Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe | Timothy McCall, Sean Roberts, Giancarlo Fiorenza (eds.) | download
Main Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

, ,
Secrets in all their variety permeated early modern Europe, from the whispers of ambassadors at court to the emphatically publicized books of home remedies that flew from presses and booksellers shops. This interdisciplinary volume draws on approaches from art history and cultural studies to investigate the manifestations of secrecy in printed books and drawings, staircases and narrative paintings, ecclesiastical furnishings and engravers' tools. Topics include how patrons of art and architecture deployed secrets to construct meanings and distinguish audiences, and how artists and patrons manipulated the content and display of the subject matter of artworks to create an aura of exclusive access and privilege. Essays examine the ways in which popes and princes skillfully deployed secrets in works of art to maximize social control, and how artists, printers, and folk healers promoted their wares through the impression of valuable, mysterious knowledge. The authors contributing to the volume represent both established authorities in their field as well as emerging voices. This volume will have wide appeal for historians, art historians, and literary scholars, introducing readers to a fascinating and often unexplored component of early modern culture.
Year:
2013
Publisher:
Truman State University Press
Language:
english
Pages:
300
ISBN 10:
1612480926
ISBN 13:
9781612480923
Series:
Early Modern Studies, Vol. 11
File:
PDF, 102.07 MB

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Visual Cultures of Secrecy
in Early Modern Europe

Habent sua fata libelli
Early Modern Studies Series
General Editor
Michael Wolfe
St. John’s University
Editorial Board of Early Modern Studies
Elaine Beilin
Framingham State College
Christopher Celenza
Johns Hopkins University
Barbara B. Diefendorf
Boston University
Paula Findlen
Stanford University
Scott H. Hendrix
Princeton Theological Seminary
Jane Campbell Hutchison
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Mary B. McKinley
University of Virginia

Raymond A. Mentzer
University of Iowa
Charles G. Nauert
University of Missouri, Emeritus
Robert V. Schnucker
Truman State University, Emeritus
Nicholas Terpstra
University of Toronto
Margo Todd
University of Pennsylvania
James Tracy
University of Minnesota
Merry Wiesner-Hanks
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Cultures
Visual
Secrecy
OF

IN

Early Modern
Europe

ED ITE D BY

Timothy McCall, Sean Roberts, and Giancarlo Fiorenza

Early Modern Studies 11
Truman State University Press
Kirksville, Missouri

Copyright © 2013 Truman State University Press, Kirksville, Missouri, 63501
All rights reserved
tsup.truman.edu
Cover art by Andrea Mantegna, Ludovico Gonzaga Confers with a Trusted Secretary, detail from the Camera Picta,
1465–74, fresco, Mantua, Castello di San Giorgio. Scala / Art Resource, NY.
Cover design: Teresa Wheeler
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Visual cultures of secrecy in early modern Europe / edited by Timothy McCall, Sean Roberts, and Giancarlo Fiorenza.
pages cmm. — (Early modern studies ; vol. 11)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61248-092-3 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-61248-093-0 (ebook)
1. Secrecy in art. 2. Arts, European—Themes, motives. 3. Arts and society—Europe. I. McCall, Timothy, editor of
compilation. II. Roberts, Sean E., editor of compilation. III. Fiorenza, Giancarlo, 1970–, editor of compilation.
NX650.S435V57 2013
709.4—dc23
2013001818
No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any format by any means without written permi; ssion from
the publisher.
The paper in this publication meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for
Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1992.

Contents
Illustrations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  vi
Acknowledgments. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  ix
Introduction
Revealing Early Modern Secrecy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts
1	The Visual Dynamics of (Un)veiling in Early Modern Culture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
Patricia Simons
2 	On the Skins of Goats and Sheep
(Un)masking the Secrets of Nature in Early Modern Popular Culture. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
William Eamon
3

Secrecy and the Production of Seignorial Space
The Coretto of Torrechiara . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76
Timothy McCall

4

Michelangelo’s Open Secrets. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
Maria Ruvoldt

5

Hebrew, Hieroglyphs, and the Secrets of Divine Wisdom in Ludovico Mazzolino’s
Devotional Paintings. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  126
Giancarlo Fiorenza

6	A Secret Space for a Secret Keeper
Cardinal Bibbiena at the Vatican Palace . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  149
Henry Dietrich Fernández
7	Networks of Urban Secrecy
Tamburi, Anonymous Denunciations, and the Production of the Gaze in
Fifteenth-Century Florence. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  162
Allie Terry-Fritsch
8	Tricks of the Trade
The Technical Secrets of Early Engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  182
Sean Roberts
9	The Alchemical Womb
Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  208
Lyle Massey
About the Contributors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  229
Index. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  231

Illustrations
Introduction: Revealing Early Modern Secrecy
Fig. 1	Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Fig. 2	Andrea Mantegna, Footmen Regulate Access to Ludovico Gonzaga, detail from
the Camera Picta, 1465–74, fresco . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Fig. 3	Andrea Mantegna, Ludovico Gonzaga Confers with a Trusted Secretary, detail from
the Camera Picta, 1465–74, fresco . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Fig. 4	Unknown Emilian or Lombard Artist, Gualtieri Reading Fake Papal Bull to Griselda
and Subjects, detail from the Camera di Griselda, originally from Roccabianca castle
(Parma), ca. 1470, fresco. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Fig. 5	Domenico Fetti, Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music, ca. 1614–1620, oil on canvas. . . . . . . . . . 12
Fig. 6	Agostino Carracci, Satyr and Sleeping Nymph, late 1580s, engraving . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Fig. 7
Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on canvas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Chapter 1: The Visual Dynamics of (Un)veiling in Early Modern Culture
Fig. 1.1 Sandro Botticelli, Venus, 1480s, oil on canvas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Fig. 1.2 Giovanni Antonio di Brescia (after), Two Lovers, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Fig. 1.3 Giovanni Antonio di Brescia (attr.), The Passionate Embrace, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Fig. 1.4 Master BXG, The Lovers, ca. 1480, engraving . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Fig. 1.5	Titian (attr.), Lovers, ca. 1510–25, oil on canvas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Fig. 1.6	Raphael, La Fornarina, ca. 1518–19, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
Fig. 1.7	Titian, The Triumph of Love, ca. 1545–50, oil on canvas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
Fig. 1.8 Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, ca. 1665–67, oil on wood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Fig. 1.9	Raphael, Study for the Fainting Virgin of the Baglione Entombment, pen and ink
over black chalk underdrawing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48
Chapter 2: On the Skins of Goats and Sheep
Fig. 2.1 Snake Handler Catching Vipers, woodcut from Pietro Andrea Mattioli, I discorsi di
M. Pietro Andrea Matthioli (Venice, 1557). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
Fig. 2.2 Charlatans in the Piazza San Marco, engraving from Giacomo Franco, Habiti d’huomini
e donne (Venice, 1609). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56
Fig. 2.3 Snake Handler in a Bologna Piazza, engraving from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Le arte
per via (Bologna, 1660). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
Fig. 2.4	Nicolo Nelli, Portrait of Leonardo Fioravanti, woodcut from Leonardo Fioravanti,
Tesoro della vita humana (Venice, 1582). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
Fig. 2.5	Title page from Benedetto (called il Persiano), I maravigliosi, et occulti secreti
naturali (Rome, 1613). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
Fig. 2.6	Title page from Dottor Gratiano Pagliarizzo, Secreti nuovi e rari (Bologna, Milan, n.d.). . . . . . . . . 67
Fig. 2.7 Bernardino Mei, Il Ciarlatano, 1656, oil on canvas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68

