second, one of the speakers gave an example of how not to present a paper at a conference. She did choose a large subject and even warned that she might have too much material. Participants are limited to a twenty-minute presentation and usually you can only read ten pages in that time. So one would expect that that the paper be edited carefully and discussion limited to a few examples. Instead, the professor just chose to read her entire paper at breakneck speed. What could she have been thinking of?
Finally, my day ended with another roundtable, a kind of summing up of the Art and Architecture series. This roundtable included a number of other luminaries. The room was packed with expectant listeners. The tone, however, was set by one of the three chairpersons who introduced each of the eight participants at length. Her introduction took almost 20 minutes of the allotted 90. I frankly can’t remember anything that was said by any of the participants. It was an exercise in non-controversy.
I do remember that they were all women, a fact pointed out by someone in the audience during the question period. Most of the people in the room were also women. Art History has become a province for women. This issue was never raised at the conference. What is the special appeal of Venice and its art to women? Why are men not interested? Maybe these questions could be addressed at a future conference.