Diana Hiller will address that unusual query in her talk, ‘Why is that Saint holding a barbecue grill? Cracking visual codes in Italian Renaissance painting‘, at the Museo Italiano, 199 Faraday Street, Carlton 3053 on Thursday 11 June at 6.30pm (free event but call (03) 9349 9021 or RSVP here). People living in Italy in the early modern period had many advantages over modern viewers when looking at the paintings that surrounded them as they went about their daily lives. They saw paintings in their parish churches, in magnificent cathedrals, in municipal buildings, in hospitals, and in the local meeting places of confraternities. Merchants and well-to-do citizens had paintings in both their public and private domestic spaces. Today the most obvious visual images that we encounter in our environment are likely to be advertisements. For us paintings are generally confined to art galleries. We not only lack the all-important contexts for painted works, but we are also no longer aware of the many visual cues that were familiar to people in the Renaissance. The citizens of Florence, Siena, Venice, Milan and so on knew their Biblical stories and were generally familiar with the most important myths and gods of classical antiquity.
When a painter depicted a grey-haired saint carrying a key, for example, all would have known that the saint was Peter. And when viewers saw a large figure of a man of a certain age holding a trident they would immediately have identified the figure as Neptune or Poseidon. Peter’s keys and Neptune’s three-pronged fork were equivalent to a modern logo, as easily identifiable as those for Apple or Nike are for us today. There are, of course, signs that are probably less familiar to a modern audience: for example, what do a string of coral beads or a goldfinch in paintings of the Christ Child signify? In the course of the talk, modern viewers will be offered ways of ‘reading’ a Renaissance painting through the embedded codes so that when looking at a painting from the period a modern spectator may have some means of ‘decoding’ the signs and, in turn, comprehending the meaning of the painted image.
After teaching science students at La Trobe University for 20 years, Diana became a student again and completed a PhD in Art History at the University of Melbourne. Her book based on her doctoral research, Gendered Perceptions of Florentine Last Supper Frescoes, c.1350-1490, was published by Ashgate in 2014.