Illustrations

vii

Chapter 3: Secrecy and the Production of Seignorial Space
Fig. 3.1 Coretto of Torrechiara, ca. 1460s, Milan, Castello Sforzesco, Civiche Raccolte
d’Arte Applicata. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Fig. 3.2	Torrechiara, built 1450s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
Fig. 3.3 Bembo workshop, Camera d’oro, Torrechiara, late-1450s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
Fig. 3.4 Bembo workshop, Ceiling of camera d’oro, Torrechiara, late-1450s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Fig. 3.5 Chapel of San Nicomede, Torrechiara. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85
Fig. 3.6 Benedetto Bembo, Polyptych of San Nicomede (Madonna and Child with Saints
Anthony Abbot, Nicomede, Catherine of Alexandria, and Peter Martyr), signed and
dated 1462, oil and gold on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85
Fig. 3.7 Edgardo Minozzi, Coretto, ca. 1912 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
Fig. 3.8	Albrecht Dürer, Saint Eustace, detail from Paumgartner Altarpiece, ca. 1503, oil on wood. . . . . . . 90
Fig. 3.9	Rossi heart emblem, detail of Coretto of Torrechiara (fig. 3.1), 1460s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
Fig 3.10	Rossi heart emblem, tomb of Pietro Rossi, 1430s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Fig. 3.11	Interior, Coretto of Torrechiara (fig. 3.1), 1460s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
Chapter 4: Michelangelo’s Open Secrets
Fig. 4.1 Copy after Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Rape of Ganymede (detail), ca. 1533,
black chalk on paper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  106
Fig. 4.2 Michelangelo, The Punishment of Tityus, ca. 1533, black chalk on paper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  107
Fig. 4.3 Michelangelo, The Fall of Phaeton, ca. 1533, black chalk on paper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  108
Fig. 4.4 Michelangelo, The Fall of Phaeton, ca. 1533, black chalk on paper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  115
Chapter 5: Hebrew, Hieroglyphs, and the Secrets of Divine Wisdom in Ludovico
Mazzolino’s Devotional Paintings
Fig. 5.1	Dosso Dossi, Jupiter, Painting Butterflies, ca. 1524, oil on canvas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  127
Fig. 5.2	Ludovico Mazzolino, Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet, ca. 1527, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  129
Fig. 5.3	Ludovico Mazzolino, Christ Disputing with the Doctors, ca. 1522, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  131
Fig. 5.4	Ludovico Mazzolino, Dispute in the Temple, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  136
Fig. 5.5	Ludovico Mazzolino, Christ and the Adulterous Woman, ca. 1519, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  138
Fig. 5.6	Ludovico Mazzolino, The Tribute Money, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  142
Fig. 5.7	Titian, The Tribute Money, ca. 1524, oil on wood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  144
Chapter 6: A Secret Space for a Secret Keeper
Fig. 6.1	Raphael and workshop, Stufetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, 1516–17. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  150
Fig. 6.2	Raphael and workshop, Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, 1516–17. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  151
Fig. 6.3 Marco Dente, Venus Pulling a Thorn from her Foot. ca. 1516, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  155
Fig. 6.4	Raphael, The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, ca. 1518, oil on panel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  157
Fig. 6.5	Temple of Vesta, early first century bce, Tivoli. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  159
Chapter 7: Networks of Urban Secrecy
Fig. 7.1 Map of Renaissance Florence, with locations of tamburi marked by black boxes. . . . . . . . . . . . .  163
Fig. 7.2 Exterior of the Palazzo del Podestà (Museo Nazionale del Bargello), Florence. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  168
Fig. 7.3	Interior courtyard and loggia of the of the Palazzo del Podestà . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  171
Fig. 7.4	Nicholas Beatrizet, Pasquino, engraving. Collected and published by Antoine
Lafrery in Speculum Romanae Magnificientiae (Rome, 1550) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  176

viii	Illustrations

Chapter 8: Tricks of the Trade
Fig. 8.1	Albrecht Dürer, Sudarium with Two Angels, 1513, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  183
Fig. 8.2	Albrecht Dürer, The Sudarium Spread out by an Angel, 1516, etching on iron . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  184
Fig. 8.3	Attributed to Baccio Baldini, The Samian Sibyl, ca. 1470, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  188
Fig. 8.4	Francesco Rosselli. Annunciation, after 1482, engraving from the series The
Mysteries of the Rosary. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  189
Fig. 8.5 Third Map of Africa (detail), engraving from Ptolemy, Geography (Rome:
Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, 1478). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  192
Fig. 8.6 Map of the Holy Land (detail), engraving from Francesco Berlinghieri, Septe
giornate della geographia (Florence: Niccolò Tedesco, 1482). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  192
Fig. 8.7 Map of “Modern” Italy, engraving from Francesco Berlinghieri, Septe giornate
della geographia (Florence: Niccolò Tedesco, 1482). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  194
Fig. 8.8	Attributed to Baccio Baldini, illustration for the third canto, engraving from
Cristoforo Landino, Commento sopra la commedia (Florence: Niccolò Tedesco, 1481). . . . . . .  197
Fig. 8.9 The Holy Mountain (frontispiece), engraving from Antonio Bettini, Monte santo di Dio
(Florence: Niccolò Tedesco, 1477). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  198
Fig. 8.10	Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods (left half), ca. 1470–1480, engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  200
Chapter 9: The Alchemical Womb
Fig. 9.1	Title page from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum microcosmicum (Augustae
Vindelicorum: Typis Davidis Francki, 1619), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  210
Fig. 9.2 Visio prima from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum microcosmicum (Augsburg,
1639), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  212
Fig. 9.3 Visio secunda from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum microcosmicum (Augsburg,
1619), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  213
Fig. 9.4 Visio tertia from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum microcosmicum (Augsburg, 1619),
engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  214
Fig. 9.5 Plate 3 from Stefan Michelspacher, Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst un Natur, in Alchymia
(Augsburg, 1616), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  217
Fig. 9.6 Plate 4 from Stefan Michelspacher, Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst un Natur, in Alchymia
(Augsburg, 1616), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  218
Fig. 9.7 Adam and Eve from Thomas Geminus, Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio
(London, 1545), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  220
Fig. 9.8	Detail of devil’s head in Visio prima, from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum
microcosmicum (Augustae Vindelicorum: Typis Davidis Francki, 1619), engraving . . . . . . . . . .  222
Fig. 9.9	Roundel with flaps in Visio prima, from Johann Remmelin, Catoptrum microcosmicum
(Augsburg, 1619), engraving. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  223

Acknowledgments
The intellectual spark for this volume came from events organized by the editors in the spring of
2009 on the theme of “the secret spaces of early modern Europe.” The first of these was a symposium held at the University of Southern California under the auspices of the USC-Huntington
Library Early Modern Studies Institute, the Visual Studies Graduate Certificate Program, and the
Art History Department. The second was a panel at the College Art Association’s annual meeting.
We would like to thank the speakers, discussants, and audiences of these events for the vibrant
exchange of ideas fostered on these occasions. Bruce Smith especially provided a response to the
papers presented at USC, which helped to determine the shape of this volume. We are particularly
grateful to Peter Mancall for supporting the symposium with funding from EMSI and to Amy
Braden for her hard work ensuring that everything ran smoothly.
The editors would like to thank Stephen Campbell for his insightful comments on an earlier
draft of this manuscript, and additionally Jo Joslyn, Sheryl Reiss, and Rebecca Zorach for assistance and advice along the way. Carolyn Murphy deserves our gratitude for helping to ensure that
the contribution of Henry Dietrich Fernández saw publication here. Michael Wolfe and the anonymous readers for Truman State University Press provided numerous invaluable suggestions. We
thank as well Nancy Rediger for her enthusiasm for the project and Barbara Smith-Mandell for her
careful and attentive work in bringing this book to print.
We thank, above all, each of the contributors to this volume, without whose hard work and
generosity of ideas this book would most surely not exist.
—————
Sean Roberts is grateful for the support of USC’s Art History Department, and especially to Nancy
Troy for her encouragement of this project. The Provost’s Office provided financial support for
publication through the Advancing Scholarship in the Social Sciences and Humanities program.
The students of several graduate seminars, including Jeremy Glatstein, Ellen Dooley, Sean Nelson,
and Rachel Amato provided thoughtful responses to both the introduction and Dr. Roberts’s
essay. Alexander Marr and Vera Keller provided the opportunity to present material related to this
book at the EMSI symposium, Ingenious Acts, in 2011. Likewise, Lilliana Leopardi and students
at Chapman University offered a valuable occasion to discuss early modern secrecy. Along with
those already mentioned, thanks are due to Eunice Howe, Naoko Tahatake, and the anonymous
readers of a related article published in Renaissance Studies. The British Museum, National Gallery
London, Getty Museum, and Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense generously granted permission to
reproduce works in their collections.
For assistance and suggestions for both the introduction and his essay, Tim McCall would like
to thank the faculty forum of the History Department of Villanova University, in addition to audiences at Rider University, Bowling Green State University, the University of Southern California,
and the Penn Humanities Forum of the University of Pennsylvania. In particular—and in addition
to the coeditors, contributors, and others named above—gratitude goes to Jennifer Borland,
ix

x	Acknowledgments

Adriano Duque, Campbell Grey, Margaret Haines, Jennie Hirsh, Marc Gallicchio, Marco Gentile,
Adele Lindenmeyr, Cara Rachele, Sindhu Revuluri, Ingrid Rowland, Paul Steege, Wendy Steiner,
and Alessandra Talignani. For important assistance with images, thanks are due as well to Peta
Motture, Nick Humphreys, Laura Basso, Chiara Burgio, Francesca Tasso, and Annarita Ziveri.
Financial support was provided by the History Department and the Office of Research and
Sponsored Projects of Villanova University.
Giancarlo Fiorenza is indebted to Linda Halisky and Susan Opava, two former deans at
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, for their generous support of his
research. A State Faculty Support Grant provided financial assistance for his contribution to the
volume. Charles Dempsey, Paul Manoguerra, and Alexander Nagel kindly read earlier versions of
the essay, while colleagues in the Department of Art and Design lent a patient ear and offered
encouragement and sound advice. For the images, Sheryl Frisch was always quick to help.
Henry Dietrich Fernández passed away in September 2009. The editors wish to dedicate this
volume to Henry in memory of his scholarship, intellectual curiosity, and collegiality.

