Theses Doctoral

Stone Mediators: Sculpted Altarpieces in Early Renaissance Venice

Buonanno, Lorenzo

Since the Middle Ages, strict regulations had divided the Venetian craft guilds according to the raw materials that they used. Because of this there were few occasions in which to compete over the production of cognate objects. Altarpieces were the major exception. The design and production of an altarpiece, whether its central image was painted or carved from stone or wood, had involved multiple competencies, providing work for different artisans, and facilitating the exchange of ideas across mediums. Over the last third of the fifteenth century, however, sculpted altarpieces flourished and their designs increasingly eschewed participation from painters as polychromy became more and more limited and new classicizing tastes prevailed. While collaboration did not disappear, the dialogical nature of altarpiece production in this period was imbued with a sense of competition. The discourse on media, however, was not restricted to the realm of aesthetics and matters of business or personal pride. Reflection upon the ontologies, merits, and symbolic efficacy of their materials was also informed by these objects' privileged locations on or in proximity to the altar.
Previous studies on sculpted altarpieces have focused on morphology, iconography, and patronage. My study, in contrast, examines this object category as an intermediary, in a threefold sense: altarpieces acted as facilitators, as go-betweens engendering practical interaction between professional groups; they constituted a locus of artistic exchange between mediums, and of reflection upon the ontology of the crafts of painting and sculpture; the materiality of sculpted altarpieces engaged in a reciprocal inflection of meaning with their setting, the altar.
By virtue of their unique status as a shared object category, altarpieces allow us to chart the interaction between the arts of Venice. Their privileged position at a fulcrum of holy space opens their interpretation to an array of written sources of information. An examination of these sources and of this formal and thematic dialog provides a window into understanding the artistic principles that guided artists and viewers in a city that produced almost no theoretical literature directly addressing the arts until the middle of the sixteenth century.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-06-01.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Rosand, David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2014