Heroic Bodies, Bodies of Flesh: Representing the Body in Early Modern Life Narratives
International Conference at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne (France), co-sponsored by CIRLEP (EA 4299) and PRISMES / Epistémè (EA 4398), 31 May-1 June 2012, organized by Christine Sukic.
In her 1997 groundbreaking study L’Invention du corps: la représentation de l’homme du Moyen Age à la fin du XIXe siècle, art historian Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen theorizes on “the invention of the human body”. This phrase is particularly suited to the early modern period, especially with the development of the study of anatomy: Vesalius’ Fabrica, published the same year as Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (1543) can be seen as a revolution reflecting the perception of the human body during that period. Yet the Galenic theory of humours is still prevalent in the vision of the body, probably because the idea of the melancholic body is in keeping with the epistemological crisis that characterizes that period and that affects all fields of thought, leading to a redefinition of norms and categories. The numerous theories of passions published in the 16th and 17th centuries, also attest to the vision of an instable body, fraught with motion and volatility.
This conference hopes to assemble perspectives on the representation of the human body in early modern life narratives. Biographies (or “lives”, as they were generally called then) often claimed objectivity and even historical truth about their subjects. The representation of the body is particularly relevant in the creation of that alleged “truth”, as its description in the text, sometimes illustrated by a portrait of the subject, attempts to evidence a kind of proof.
This proof can take several forms. The body can reveal an uncommon aspect of the subject, turning him / her into a heroic or saintly being. In his “life” of Michelangelo (1568), Giorgio Vasari writes at length of the artist’s funeral, which took place twenty-five days after his death. The coffin was opened for a short while for everyone to look at the body: “we found it so perfect in every part, and so free from any noisome odour, that we were ready to believe that it was rather at rest in a sweet and most peaceful sleep; and, besides that the features of the face were exactly as in life (except that there was something of the colour of death), it had no member that was marred or revealed any corruption, and the head and cheeks were not otherwise to the touch than as if he had passed away but a few hours before”. Michelangelo’s inanimate body seems to have been transfigured, which is one of the topoï of hagiography.
But the body of the subject can also be invested with a form of physical, material truth, revealing this time a body of flesh. This is John Dryden’s opinion in his “Life of Plutarch”, prefixed to the translation of Plutarch’s Lives (1683). Dryden, using Bacon’s categories of history (“Commentaries or Annals; History properly so called; and Biographia, or the Lives of particular Men”) states that biography is “a descent into minute circumstances, and trivial passages of life” and adds: “here you are led into the private Lodgings of the Heroe: you see him in his undress, and are made Familiar with his most private actions and conversations […] ; you see the poor reasonable Animal, as naked as ever nature made him; are made acquainted with his passions and his follies, and find the Demy-God a Man”. The body of the subject appears here to be symbolically naked, as a sign of intimacy with the reader and the biographer. For Vasari, Michelangelo’s body is that of a saint; for Dryden, the hero’s body is in fact that of a man.
We hope that the conference will also permit a reflection on the role of the representation of the body in the development of the biographical text in the early modern period. We welcome papers based on biographical texts such as: lives, “life and death”, hagiography, panegyric, eulogy, funeral oration, biographies of poets, princes, artists, criminals, historic characters, but also autobiographies. All geographical areas of early modern Europe can be covered.
The official languages of the conference are English or French and papers should not exceed 25 minutes. A selection of papers will be published in Imaginaires, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal published by the University of Reims. The 50-euro registration fee (30 euros for postgraduates) will cover this publication, as well as the two lunches and morning and afternoon coffee breaks.
Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words as an attached Word document to Christine Sukic (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a short biographical note by 1 December 2011.
Professor of English Literature
University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne
Université de Reims-Champagne Ardenne
Campus Croix Rouge
Rue François Mauriac
F-51096 Reims Cedex
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