Introduction
Revealing Early Modern Secrecy
Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

S

ecrets in all their variety permeated early modern Europe. From the whispers of ambassadors at court to the emphatically publicized books of home remedies that flew from presses
and booksellers’ shops, women and men were bound in a web of arcane and privileged
knowledge. Secrecy, of course, is hardly an early modern invention. The notion, most expansively
construed, that knowledge must be revealed or unveiled, that signs and symbols stand at a threshold to be peeled back by probing eyes and minds, is an integral part of an intellectual tradition that
stretches back at least as far as Egyptian and pre-Socratic Greek thought and encompasses medieval exegetes and humanist poets alike. This volume, however, examines characteristics of secrecy
rooted in the particular intellectual, visual, and social conditions of European cultures between the
fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Novel forms of erudition (humanism foremost among these),
a certain fluidity between conceptions of public and private spheres while rigid stratification of
class and rank remained entrenched, and a rapidly changing fashioning of selves spurred by
unprecedented religious upheaval all might be seen as separating an early modern culture of
secrecy from its predecessors and successors. Perhaps what most characterized early modern
secrets, however, was the sheer quantity and vibrancy of the material and visual culture that
inspired and sustained performances of secrecy. Arcane, erudite, and sometimes perplexing images
and symbols were frescoed on the walls of princely palaces, woven in the threads of lavish tapestries, and emblazoned in ink and paint on the printed and manuscript pages that filled the studioli
and cabinets of scholars.
Art historians, literary scholars, and historians have long labored to decipher the hidden contents of Renaissance words and images. More recently, scholars of medieval and early modern
Europe have begun the crucial work of anatomizing secrecy, of disarticulating secrets to understand how they work. They have focused increasing attention on secrecy as a driving cultural force,
pointing to its centrality in milieus ranging from alchemy to statecraft, medicine to theater.1 A
broad range of disciplinary concerns has motivated these reinvestigations in fields from the history
of science to anthropology and literary studies. While approaches have been as variegated as the
objects of their inquiries, these reconsiderations of the clandestine have been united by a
1. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature; Cope, Secret Sharers in Italian Comedy; Lochrie, Covert Operations; Rasmussen,
“Introduction”; Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship; Engel et al., Das Geheimnis; Park, Secrets of Women; Biagioli, Galileo’s Instruments of
Credit; Kavey, Books of Secrets; Snyder, Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy; Long and Rankin, Secrets and Knowledge.

1

2	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

commitment to look beyond the “contents” of secrets to shed light on the act and means of their
disguise and revelation. In some cases, the secret itself gained meaning by the act of being hidden
and excluded from certain audiences. In other cases, the very public presentation of information
as having been previously occluded served to augment its significance. A unifying principle of
much recent scholarship investigating secrecy is that the revelation of secrets was as significant and
efficacious as their initial invisibility or hiddenness.
Among the best-known early examples, though hardly a unique starting point for Renaissance
conceptions of secrecy, is Petrarch’s enigmatically named Secretum (The Secret). This text, comprised of three dialogues between the fourteenth-century Italian poet and the Latin church father
Augustine, can tell us a great deal about how such secrets work. Petrarch explained the title of his
work with a command directed to the text itself: “So, little book, I bid you to flee from public
places. Be content to stay with me, true to the title that I have given you. For you are my secret, and
thus you are titled. And when I think about profound subjects, speak to me in secret what has been
in secret spoken to you.”2 The lessons proffered in the conversations that follow were not usefully
secret in the way that battle plans, libelous rumors, or alchemical recipes might have been. Yet
Petrarch’s invocation of secrecy was nonetheless tremendously significant in the clever way he
emphasized moral reflection and exercised the faculty of personal judgment. The poet designated
his text as a secret and thereby established a privileged community of readers, distinguished by
their virtuosic erudition, their discretion, and their ability to comprehend spiritual truths best hidden from the prying eyes of the uninitiated.
The revelation and withholding of secrets, as Petrarch’s Secretum demonstrates, have often
served as techniques not only of community building but, equally, of exclusion.3 A seventeenthcentury Londoner coming home from the bookshop, eager to learn the carefully guarded secrets
of fish, or a print collector in Nuremberg probing the enigmatic polygons and arcane glyphs of
Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (fig. 1) each could have imagined him or herself as possessing information hidden from others.4 If we say, “you, dear reader, we have a secret to tell you, something
that no one else knows,” what information we might have for you could very well be less significant
than the sense of importance you no doubt feel at being included in our intimate group, and less
efficacious than the distinction and privilege granted to you at the expense of everyone else not
fortunate enough to have picked up this volume. In the early modern period, no less than today,
the keeping and telling of secrets were communicative acts, and the sharing, offering, and hiding
of such secrets acted as a means of distinguishing between, excluding, and producing publics along
an axis of criteria ranging from education and social status to gender and age.5
As Karma Lochrie has shown in her groundbreaking study Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses
of Secrecy (1999), the “act of secrecy…is a social one that draws boundaries between ‘those who

2. Petrarca, The Secret, 47. See also Simonetta, Rinascimento Segreto, 25–28. For further on the intimacy between reader and
author activated by secrecy, see Campbell, Commonwealth of Nature, 21–59.
3. See, for example, Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet; Lochrie, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
4. Art history’s tradition of probing the Melencolia I for its secrets may be traced to Panofsky, Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer.
Michael Camille characterized the engraving as “almost a paradigm of the problem of meaning itself ”; Camille, “Walter Benjamin and
Dürer’s Melencolia I,” 59.
5. Bok, Secrets. See also de Luca, “Notion of Secretum.”

Introduction

FIGURE 1. Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving, London, British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum.

3

4	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

ought to know but do not’ and those who know and distributes power between them.”6 William
Eamon’s landmark Science and the Secrets of Nature (1996) has called needed attention to the ways in
which information available to any literate European of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
could be effectively framed as “hidden” knowledge in books like Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (1555).7
Allison Kavey has argued that these only nominally arcane tomes moved rapidly beyond the continent, spawning a veritable industry in England as well.8 The seeming paradox of such open secrets is
announced to all, boldly proclaimed in printed books like Thomas Johnson’s Cornucopiae (1596).9
The first folio of Johnson’s book promises to reveal to readers the “rare secrets in man, beasts, foules,
fishes, plantes, stones, and such like.” Commonplace and often hopelessly outdated descriptions of
plants and animals are presented to inquisitive readers as privileged arcana. The cultural or artistic
currency of secrets often existed in their disclosure, and the keeping and sharing of secrets forged
social bonds and ultimately engendered exclusive (or more usually semi-exclusive) communities of
the knowledgeable.
Secrecy was and remains not simply a matter of differentiating public from private information. Secrets, of course, require disparate publics that are socially demarcated; they also require the
construction of boundaries that can only be actualized by their crossing. Exclusion, distinction,
and privilege are amplified through boundaries that many recognize but that few can pass through,
or by boundaries that themselves suggest a plausible fiction of mediated traversal.10 One such
boundary—or better, a visualized policing of a barrier that is conspicuously difficult to cross—can
be found in the cadre of guards standing atop the steps leading into the court scene of Andrea
Mantegna’s Camera Picta, as Evelyn Welch has perceptively suggested. “Swaggering footmen”
dressed in expensive brocades mediate access to the marquis of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga, by
blocking the stairs and reaching toward (either gesturing while speaking with or perhaps aggressively pushing back against) would-be visitors (fig. 2).11 Courtiers pleading their case seem visibly
anxious to surmount the stairs, while an armed sentinel nonchalantly turns his head to keep an eye
on the negotiations. Those who viewed these frescoes would have traversed actual boundaries and
barriers (closed doors and similar guards at gates and stairways) and, “admiring the images of
those refused imagery, their own sense of access would have been reinforced.”12 Visitors to the
room would have enjoyed this pointed representation of exclusion and admission, gaining pleasure from the recognition of their own exceptional access, akin to the satisfaction experienced
today by those who move quickly—and appreciate that they themselves are being seen moving—
past the velvet rope. Such pleasure is heightened by the knowledge that others, whether less
fortunate, esteemed, or fashionable, were left behind to wait in line and watch this conspicuous
exercise of privilege, not unlike those at the bottom of the steps in Mantegna’s fresco. Other courtly
frescoes might have similarly visualized exclusion in fifteenth-century Italy; particular courtiers
6. Lochrie, Covert Operations, 93.
7. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature. Additionally, see Eamon, Professor of Secrets.
8. Kavey, Books of Secrets.
9. Johnson, Cornucopiae or divers secrets.
10. Massumi, “Everywhere You Want to Be,” 27; Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, 65.
11. Welch, “Painting as Performance,” 22. Additionally, for the room and for secrets, see Signorini, Opus hoc tenue; Arasse, “Il
programma politico,” 49; Starn, “Places of the Image.”
12. Welch, “Painting as Performance,” 22.

Introduction

5

FIGURE 2. Andrea Mantegna, Footmen Regulate Access to Ludovico Gonzaga, detail from the
Camera Picta, 1465–74, fresco, Mantua, Castello di San Giorgio.
Scala / Art Resource, NY.

(camerieri non da camera) who were by definition not admitted into Galeazzo Maria Sforza’s interior rooms in Pavia without special permission were to be depicted in frescoes significantly located
in an antechamber. These images thus would have articulated, simultaneously, these courtiers’
distinction and their “status of exclusion.”13
The secret whispered into the ear of Ludovico Gonzaga by a trusted segretario (secret keeper)
would have aroused interest among those not privy to the exchange (fig. 3).14 A number of questions might have followed. What could the secret be, one so consequential that it must be kept
from the rest of the otherwise exclusive company of the Gonzaga and their courtiers? Who is this
man flaunting his influence and access in front of audiences fictive and real, obtrusively communicating to us that he possesses sought-after information? The proximity to the prince enjoyed by
this fellow—sometimes identified as Marsilio Andreasi—signified prestige and favor in early
modern courts, whether in idealized representations of hierarchy such as Mantegna’s frescoes or in
13. Welch, “Galeazzo Maria Sforza,” 361.
14. For these secretaries and connections with secrecy in early modern Italy, see Leverotti, “‘Diligentia, obedientia, fides,
taciturnitas’”; Simonetta, Rinascimento Segreto, and specifically Simonetta, Rinascimento Segreto, 127, for the etymological association
with secret keeping.

