Sam Allen is about to start a PhD in Art History at the University of Sussex. Here, I talk to him about the Renaissance, creativity, and beards.
You’ve always been very interested in the Renaissance period and Renaissance art history. What interests you so much about this period?
You say ‘always’, but I distinctly remember turning to a friend in my first year at uni and saying “The world doesn’t need more Renaissance scholars”. Every time I look at my bookshelves I remember this and laugh, I think the world has got another one. For the last three years I have worked more or less exclusively within Renaissance studies, Why? Because there is so much left to explore and excellent resources to do so. There is a significant advantage to studying a period were literacy and writing were encouraged and statistically high. The invention of the printing press is likewise a blessing. It seems that if someone had an idea or opinion they were eager to write it down and in many cases print it!
In terms of the art rather than the history, the Renaissance for me is a marker in human creativity. Sight, recording and detailed studies of nature were encouraged and it shows. Particularly in the work of the 16th century we see so much more life enter painting and sculpture, even architecture appears to gain a living, flowing quality. But more so I love how Renaissance and later Baroque art opens a window into the lives of the people who made and are depicted in the work. There is a sense of reality in these works, despite their often fantastical settings, a sense of real people looking to be recorded and remembered as people – manifest of their ideals and deeds. These images are of course not the long and short of ‘who they were’, these ideal people are fabrications and speak of propaganda more than personalities. This for me is the juicy bit, working out who is telling the truth about themselves and who is really good at putting on a good face.
So you’re starting a PhD at Sussex in September. What will your research project be on?
My PhD research is both cripplingly specific and inexplicably broad. I will be primarily looking at beard culture in Renaissance Italy, specifically between 1450 and 1600, perhaps later if things go well. While male grooming has been studied before (there is a surprising amount of literature on beards out there, old and new!), I will be examining the role of the beard as a bit of a man’s body that is ‘worn’ and can be shaped to suit he social and political needs. If we look at Italian portrait painting before 1500 nearly all of the men portrayed are clean shaven. Then, BAM!, 1500 rolls on through and its beards a’plenty! I’m intrigued to explore this veritable explosion in facial styling, it is as if Europe hit puberty all at once and everyone started growing beards to show who was the manliest. Though a little fanciful I don’t think that this analogy is too far from what may have happened. With the discovery of the new world and new peoples, European find that these strangers across the sea look an awful lot like them. The impact of ‘othering’ and geographic identities will inform much of my work, outside of my studies of the Italians, who im my mind operate as a model of Europe in miniature in terms of style, politics and creative expression.
Your project will take a lot of archival research – do you have a favourite archive?
For me as archives go, you simply can’t beat the British Library, particularly given their ongoing project to digitise everything! That said, Archives are nothing like lending libraries, you really need to know what kind of thing you are looking for before you go. I think that with digitisation and online catalogues archives are certainly modernising and becoming more accessible but the lack of funding is apparent. I currently volunteer with The Keep, East Sussex county records office and archive, so I am a little biased as to dubbing them a favourite too! Working with The Keep has really opened my eyes to what archives do in the here and now as opposed to being big historical filing cabinets. As free to access services go, nip down to your local archive and just see what they have!
As far as my research goes I may be looking a lot further afield than The Keep and the BL for resources. I’ll be diving into the state archives of various Italian cities, certainly stopping by Florence, Venice & Urbino’s collections (probably online mind you). This will only be the beginning as my project will be stretched quite broadly geographically, regions as far apart as Latin America and the Levant will be involved so it’ll be quite a wild ride.
Do you have a favourite artwork? Why did you choose this?
Though I study the Renaissance I have a real soft spot for what the Renaissance becomes, the Baroque! The painted ceiling of Sant’Ignazio in Rome painted by Andrea Pozzo has to be on my list of favourite artworks. The wonderful thing about baroque art is the way in which all of the ‘rules of art’,set up in renaissance art, are presented together then flagrantly disregarded and played with. Pozzo’s ceiling in Sant’Ignazio is a riot of figures, colours, architecture and pure fantasy. The piece is one great big optical illusion. The vaults of heaven are open to the viewer, despite the near flat ceiling. While many people go to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, I’d happily skip the queue for an afternoon at Sant’Ignazio it’s certainly worth the neck ache.
And finally, what is your favourite heritage site?
Now this is a hard one, I feel like I haven’t seen enough to have a favourite! Humans have a long history of creating and leaving behind a bunch of neat stuff and considering we’ve been around for a while now, there’s a lot of that stuff!
If I think about it I’m a big fan of cathedrals and abbeys. I think there is a certain something in these monumental structures that is amazing. When I stop outside one of these buildings i am always struck by how enormous and beautifully constructed they are, a thought swiftly followed by the realisation that these would have taken decades to build by hand. There’s nothing pre-fab or factory made in them, just human ingenuity, skill and faith – yes faith in god, but also faith among the masons, the builders and the architects, faith that the thing will stay standing. Now i’m not a religious man but there is just something powerful about these building, I think you can access a little bit of the feeling and understanding of why religion and god were such an influence on our past when you stand in these places and think “Cor! That’s impressive”, that impression I think is a little bit of history echoing, all of the faith put into putting it up and all the faith practiced within its walls. And damn they don’t make ‘em like they used to!