The Renaissance Code: U.Va. Art Historian Francesca Fiorani Reveals its Secrets

June 4, 2009 — The afternoon light streams into Francesca Fiorani's office in Fayerweather Hall, brightening a map on one of the far walls. It's a copy of a Renaissance map depicting the then-known world and a ship with a Spanish king marking the procession of a sailing route.

According to Fiorani, an associate professor in the University of Virginia's art history department, maps like this one were very popular during the Renaissance and were understood by the people who consulted them to be more than simply images containing geographical data.

"Maps are texts," she said, "and repositories of knowledge" that reveal much about Renaissance life and culture. They tell stories about rulers flexing their political muscle, nations warring with their neighbors and merchants forging trade routes. Like the authors of written texts from the period, mapmakers selected what information to include or exclude, depending on what would favor their patrons.

Fiorani believes that the ability to read images is essential to unlocking the maps' meanings. But for modern audiences unschooled in deciphering images, this can be difficult.

"From kindergarten, we are taught to read a text," she said. "Rarely are we taught to read an image like a painting or building. But in a post-modern world, images are dominant. We are constantly bombarded with them. So we need to learn how to decode them."

According to Nicola Courtwright, an Amherst College professor of art and art history and president of the College Art Association, Fiorani's study of maps as texts challenges the conventional understanding of what constitutes "art" in the Renaissance and thus signals an important shift in the study of Renaissance art and culture.

"Fiorani has made a bold argument for maps as a major visual expression of early modern Europe," Courtwright said. "She definitely moved them out of the specialized realm into the world of other intellectual and scientific accomplishments of the time."

Out of Italy

The oldest of five children, Fiorani was born March 7, 1963, in Rome. Her father was a professor of surgery at University of Rome "La Sapeinza." Today, he and Fiorani's mother operate a family vineyard in Tuscany.

Fiorani began her studies in art history at the University of Rome "La Sapienza," one of Europe's largest and oldest universities (it was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303). After finishing her bachelor's degree, Fiorani plunged into graduate study – also in art history. In 1984, she left to study in Berlin, where she perfected her German and focused on the relationships between art and literature, word and image in the early 18th century. For Fiorani, the time in Berlin cemented her passion for art historical research, but her interest began shifting to contemporary art.

After returning to Rome, Fiorani continued with graduate work and took a job at the National Museum of Modern Art, where she worked with living artists to curate their career retrospective shows.

Though the museum job gave her valuable work experience in the world of contemporary art, her interests again shifted, this time more strongly toward Renaissance art, particularly its connections with cartography, science, religion and politics of the period.

"Studying the relationship between art and science for me was always a great way to get into the untidy, messy, contradictory but deeply intriguing world of the Renaissance," she said.

In 1994, Fiorani graduated from La Sapienza with a doctorate in art history; the following year, she and her husband, Alon Confino, moved to Charlottesville, where he joined U.Va.'s Corcoran Department of History as a professor of modern German and European history and, soon after, she joined the McIntire Department of Art.

Making the Difficult Seem Easy

For Anna Kim, a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Renaissance art history, "sprezzatura" is the word that best describes Fiorani.

Sprezzatura is an Italian word dating from the Renaissance that roughly translates to mean "effortless dignity." In more modern terms, someone with sprezzatura has the "ability to make difficult things seem easy."

"Professor Fiorani has an incredible talent for making the most difficult material accessible and exciting to undergraduates and graduate students," Kim said.

Besides teaching a variety of undergraduate and graduate art history courses, Fiorani directs two of the University's most popular study abroad programs: the January Term course in Rome and Florence and the Rome Summer Program.

Her scholarship, which covers a broad range of topics, focuses on the interplay of art and science in the Renaissance. She also serves as director of the "Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting" project, sponsored by U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. This project involves the creation of a major electronic archive to facilitate the study and interpretation of Leonardo's "Treatise on Painting."

"How Professor Fiorani manages all of this and maintains such high standards of teaching, advising and research is a mystery to me," Kim said.

Out of Shadows, Light

In late April, Fiorani received a Guggenheim fellowship to spend the 2009-10 year completing research and writing a new book, "Leonardo's Shadows." This cultural study will examine how Leonardo, who trained as a painter, read, used and comprehended optical treatises that were intended for university training in natural philosophy, and how he translated that theoretical knowledge into painting and drawing techniques. Once completed, her book will add a new chapter to the understanding of the relations of art, science and technology.

"My goal is to try to understand how Leonardo reacted to the optical knowledge that came from ancient times through the Middle Ages," she said. "The topic is huge, and that's why I limited it to shadows."

Shadows are, Fiorani explained, at the root of Western painting. They are as essential as light to creating a three-dimensional effect on the flat surface of the canvas. Yet, she noted, they are "elusive and unstable." Getting shadows right requires not just artistic skill, but also a grasp of how the human eye perceives gradations of light.

Leonardo's ability to create lifelike shadows has long been considered one of his greatest strengths. He gave a name to his technique for creating shadows – "sfumato" – Italian for "smoky effect." To the artist, sfumato refers to the process of layering colors in dot-like fashion to create a silky smooth transition of tones. The shadows that give the Mona Lisa her mysterious smile may be his most famous application of sfumato.

According to Fiorani, Leonardo's use of shadows weren't simply a means of showing the third dimension. He used them to imply – and in some cases to hide – meaning rather than express it directly. "For him," Fiorani said, "shadows were a way of obstructing, representing and observing."

To master the difficult task of creating shadows, Leonardo studied the mechanics of vision. "He was very interested in the anatomy of the eye," Fiorani said. He educated himself by sketching eye sockets, optic nerves and the brain and then incorporating what he learned into his art. In essence, he reinvented painting and drawing techniques to account for shadows.

"When you touch Leonardo, you are touching millions of fields of knowledge, which range from art history and architecture to zoology and human anatomy," she said.

— By Mary Carlson