6	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

FIGURE 3. Andrea Mantegna, Ludovico Gonzaga Confers with a Trusted Secretary, detail from the
Camera Picta, 1465–74, fresco, Mantua, Castello di San Giorgio.
Scala / Art Resource, NY.

Introduction

7

the performance of court rituals as varied as hunting excursions, the distribution of alms, or the
prince’s morning routine of dressing.15 Just as near to Ludovico is the canine courtier Rubino, no
doubt the most relaxed soul in this image of the Gonzaga court and allowed a physical vicinity to
his prince that would make even the most confident courtier jealous.16 Beloved animals often were
rewarded with remarkably unfettered access within the closed and guarded doors of aristocratic
palaces; apertures were sawed into the doors of Ercole d’Este’s rooms in Ferrara’s Palazzo del
Corte, for example, so that his cats could come and go as they pleased.17
The diverse case studies in this volume are united by a shared attention to the performance of
secrecy and the rules that governed such performances in early modern Europe—what we identify as secrecy’s rhetorics. Karma Lochrie characterized secrecy as “a manner of rhetoric,” and it is
this tantalizing observation that, in part, suggested the shape this book has taken.18 Like Lochrie,
we are determined not to ask what in particular early modern Europeans kept secret, but rather to
investigate the communicability of these acts and the peculiarly similar means by which staggeringly diverse sorts of secrets were kept and told. For this reason, the plural “rhetorics” seems best
suited to signify practices governed by rules whose operations were circumscribed and conventional, yet hardly mechanistic or monolithic.19 We treat the secrets reliant on these rhetorics as
operations, performances, and processes, as well as objects. Structurally, we understand secrecy to
function dialectically, to hold in solution the indissoluble terms of binaries including keeper/
teller, hidden/revealed, and excluded/included. Rather than tell secrets, we aim to elucidate
secrecy, and we intend this difference to be clearly more than semantic.
In calling attention to the conventional nature of many early modern secrets, we must, however, be vigilant that we do not fall into a false dichotomy. In designating secrets as rhetorical we
do not intend to signal that they were in any sense meaningless. There is a danger in associating
“rhetoric” with its frequent companion “mere.” Michel de Certeau defined the secret as a particular
sort of “utterance.” Like any speech act, a secret is “addressed to someone and acts upon” that person.20 Even the most conventional of written forms is capable of inciting social action and exerting
literary influence. This lesson has been aptly demonstrated by Ronald Weissman’s studies of
“merely” rhetorical Renaissance confraternal sermons. Once dismissed on account of their strict
adherence to convention, such sermons serve in Weissman’s analysis both as dynamic agents in
their own right and as rich sources for fifteenth-century Florentine attitudes on a wide array of
topics.21
Likewise, the conventional nature of secrecy hardly rendered secrets hollow. Lorenzo Lotto’s
esoteric, hieroglyphic intarsia panels covering scenes from Jewish scripture at Santa Maria
Maggiore in Bergamo, by both concealing and revealing essential sacred truths, manifest and
15. Other suggestions for this man’s identity have included Ludovico Gonzaga’s brother Alessandro, as well as Raimondo de’
Lupi di Soragna; Signorini, Opus hoc tenue, 178, 367–70n.
16. For Rubino, a beast unlikely to reveal any secrets, see Signorini, “Dog Named Rubino”; Signorini, Opus hoc tenue, 254–65;
Calzona, “L’abito alla corte dei Gonzaga,” 227–31.
17. Tuohy, Herculean Ferrara, 84: “segare 4 bussette in 4 ussi in le camere del N.S. perche le gatte ge possono andare.”
18. Lochrie, Covert Operations, 93.
19. See Valesio, Novantiqua, 16–17.
20. de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, 97. For early modern rhetorics, moreover, see Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, 42–71.
21. Weissman, Ritual Brotherhood, esp. 98–101.

8	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

heighten the viewer’s obligation to uncover biblical secrets through exegetical erudition and mental effort.22 When the papal secretary Paolo Cortesi recommended that rooms should be decorated
with “riddles” and “fables,” it was because he believed that the mental labor of uncovering and
interpreting secrets “sharpens the intelligence and [inspection of] their learned representation
fosters the cultivation of the mind.”23 Even carefully guarded state secrets made use of these conventions, while apparently meaningless secrets could be used to erect very real barriers to social
access for those situated at the edges and margins of society. The rules that governed secrecy were
thus emphatically social. Perhaps most importantly our contributors ask who is included and who
excluded when things are secreted. De Certeau observes that a secret “repels, attracts, or binds the
interlocutors.”24 We investigate who these bound, ensnared, and curious interlocutors might have
been in early modern Europe. That is, whom is the secret kept from and with whom is it shared?
In place of seeking knowledge of secrets, the authors of these essays begin by examining to whose
benefit (and just as importantly to whose detriment) secrets function. We consider asking “cui
malo?” to be as productive as inquiring “cui bono?”
A fifteenth-century example will perhaps help to give some solid ground to these observations. The cartographic information found on early modern maps was often largely derivative and
was frequently copied directly from previous examples. Nonetheless, under certain circumstances,
even evidently conventional maps took on the status of valuable and dangerous secrets. A poignant
illustration is provided by a map supposedly carried by the sculptor and medalist Matteo de’ Pasti,
dispatched to Constantinople in 1461 from Italy’s Adriatic coast by Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of
Rimini. Sigismondo had entered into diplomatic correspondence with the Ottoman Sultan
Mehmed II the previous year and agreed to send Matteo in response to the sultan’s request for an
artist to paint and sculpt his likeness. The sculptor’s ship, however, was detained en route when it
stopped off in Crete and Venetian authorities on the island arrested Matteo. According to a contemporary report they confiscated a map he carried, along with a manuscript of Roberto Valturio’s
De Re Militari, intended as gifts to Mehmed, deeming these to be strategically valuable.25 Possession
of this map apparently rendered Matteo a spy in the eyes of the Venetians, yet there can be little
question that the image—never identified by modern scholars—was of a wholly familiar sort to
cartographically savvy Venetian and Ottoman viewers alike. Mehmed’s library included several
Italian maps, a fact well known to the Venetians who had themselves provided him with several as
diplomatic gifts in previous decades.26 Maps thus functioned as secrets by mutual agreement and
recognition. Such an arrangement allowed Sigismondo to communicate his desire for access and
intimacy with the sultan, and it allowed Venetian officials to take that arrangement seriously, flexing their muscle as arbiters of diplomatic relations in the eastern Mediterranean. De Certeau called
22. Galis, “Concealed Wisdom.”
23. Cortesi, De Cardinalatu, II.2: “Eodemque modo in hoc genere aenigmatum apologorumque descriptio probatur qua
ingenium interpretando acuitur fitque mens litterata descriptione eruditior.” See, additionally, Weil-Garris and d’Amico, “Renaissance
Cardinal’s Ideal Palace,” 97. The authors want to thank the anonymous reviewers for this and other references.
24. de Certeau, Mystic Fable, 98.
25. Raby, “Sultan of Paradox,” 4; Raby, “East and West”; Brotton, Trading Territories, 92, 102–3. For a reevaluation of the
complicated circumstances of Matteo’s aborted diplomatic mission see McCall and Roberts, “Art and the Material Culture of
Diplomacy.”
26. On Mehmed’s interest in European maps, see Babinger, “Italian Map of the Balkans”; Raby, “East and West,” 305–6; Casale,
Ottoman Age of Exploration, 20–21.

Introduction

9

secrecy “a play between actors,” and this performative aspect is laid bare in the case of these cartographic secrets.27 Yet if secrecy was a kind of play, it remained one whose consequences were felt
long after the curtain had fallen, particularly by those like Matteo de’ Pasti caught in the margins
that such boundaries between inclusion and exclusion created.
In calling attention to how secret keepers and sharers employed these valuable commodities,
we are not recognizing something that our simpler early modern cousins accepted without comment. John Florio, author of the popular bilingual English-Italian vocabulary of 1598, defined
secreto as “secret, close, hid, concealed, privy, separate, solitarie, all alone, privitie.”28 This combination of the close, solitary, and separate makes explicit the simultaneous invocation of distance and
proximity, occult and clandestine, that is at work in early modern visual productions and built
environments. Whether in explications of statecraft, natural philosophy, or commerce, moreover,
early modern Europeans openly avowed the role that the visible control of access could play in
constructing value.29 Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe is only the best known of numerous period
musings on statecraft that recommend secrecy (or the appearance thereof) as effective strategies
of rule. Crucially, such masquerade serves the prince not by concealing dangerous truths but by
heightening the charismatic pomp of dissimulation.30
The widespread reliance of playwrights on dramatic irony—the narrative conceit by which
information known to the audience is concealed from characters on stage—serves as another
salient example of secrecy’s performative manifestation in early modern European culture. Though
such devices were far from uniquely early modern constructions, their prevalence increased markedly in the period. Peter Hyland, for example, has recently explored the rising prominence of
characters recognized as dissimulative on the early English stage.31 The rapidly developing comedies of early modern Italy likewise laid bare the performative function of secrets through the
figures that Jackson Cope called “secret sharers” in his foundational treatment of the plays of
Machiavelli and his successors.32 Many readers will be familiar with this mechanism at work in
some of Shakespeare’s best-known comedies. The narrative action of Twelfth Night, for example,
hinges on a triple occlusion whereby Viola’s identity is hidden from Olivia, Sebastian’s from the
duke, and the siblings’ from one another. These deceptions—“most wonderful” to the astonished
Olivia—will be unveiled only in the play’s final act. Yet the audience holds this privileged knowledge from the outset and serves as secret keeper and confidant for the shipwrecked twins.33
Such dramatic irony proved ubiquitous too in early modern visual culture. This narrative form
of secrecy operates in a key scene from the frescoes of the camera di Griselda from Roccabianca
castle, north of Parma, depicting the heartbreaking tale of patient Griselda, familiar to European
audiences through versions by, among others, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer.34 Gualtieri, the
27. de Certeau, Mystic Fable, 97.
28. Florio, Worlde of Wordes.
29. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, esp. 38–90.
30. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 14–15; Snyder, Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy, esp. 106–58. See also de Vivo,
Information and Communication in Venice, esp. 40–46.
31. Hyland, Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage, 15–16.
32. Cope, Secret Sharers in Italian Comedy, esp. 1–16, 185–90.
33. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, act V, scene 1, line 218.
34. Boccaccio and Petrarca, Griselda. For these frescoes now in the Museo d’Arti Applicate of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, and

