Theses Doctoral

The Choreographic Imagination in Renaissance Art

Powell, Olivia

This dissertation studies the complex relationship between Italian Renaissance art and dance. Interdisciplinary scholarship has hitherto focused on Renaissance dance treatises, which often exhibit parallels with contemporary writings on painting and sculpture. My research goes beyond the textual parallels to focus instead on the mechanisms of figuration in the visual arts, and on the corporeal sensibility of the Renaissance image. I examine the ways in which figural patterns, interactions, and gestures can be understood in terms of choreography. At issue is the nature of figural composition and of the figure itself, the characteristics of the dancing body and the role of that body within the corporeal imagination of the artist. The fundamental thesis is that the Renaissance artist can be considered a choreographer in his own right.

Chapter One (From Solo to Chorus) provides a framework for thinking about the artist as choreographer by discussing at length Leon Battista Alberti's On Painting (1435/36). First, I show that Alberti's definition of figural composition is essentially choreographic, in that it concerns the formal organization of bodies that move with expressive purpose. Secondly, I analyze Alberti's emphasis upon the Calumny of Apelles and the Three Graces, themes from Antiquity that express an aesthetic held in tension between the poles of fury and grace. These poles ultimately take us one step beyond the alignment of composition and choreography: Alberti also breaches the strict limits imposed on the body by court dance practice. In doing so, he paves the way for artists who expand the world of dance pictorially.

These two aspects of Alberti's book--the choreographic nature of figural composition and the role of dance in the figural imagination--establish the range of issues discussed in the next four chapters, which treat paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings made between circa 1430 and 1520. Organized to progress from duo to chorus, they treat both explicit and implicit depictions of dance as well as bodies ranging from the graceful to the frenzied.

Chapter Two (Duo) explores Annunciations by Donatello and Botticelli as dancing duos that pivot on the opposition between entry and reception, flourish and calm, male and female. The dance is just about to begin--impending duet signals imminent union. Focusing on Botticelli's depiction of the Three Graces in the Primavera, Chapter Three (Trio) considers representations of actual dancing, moments when artists such as Botticelli, Mantegna, and Leonardo da Vinci become choreographers in the most explicit sense of the term. Chapter Four (Chorus I) looks at Antonio Pollaiuolo's Dancing Nudes, a fresco that demonstrates the ability of the artistic imagination to choreograph dances far beyond the limits of reality.

Chapter Five (Chorus II) extends the dissertation's reach into the sixteenth century with a discussion of Raphael's design for the Massacre of the Innocents engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi. Its graceful figures and their careful composition lead to an inevitable engagement with dance; the violence of the subject is transcended by a choreographic aesthetic. Raphael's art confirms this dissertation's argument for the artist as choreographer, a thesis that has the potential to broaden understanding of what lies at the very core of Renaissance art itself: the composition of human bodies in motion.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Rosand, David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 2, 2014