Beyond Exoticism: Non-European Flora and Fauna in Early Modern Italy (1450–1650 circa)

Katharina Bedenbender, M.A.

My postdoctoral project explores artistic representations of non-European flora and fauna that circulated in Italy between 1450 and 1650. These non-European living beings are still frequently addressed as "exotic" in academic literature, their "exotic character" presumed to have led to their acquisition and collection by the noble elite. The nineteenth century term "exoticism" is in this context often still used in a rather colloquial way without deeply questioning the notion or even its existence in Quattro- and Cinquecento Italy.
My project poses the following questions: What are the parameters as well as intellectual, religious and even magical frameworks in which these creatures were collected, perceived, described and – in the end – consumed? In which ways did these animals and plants, ephemeral by nature, enter the world of poetry and painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as basic or luxurious commodities? Were those early colonial creatures perceived differently from other curiosities of the natural world, such as fossils, rare gems, dwarfs, and albinos, and if so, how can we articulate this difference? And what about the liminal spaces between the natural and the human realm, such as gardens? When and under which conditions did the material and social culture of the marvelous turn into a colonial culture? When did marvels become objects of consumption and domination, and what is the role played by the emerging mechanistic perspective on nature in the sixteenth century?
This project departs from the middle of the fifteenth century with the early travels of the Portuguese and their bio-prospecting along the West African coast. Following the anthropological concept of the long sixteenth century, my research will conclude with the beginning of the 17th century scientific revolution, when the first systematic classifications of plants heralded the formation of modern botany. By contextualizing the period with the first peak of European colonialism and its increasing institutionalization, I will demonstrate that these intersecting phenomena led to a turn in the perception of non-European flora and fauna in the course of the seventeenth century.
Instead of approaching the topic geographically or in a chronological order, I analyze particular artistic responses to non-European flora and fauna as well as the networks connecting courts and artists. The first chapter of the project examines the reception of citrus fruits in the work of Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Pontano, since I am particularly interested in the dawn of colonialism at the turn of the fifteenth century.

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