10	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

marquis of Saluzzo, reads aloud to his court and to his wife, Griselda, a papal missive ostensibly
granting permission to annul their marriage (fig. 4). That the letter is a forgery, however, is a secret
shared between Gualtieri and the viewers of the frescoes, one cruelly kept from both his wife and
subjects, and one deployed to advance the narrative by presenting yet another of the vicious trials
patiently suffered by Griselda.35 The forged document enacting this secret is conspicuously displayed by the seated prince, its abusive impact answered by Griselda’s docile expression and
downcast eyes. Gualtieri’s subjects and courtiers, moreover, crowd the corner of the room and
pointedly remind the frescoes’ viewers of the many from whom the secret is kept. Secrets transparently drive the Griselda tale, and ultimately, to reach narrative closure, these secrets must be
revealed.
The narrative potential of secrecy found ready expression in early modern art theory, as in the
second book of the Latin version of Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting:
I like there to be someone in the historia who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look, or with ferocious and forbidding glance challenges them not to
come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or remarkable thing
in the picture, by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them.36

Alberti described here what Michael Baxandall identified as choric figures (festaiuoli).37 Such
figures function as intermediaries between the fictive spaces of the painting and the ground occupied
by putative viewers, and they were recommended not only by Alberti, but by Leonardo da Vinci and
others who proffered advice for artists.38 These painted commentators introduce worshipers to
saints, serve as witnesses to narrative action, and provide emotional cues to viewers’ reactions to
such events. They serve a range of functions in early modern compositions, but Alberti specifies
one use with direct bearing on secrecy. This commentator wards us off with gestures and glances
because he wants his “business to be secret” (“negotium secretum”). The rhetorical function of
such commentators to designate as secret the thing seen is plain in Alberti’s text. These gestures
attract our attention not because any great secret is actually concealed on such canvases but
because many viewers understood the value of secrets and recognized the gestures and countenances that gave away their keepers.
Painted invocations of secrecy served subjects ranging from dignified portraits to jocular
genre scenes and erotic fantasies. One complicated yet especially rich example of the way in which
artists drew on the visual operations of secrecy is Domenico Fetti’s Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of

for other early modern visual representations of the tale, see Baskins, “Griselda, or the Renaissance Bride Stripped Bare”; McCall,
“Networks of Power,” 272–306.
35. For an insightful consideration of what can and cannot be revealed by a comparable fictive letter in Andrea Mantegna’s
Camera Picta, see Starn, “Places of the Image.” For a rather different example of the rhetorical ways in which conspicuous envelopes
both conceal and reveal tantalizing secrets, see Meyer, Outlaw Representation, 3–5.
36. Alberti, On Painting, 77–78; Alberti, Della pittura, 75: “Tum placet in historia adesse quempiam qui earum quae gerantur
rerum spectators admoneat, aut manu ad visendum advocet, aut quasi id negotium secretum esse velit, vultu ne eo profiscare truci et
torvis oculis minitetur, aut periculum remve aliquam illic admirandam demonstret, aut ut una adrideas aut ut simul deplores suis te
gestibus invitet. Denique et quae illi cum spectantibus et quae inter se picti exequentur, omnia ad agendam et docendam historiam
congruent necesse est.”
37. Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, 134; Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, 71–73.
38. For Leonardo’s proposed treatise on painting, see Kemp, Leonardo on Painting, 150.

Introduction

11

FIGURE 4. Unknown Emilian or Lombard Artist, Gualtieri Reading Fake Papal Bull to Griselda and
Subjects, detail from the Camera di Griselda, originally from Roccabianca castle (Parma), ca. 1470,
fresco, Milan, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca del Castello.
Photo by author, © Comune di Milano, all rights reserved.

Music (ca. 1614–20) (fig. 5). In the foreground, the nearly life-size subject sits on a block of stone,
outdoors among classical ruins overgrown with vegetation.39 Clothed in the dapper threads of a
courtier and sporting a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, the sitter occupies the vast bulk of the
painting’s foreground and is a presence nearly as solid as the masonry wall against which he is set.
He holds a sheet of music in his hand and turns over his right shoulder to face the viewer. His lips
are slightly parted, perhaps having been arrested by the painter either in the act of singing or opening his mouth to greet the recently arrived viewer.
At the lower right corner of this canvas, two men emerge onto a set of stairs. Framed against a
decaying marble arch in the deep background, the pair huddle close, one behind the other. The
man in the rear points to the sitter. His companion in the lead holds a leather hat or purse in his left
hand while with his right brings a single finger to his lips, his head turned to address an unseen
presence beyond the frame. The intrusion of these unidentified figures confronts the viewer of
39. Safarik, Fetti, 296–99; Safarik, Domenico Fetti, 1588/89–1623, 28–30; Waldman, “Domenico Fetti’s Philosophers”; Seydl,
“Domenico Fetti: Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music,” 217; Roberts, “Silence and Secrets.”

12	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

FIGURE 5. Domenico Fetti, Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music, ca. 1614–1620, oil on canvas,
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.
© The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Introduction

13

Fetti’s work with any number of possible scenarios, leaving more questions than answers. Are
these men quietly sneaking up on the unsuspecting sitter? Does the one man seek to hush the
putative viewer, some yet concealed observer, or his coconspirator within the painting? Have we,
and these interlopers, wandered into a performance or have we stumbled upon the quiet contemplation of an unfamiliar composition? Perhaps there is no secret, no code, to be discovered in
Fetti’s canvas. Yet, if this furtive onlooker does not quite challenge the viewer with a “ferocious and
forbidding glance,” the finger placed before his lips nonetheless convinces us that something has
been held back. This withholding of what is not there piques the viewer’s interest and focuses
visual attention on this musician. Fetti frames our access as a kind of privilege, whether because we
share a secret with these marginal interlopers or, conversely, because we, unlike them, need not
approach surreptitiously. These festaiuoli erect a boundary that the viewer cannot help but cross in
the very act of looking.
Agostino Carracci’s Satyr and Sleeping Nymph (late 1580s) (fig. 6) provides an example of
such choric figures transposed into a rather different register.40 As the satyr approaches from the
shadows at the scene’s left edge, he turns to shush viewers, challenging them “not to come near,” or
at least admonishing them to tread softly if they must.41 Here, the conceit of the audience as secret
keeper is staged visually, and the bestial satyr’s surreptitious approach to his slumbering prey is
safeguarded by a plea to the viewer’s silence. Clearly he wishes his “business,” as Alberti might say,
to be secret. A young nymph lies sleeping against a thicket of brush, unaware of the dual presence
of lustful satyr and viewer alike. Her nakedness and vulnerability are emphasized by a conveniently
discarded bit of drapery. This sheet, surely of sufficient size to cover her nude body, is in Carracci’s
image cast aside and serves instead as makeshift bedding separating her body from the rough
leaves and hard ground.42 In keeping the satyr’s secret, Carracci’s viewer—one situated by the
image sharing the satyr’s sexual interest in the nymph’s body—is rendered a complicit voyeur of
the sexual violence enacted by the image. Here the network produced is not so much one of the
knowledgeable as of the spectacularly privileged, able to avail themselves, if only visually, of the
nude female flesh on display.
This volume emerged out of a shared interest in examining how early modern image makers
designated material as secret and how these visual secrets fashioned audiences and their responses.
Our contributors explore how secrets were performed and enacted and what functions they and
their revelations served. The objects of these inquiries range from staircases to narrative paintings,
printed books to artists’ drawings, ecclesiastical furnishings to engravers’ tools. Visual and material
insinuations of secrecy invite inspection, arouse suspicion, and arrest the viewer’s attention. These
procedures are insistently social acts of discrimination as much as inclusion, and indeed, the contributors to this volume are interested not only in the networks and connections created by the
revelation of secrets, but equally in the exclusions generated by that process.

40. DeGrazia Bohlin, Prints and Related Drawings, 298 no. 184. For this image, see also the essay by Patricia Simons in the present
volume.
41. For more on this gesture, see de Luca, “Notion of Secretum”; Mancini, La lingua degli dei.
42. This sort of conspicuous unveiling “offers a critique or parody of a shaming culture by seeming to cover, yet inviting voyeuristic
focus and tactile fantasies”; Simons, “Anatomical Secrets,” 327.

14	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

FIGURE 6. Agostino Carracci, Satyr and Sleeping Nymph, late 1580s,
engraving, London, British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum.

Introduction

15

One prevalent line along which early modern secrets worked to divide their keepers and tellers was that of gender. Unfettered access to information was often presented as the prerogative of
men, too complicated or too dangerous to fall into the hands (or under the eyes) of women.43 As
Katharine Park has shown this was true even, or particularly, when that secret knowledge was itself
centered on women’s own bodies and on the workings of sexuality and generation.44 In her essay
for this volume, Lyle Massey examines the occlusions and revelations activated by Johann
Remmelin’s flap-anatomy sheet first printed in Augsburg in 1613. Massey investigates how male
viewing of this highly interactive object depended on a voyeuristic gaze that situated bodies, and
especially women’s bodies, as harboring secrets. In particular, she explores Remmelin’s account of
the uterus as a site of alchemical experimentation, kabbalistic magic, and demonic transformation.
Remmelin’s flap anatomy, Massey shows, reinforces misogynistic conceptions of the secrets harbored by the female body while simultaneously privileging the reader-anatomist as one with the
power to reveal and comprehend those secrets.
As Petrarch suggested by designating a philosophical dialogue as secret, erudition and education also proved powerful criteria for distinction. For Bernardo Bellincioni, a poet at Ludovico
Sforza’s court in Milan, it was precisely secret knowledge that separated apt rulers from ignorant
subjects. In his sonnet “Against those who presume to judge the deeds of lords” of circa 1490,
Bellincioni quipped that “Certain men, witty and blithe with words, though they know not the
secrets of lords, judge like a blind man choosing colors saying ‘they should do it like this, this is the
best way.’”45 Over a century later, Thomas Johnson advertised the origins of his “secret” knowledge
of the natural world in the works of “divers Latine Authors.”46 Of course, this strategy was effective
for establishing authorial privilege in a vernacular work. But it also served to offer those who could
not read Latin access to a supposedly exclusive company of cognoscenti, and it likewise reinforced
the sense that the knowledge at their fingertips was both powerful and previously available to only
a select few. William Eamon’s contribution to this collection focuses on the sellers of secret cures
in early modern Venice, examining the ways in which they visually enhanced the tantalizing power
of their wares. Eamon particularly draws our attention to the differentiated audiences addressed
by these charlatans, ranging from the learned magistrates who approved their remedies to the
unlettered craftsmen who constituted both the market for their products and the public for their
displays. Looking to the prevalence of the “secret” languages of Hebrew and hieroglyphics in
Ferrarese painting, Giancarlo Fiorenza similarly demonstrates the way in which secrets could
mark the boundary between the learned and unlearned. Inscriptions in these sacred and ancient
languages appear throughout Ludovico Mazzolino’s paintings of Christ’s ministry. Fiorenza argues
that these inscriptions at once reveal and conceal Christian teaching as divine wisdom, establishing and maintaining a learned and discerning audience at court.
A critical exploration of early modern secrecy also provides one perspective from which to resist
the dichotomy of public and private—a binary that remains fundamental to a host of frameworks
43. Lochrie, Covert Operations, esp. 93–134. See, additionally, Rasmussen, “Introduction,” and the entirety of that special issue of
the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
44. Park, Secrets of Women.
45. Bellincioni, Le Rime, 1:51: “Certi savj e gagliardi con parole / Che non sanno e segreti de’ signori / Giudian come il cieco de’
colori / A dir: Faccian così; così si vole.”
46. Johnson, Cornucopiae or divers secrets.

16	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

through which we understand early modern visual culture. This overdetermined division is especially pronounced in considerations of Renaissance studies or studioli and in many recent and
otherwise valuable studies of domestic art.47 To be sure, distinctions between public and private were
invoked and deployed in early modern Europe, and often for violently coercive ends in patriarchy’s
service. Yet as Alan Stewart, Patricia Fumerton, and Mary Thomas Crane have shown, ostensibly
occluded and secluded spaces like studies and closets often enacted a kind of “public privacy,” placing
activities including study and prayer on display.48 For much of the period here under discussion,
power and even sovereignty were constituted by forces that might today seem unequivocally private,
and the Habermasian divide between public and private spheres was only just developing, and irregularly.49 The contributors to this volume thus situate and historicize utterances and images within the
dynamics of specific early modern power relations.50
The porous nature of early modern public and private spheres serves as fertile ground for
several of our contributors. Timothy McCall examines a novel architectural furnishing from fifteenth-century Parma, the coretto of count Pier Maria Rossi. Prominently visible within a chapel in
one of Rossi’s castles, this wooden box might be seen as a private sanctuary that concealed the
count’s presence from prying eyes. As McCall demonstrates, however, the coretto generated multiple levels and plays of access, secrecy, and display for visitors to Torrechiara by calling attention
to Rossi’s presence (or potential presence) within and hiding Rossi, only ultimately to reveal his
presence to all. Henry Dietrich Fernández likewise considers an ostensibly private space that
enacted its own public display, the “secret” apartments of Cardinal Bibbiena, trusted segretario
(secret keeper) to Pope Leo X. Like most personal apartments, the interior of Bibbiena’s suite was
closed to casual visitors. Yet, visible high atop the façade of the papal palace, of which they comprised a small component, these rooms beckoned and tantalized viewers. Fernández explores the
ways in which this emphatic display of a secret space to those not privileged to gain access intensified the revelation of that same space to a community of invited guests, including Bibbiena’s
protégé Giulio Sadoleto. Likewise, while the secret of Michelangelo’s infatuation with the young
Tommaso de’ Cavalieri remains very much an open one, it is not its hiding to which Maria Ruvoldt
productively calls attention in her essay. Rather than asking from whom Michelangelo’s letters and
gift drawings were hidden, Ruvoldt instead invites us to consider to whom they were entrusted
and suggests that these precious traces of the artist created hierarchical networks of intimates. By
investigating the mechanics of their exchange, Ruvoldt elucidates the ways in which Michelangelo
used these letters to assert his social and artistic autonomy.
The veiling of panels and canvases with curtains and covers and the concealment of precious
and rare objects within cabinets and boxes were common early modern practices that made evident the power of secrecy to distinguish and exclude. Such objects have frequently been studied
47. Usefully, see Stewart, “Early Modern Closet Discovered”; Campbell, Cosmè Tura of Ferrara, 29–62; Rambuss, Closet
Devotions; Campbell, “Giorgione’s Tempest, Studiolo Culture, and the Renaissance Lucretius”; Campbell, Cabinet of Eros.
48. Fumerton, Cultural Aesthetics, esp. 67–76; Stewart, “Early Modern Closet Discovered,” 168; Crane, “Illicit Privacy and
Outdoor Spaces,” 5.
49. Habermas, Structural Transformation; Chittolini, “The ‘Private,’ the ‘Public,’ the State.”
50. For the early modern interplay between public and private and for valuable critiques of scholars’ overdetermined reliance on
the dichotomy, see Baskins, “(In)famous Men,” 109; Welch, “Public Magnificence and Private Display”; Randolph, Engaging Symbols,
8–12; Wilson and Yachnin, “Introduction”; Crane, “Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces.”

Introduction

17

under the rubric of curiosity or the umbrella of the history of collecting, yet the rationale for their
hiddenness and the grammar of their cloistering also invite sustained attention. In her essay here,
Patricia Simons calls our attention to the inseparable bond between veiling and unveiling in early
modern visual culture. Simons examines the covering of erotic paintings and engravings as well as
the partial veiling of nude figures within those works. While such practices are often understood
as censorial acts that mitigate indecorous content, Simons instead argues that these veils constructed bodies, paintings, and prints as open secrets that not only beckoned and titillated their
viewers, but also united their audiences as secret keepers.
The inherent difficulties posed by interpreting the signs and symbols of a visually erudite
culture (and one in which the visual arts embraced a naturalistic approach to a vibrant material
culture) have long motivated the art historical quest to decode the secrets of Renaissance painting
and sculpture.51 Traditional iconographic studies have revealed secrets, but they have often told us
little about secrecy and even less about why paintings should hide secrets in the first place. The
anamorphic death’s head at the center of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) (fig. 7), has
cried out to countless scholars as a tantalizing secret beckoning to be deciphered.52 Holbein’s interlocutors have often probed what this skull means, but they have only tangentially sought to
understand how it means. The painter’s brush twists, refracts, and conceals the grim souvenir, yet
these very acts constitute a performance that calls Holbein’s viewers to inspect the painted surface
closely and to change their perception. Anamorphosis here erects a boundary that viewers cross,
once alerted to the skull’s presence, through the work of active looking, experiencing the fruits of
their labor as revelation.53 This process of engaged viewing is further heightened by the conceit of
the fictive curtain, pulled back at the top left corner of the canvas to unveil a grisaille crucifix.
Nearly as frequently as art historians have probed the hidden symbols on the surface of paintings, they have sought the secret rules lying unseen beneath. Perspectively complex paintings with
their grids of paving stones, scattered lances, and ceiling beams have often stood as emblematic of
Renaissance art practices. Art historians, for their part, have often sought, even obsessively, hidden
or esoteric geometric schemes underlying these paintings. Pioneered by Charles Bouleau and
evaluated, ridiculed, and even rejected by scholars including Daniel Arasse and James Elkins, the
notion of the “painter’s secret geometry” has remained a stubborn art historical presence.54 Nor is
it only modern art historians who have framed the techniques of Renaissance art-making as esoteric or mysterious. Early modern writers often designated the technical elements of art practice as
secrets, akin to those of astrologers, necromancers, and alchemists. Artists were only too eager to
benefit from such beguiling mysteries. The Ferrarese painter Ercole de’ Roberti, for example, collaborated with Pandolfo Colenuccio to establish himself as an expert on the properties of the

51. For art history’s engagement with excavating hidden meaning from visual culture, see especially Warburg, Renewal of Pagan
Antiquity; Panofsky, Studies in Iconology.
52. One recent and extensive treatment of the work is framed as “an attempt to discover what lies behind Hans Holbein’s most
famous and most enigmatic painting”: North, Ambassadors’ Secret, xvii. See also Kenaan, “The ‘Unusual Character’ of Holbein’s
Ambassadors.” For the extensive bibliography on Holbein’s painting, see Foister, Holbein and England. The classic study of the
interpretive possibilities of Holbein’s anamorphosis is Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 17–26.
53. Only recently have the workings of such anamorphic displays been subject to structural analysis: Massey, Picturing Space,
Displacing Bodies, esp. 37–70.
54. Bouleau, Painter’s Secret Geometry; Elkins, Poetics of Perspective; Arasse, On n’y voit rien, esp. chapter 2, “Le regard de l’escargot.”

18	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

FIGURE 7. Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on canvas, London, National
Gallery of Art.
© The Trustees, The National Gallery, London.

pigment cinnabar, which Pliny held to be derived from a mixture of dragon and Indian elephant
blood.55 Pamela Long has traced trade secrets from late antiquity, through the workshops of medieval craftspeople, and into those of Renaissance painters.56
Historians of painting, sculpture, and architecture have often privileged narratives of influence and described an effortless dissemination of invention and style in early modern Europe. A
focus on trade and technical secrecy, however, can reveal the difficulties and even risks that
attended to the frequently personal and intimate transmission of intellectual property and proprietary technologies. Further, art historians might productively revisit the introduction and
development of technologies whose origins and operations were shrouded in mystery—the printing press and its products foremost among these. Sean Roberts’s contribution to this volume
55. Campbell, Cabinet of Eros, 134.
56. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship. See, additionally, Wheeler, Renaissance Secrets.

Introduction

19

investigates frequently overlooked techniques of the earliest Italian engravers of book illustrations,
maps, and single-sheet prints. He examines the lengths to which engravers, including Mantegna,
went to keep technical know-how secret. Printers, engravers, and woodcutters, of course, diligently
guarded the tricks of the trade, including novel tools like burins and burnishers, from the prying
eyes of competitors. Yet, Roberts shows that these craftspeople also designated relatively simple
processes as secrets in order to discourage imitation or reverse engineering.
The period examined by these essays was also one of unprecedented change in the ways that
individuals fashioned selves, to use Stephen Greenblatt’s enduring formulation.57 Historians have
long identified numerous factors that contributed to this shift. Foremost among these was the
reorientation of early modern subjectivity along an axis of confessional identity, culminating in
the Reformation and its responses. The development of individuals defined, to a great degree,
through belief rather than social performance, through orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy, also
provided unprecedented opportunity both for the keeping of secrets and for the suspicion that
others were doing likewise.58 Early modern visual and material culture not only reflected but also
anticipated and contributed to this monumental shift. Allie Terry-Fritsch’s essay here treats the
material culture of civic denunciation in fifteenth-century Florence and its environs by examining
drop-boxes (tamburi) and the secret accusations they contained. She argues that these tamburi
and their (potential) contents constituted communities of accusers and accused: real, potential,
and imagined. These acts of surveillance and denunciation undoubtedly served to strengthen
some communal bonds. Yet Terry-Fritsch also calls our attention to a culture of secrecy in flux,
one in which sealed and anonymous denunciations also threatened each member of that community by replacing the social act of confession with a hidden and pervasive surveillance. These
drop-boxes, as the most visible component of the process of denunciation, served as lightning
rods for those who saw in these operations a dangerous breach of social cohesion. Terry-Fritsch
examines the destruction and vandalism of the tamburi as indications of secrecy’s potential to
disrupt the social bonds between early modern individuals.
By their very performative nature, early modern secrets called out for, even demanded, revelation. Indeed many secrets acquired meaning primarily through the possibility that they would be
disclosed. Above all, then, this volume investigates why secrets were hidden and from whom, through
what mechanisms they were performed and enacted, and by what means and to whom they were
divulged. While acknowledging that the task at hand is an emphatically interdisciplinary one, historians of artistic, visual, and material cultures have especially important roles to play in elucidating the
operations of these early modern secrets and their keepers.59 Because secrets often functioned visually, the skills of art historical intervention attuned to the sensory and intellectual experience of
secrets can expose the construction and reception of classified information. The disciplinary tools
now associated with visual culture studies, and the recent turn toward the study of vision, are likewise
valuable. The emphasis on the process of occlusion and revelation central to early modern secrecy
suggests that access to and exclusion from in-groups, networks, and communities were
57. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1–9.
58. See, for instance, Fumerton, Cultural Aesthetics; Stewart, “Early Modern Closet Discovered”; Rambuss, Closet Devotions;
Jager, Book of the Heart.
59. Rasmussen, “Introduction,” 4.

20	Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts

often controlled visually, spatially, and materially. Though secrecy relies on tropes of the invisible and
hidden, it is precisely their opposites, the visible and uncovered, that must alert the viewer to the
secret’s presence and operation within painting, sculpture, and architectural spaces. The thing
secreted must by necessity present itself by unfolding in plain sight.

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Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press, 2002.
North, John. The Ambassadors’ Secret: Hans Holbein and the World of the Renaissance. London: Hambledon and London, 2002.
Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University
Press, 1939.
———. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Park, Katharine. Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. New York: Zone Books,
2006.
Petrarca, Francesco. The Secret. Edited by Carol Quillen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003.
Raby, Julian. “East and West in Mehmed the Conqueror’s Library.” Bulletin du bibliophile 3 (1987): 297–321.
———. “A Sultan of Paradox: Mehmed the Conqueror as Patron of the Arts.” Oxford Art Journal 5 (1982): 3–8.
Rambuss, Richard. Closet Devotions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
Randolph, Adrian. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. New Haven, CT: Yale
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–1–

The Visual Dynamics of (Un)veiling in
Early Modern Culture
Patricia Simons

J

ust as secrecy has been understood as a process of hiding or obscuring, unveiling is conventionally regarded as revelatory. That supposed opposite of secrecy is conceptualized as
sometimes intrusive but always uncovering visual or allegorical knowledge, often embodied
in the naked human form. It seems to be the quintessential act of penetrating to an inner secret.
Time thus unveils Truth in an iconographic pattern typified by aged Father Time grasping or
exposing a virginal, alluring personification in female form.1 Art historical scholarship has often
interpreted the nude female figure as a sign for Neoplatonic, abstract truth and divine beauty, or at
the opposite Aristotelian extreme, as it were, as merely sensual and material.2 Poetic veils are
understood by the literati (of any period) as deliberate masks to hide meaning from all but themselves, that is, those construed as the initiated elite who grasp underlying principles rather than
being deluded by superficial charms. So too, the lifting of veils could be a metaphor for the selfconscious perspicacity of metapainting that reveals its creator’s ingenuity and virtuosity. Notably,
in such aesthetic and intellectual scenarios, access to the underlying, hidden “truth” is posited as
difficult and, like many other kinds of secretive knowledge, is restricted to an echelon distinguished by factors like gender, education, and status.
What is often left out, but will be broadly reviewed here, is a consideration of the dynamics of
power and privilege, chiefly in relation to reception. In terms of gender, it will be argued, not all
acts of exposure can be explained as merely prurient or voyeuristic. Furthermore, acts of unveiling
coexist with and imply a reciprocal covering; hence the orthographic duality of “(un)veiling” better captures the layered, allusive nature of the visual and performative history of secrecy. Many
revealed secrets are touched on in this volume, and here the construction and dynamics of the
A version of this essay was delivered at a conference I organized, “The Rhetorics and Rituals of (Un)Veiling in Early Modern
Europe,” held at the University of Michigan in October 1997. I am grateful to Tim McCall and Sean Roberts for the opportunity to
unearth and reflesh that paper for this volume. I am indebted, too, for their comments, as I am also to Louise Marshall and Monika
Schmitter.
1. Saxl, “Veritas Filia Temporis”; Panofsky, “Father Time” (first published in 1939, adapting work published in 1923).
2. Hence, “to deny a Renaissance picture of a nude woman her mythological garb is indeed to turn her out into the streets,”
according to Rosand, “Venereal Hermeneutics,” 273; repeated in Rosand, “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” 110 (1997 reprint, p.
50).

24

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25

open secret is outlined. To be a meaningful participant in a community of secrecy (that is, any
group that shared secrets and invested in the importance of secrets), one had to send visible signals
about that advantage while simultaneously maintaining concealment. During the Renaissance, the
interplay of secrecy and revelation, hiding and discovering, was presented by such means as words,
images, rituals, physical framing of cultural objects, and metaphors for artistic practice, each of
which is investigated here.
The hierarchy between the philosophical and the particular, cast in the form of the classically
ideal opposed to the shamefully excessive, was influentially applied to the unclothed body in
Kenneth Clark’s lectures on The Nude of 1953, which expanded the pronouncement of his mentor
Bernard Berenson that “the nude is not the naked.”3 Bared human bodies can apparently be readily
distinguished by way of a dichotomy that contrasts the naked with the nude, the obscene with the
seductive, the embarrassed with the confident, the view that should remain private with the sight
that ennobles the public realm. Almost like clothing, thought Clark, “the formula of the classical
ideal had been more protective than any drapery; whereas the shape of the Gothic body, which
suggested that it was normally clothed, gave it the impropriety of a secret.”4
Clark’s anachronistic assumptions about shame, privacy, and indecency were common at his
time but they still inform judgments made today about objects that are said to belong to what is
positioned as a clandestine, illicit, and furtive culture of early modern courtesans and mistresses.
The titillated, almost wistful closeting by some modern commentators of an urban subculture of
sexual commerce and of the long-standing, chiefly aristocratic habit of keeping mistresses and
begetting bastards neglects the degree to which such practices were open secrets, even well-known
possibilities available to elite men but also some women and which often aided their political
advancement or cultural reputation.5
Commenting on Freud’s claim to unveil truth in dream analysis, Derrida observed, “Exhibiting,
baring, stripping down, unveiling—this is an old routine: the metaphor of truth, which is as much
as to say the metaphor of metaphor, the truth of truth, the truth of metaphor.”6 The standard metaphor of unveiling truth posits delving beyond the surface to reveal pure truth, but that too is a
metaphor, one founded on privilege and insight assumed by the unveilers. My point here is to
avoid the “old routine” of claims to an end point of ultimate, universal, moral, or aesthetic truth,
and instead examine the entwined processes and rhetoric of secrecy and unveiling in the historical
and political context of early modern Europe, primarily Italy. Pervasive and meaningful in practices and texts, the displaying of secrets accrued varying degrees of power to producer, teller, and
audience alike.7 So too did their covering, acts that often left a residue in visual culture and the
language of artistic praxis. The modern antithetical conditions of the clothed and undressed, the

3. Berenson, Aesthetics and History, 86 (finished in 1941); Clark, Nude (first published in 1956).
4. Clark, Nude, 314.
5. For a useful recent study of Roman prostitutes and courtesans, see Storey, Carnal Commerce. A straightforward similarity
between the private, illicit, hidden, furtive, secret, shameful, and erotic was assumed in the foreword and certain essays and entries in
Bayer, Art and Love. In contrast to the romantic, personalized, and modern notion of secretive mistresses and jealous wives (for
example, Musacchio, “Wives, Lovers, and Art,” and her entry on Bianca Cappello’s portrait with reverse, in Bayer, Art and Love, 29–41,
272–74), see McCall, “Visual Imagery and Historical Invisibility.”
6. Derrida, “Purveyor of Truth,” 34; for an alternative translation, see Derrida, Postcard, 415.
7. For an illuminating focus on one painter, see Hills, “Titian’s Veils.”

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Patricia Simons

overtly pictured and the ambiguously intimated, were instead constituted as layered, variously
veiled states. In a semi-Derridean vein, here intertwined with sociohistorical inquiry, the diametrical opposition between the secret and the known can be collapsed or undone because the terms
rely on each other and even become one another in the field of visualization, where a secret paradoxically only exists if it is seen to matter and have being.

Layers

In early modern culture, barriers between secret and explicit knowledge were permeable and interactive more than dichotomous or static. Clear separation between the public and private spheres,
crucial to modern assumptions about secrecy, subjectivity, and intimacy, was in many ways a
development of later centuries. Spaces tended to be porous and multipurpose, sometimes of equal
measure semipublic and pseudoprivate. The Dutch soldertje (a raised platform placed near a window, seen in figure 1.8 below) or window embrasures in the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino, for example,
demarcated a quieter, withdrawn space but were laminated between the street on one side and the
larger, sometimes bustling room on the other. Spaces supposedly inaccessible to all but an elite
few, in the pope’s Vatican Palace or Sistine Chapel or the French king’s château at Fontainebleau,
were nevertheless seen more broadly through the medium of reproductive prints that were either
actual or more often putative souvenirs of visits. The prints disseminated views of varying accuracy that relied precisely on the confidentiality of the original works in order to be marketable
commodities while also publicizing the renown and cultivation of their owners.
Boundaries circumscribing public and private zones of the body were also strategically
deployed and subtly charged. Many people bathed in special garments rather than baring their
bodies, and fifteenth-century advice on marital conduct reiterated medieval church doctrine that
husbands should never see their wives naked.8 Given these proprieties, Florentines might have
been especially impressed in the last decades of that century by Botticelli’s life-sized paintings of
naked women derived from his depiction of Venus at Her Birth (fig. 1.1).9 Variants by his hand or
workshop point to the popularity of the scheme, a glowing form standing on a narrow ledge against
a dark background, distinctly bereft of narrative particularities. The type engendered similar figures from other artists but also probably suffered during Savonarolan “bonfires of the vanities,” for
the destroyed objects included “painted figures of women” according to an eyewitness in February
1497, and a year later the “dishonest and lust-inciting paintings and statues” explicitly included
works by Botticelli.10
Still recorded in the sixteenth century by Vasari and others in numerous households, the overt
views of female nudes are instances of what could be called “public privacy” in that they intermingle

8. The 1483 inventory of the Sienese physician Maestro Bartolo di Tura listed “uno camiciotto da bagno”; Herald, Renaissance
Dress, 248. It was instead bathing barbarians (Northerners) who hid their genitals with “brache” (breeches) according to Luigini, Il libro
della bella donna, 254 (1554). On marital decorum, see Payer, Sex and the Penitentials, 61, 103, 165n56; McNeill and Garner, Medieval
Handbooks of Penance, 211, 336; Viglione, “Giovanni Dominici,” 120–21 (the Regola del governo di cura familiare of ca. 1405); Barbaro,
“On Wifely Duties,” 213.
9. Lightbown, Botticelli, 2:120–22, nos. C10–12; Sframeli, Myth of Venus, 70–71, no. 2 (Lorenzo di Credi’s panel in the Uffizi);
Negro and Roio, Lorenzo Costa, 124–25, 130–31, nos. 54, 61.
10. Klaniczay, “‘Bonfires of the Vanities,’” 34–36 and nn20–21, 26.

The Visual Dynamics of (Un)veiling in Early Modern Culture

27

FIGURE 1.1. Sandro Botticelli,
Venus, 1480s, oil on canvas,
Turin, Galleria Sabauda.
Scala / Art Resource, NY.

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Patricia Simons

the showy with the not-to-be-seen. Ostensibly concealing hair at the genitals instead makes a morphological reference to the vulva. Apparently modest gestures taken from the ancient pudica type
instead draw attention to the breasts and burrow between her thighs. A light veil in the Sabauda
example is so transparent and floating that it conceals nothing and animates the whole. Similarly, the
use by other artists like Lorenzo Costa of scanty draperies does little to dampen sexual allusion. The
pictorial format achieved international success into the sixteenth century, particularly in the output
of many standing Venus figures from Cranach and his workshop, some displaying diaphanous veils
and isolated against dark backdrops. Both popular and condemned, less secluded than the reclining,
naked figures on the underside of cassone lids and visible on palace walls to at least some visitors as
well as known by reputation, the paintings were neither entirely public nor exclusively private images.
Marmoreal against featureless darkness like a cult statue, the painted bodies capitalize on the titillation of well-known tales of masturbation inspired by Praxiteles’s statue of Aphrodite (famous
exemplar of the pudica type) and thus they might be understood as intensely private and intimate
objects. But they also work in defiant dialogue with censorship, displayed despite the strictures, and
attaining all the greater fame and allurement precisely due to efforts to keep them secret and unknown.
As suggested by the addition of veils and cloths to otherwise exposed figures, median states
between transparency and idealization, between zones of skin and fabric, could be as meaningful and
often as erotically laden and exhibitionist as the fully bare body, no matter how much the latter was
classicized as “nude.” In the language of piety or the vocabulary of classical and everyday sights, early
modern artists dared to visualize tactile sensation, made all the sweeter for its visually oblique or
ambiguous suggestion. The gesture of a male hand slipping between layers of female flesh and cloth,
in successive moments or in a single gesture, was pictured in both religious and secular registers. The
infant savior sometimes engages in playful intimacy with his mother, clasping her bodice or sliding
his hand under that clothing in an attempt to assuage his charmingly human hunger, yet at the same
time foreshadowing his erotic relationship with her as the mystic Bride of Christ.11
That the Christ child’s gesture was an eroticized one is indicated by several prints attributed to
Giovanni Antonio di Brescia (formerly identified as Zoan Andrea), probably datable to the 1510s, in
addition to numerous paintings based on a Venetian composition. An anonymous copy in reverse of
one of Giovanni Antonio’s engravings (fig. 1.2) pays witness to the gesture’s enticing attraction.12
With a little less modeling, the variant print nevertheless captures the buxom, sleeping woman resting against a cushion and supported by the bent arm of a male youth who takes the opportunity to
slip his fingers surreptitiously beneath her bodice. Giovanni Antonio explored the crucial feature of
tactile sensation felt between layers in another composition too, in which a grinning fool clasps a
simpering maiden by placing one arm around her back and inserting his right arm between her dress
and outer cloak under her left armpit (fig.