A Chronicle of the New England Renaissance Conference, part 4

by Christopher Carlsmith, Meghan Chapman, and Derek Winslow

Rev. 8/22/13

[return to part 3: 1970-1989]


To mark the beginning of a new decade, and to focus on historiographical changes in Renaissance Studies, the 1990 NERC chose the theme “Re-Framing the Renaissance.” Organized by Joel Upton and Nicola Courtright at Amherst College on the first weekend in November, the conference opened with plenary speaker David Freedberg (Columbia) on “The Jewish Races of Rome.” A subsequent session included papers by Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia (NYU) on Anti-Semitism in Trent in 1475, and Robert Cottrell (Ohio State) on “Female Subjectivity and Libidinal Infractions in Hèlisenne de Crenne’s Angoysses doloureuses qui procèdent d’amours.” Two subsequent sessions on Saturday featured equally disparate and erudite panels, including papers by Edward Taylor (Columbia) and David Wilbern (SUNY Buffalo) on the theme of passion in the Renaissance, and by William Kerrigan (UMass Amherst) on “The Renaissance Mechanism,” as well as contributions from Dieter Wuttke (Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg) on German humanist perspectives in the late 15th century, and Katharine Park (Wellesley) on autopsy and dissection before Vesalius. The final plenary talk, “Donatello, Cosimo and the Cosmos in San Lorenzo, Florence” was given by Irving Lavin, with discussion led by NERC President Samuel Edgerton.

Yale University hosted NERC in 1991 with a professionally-produced program and a formidable list of speakers. Held at the Whitney Humanities Center with a concurrent exhibition of 16th century Italian woodcuts and engravings at the Yale Art Gallery, the opening session featured Walter Cohen (Cornell) on “The Discourse of Empire,” James Saslow (Queens College, CUNY) on the homosexual tradition in Renaissance historiography, and Maureen Quilligan (Penn) on “Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I: The Space of Female Performance.” An evening lecture by Eugene Rice about the criminalization of sodomy from 1350 to 1700 followed a wine reception and banquet. Saturday morning opened with David Quint’s reconsideration of Montaigne’s Des cannibales and the observations of Elizabeth Cropper (Johns Hopkins) on Pontormo’s depiction of the “Halberdier”. Following an extended break over lunch, the final session included James Holstun (SUNY Buffalo) on John Felton and his allies, and Lawrence Stone (Princeton) on “The Rise and Fall of the Oxbridge Tutorial System, 1530-1750”.

In 1992 NERC traveled to Durham, NH for an early October weekend at the Center for the Humanities of the University of New Hampshire. Arriving scholars were greeted by the Woodman Consort playing music from the court of Lorenzo de’Medici. The initial session consisted of a literary talk by Roland Greene (Harvard) on “The International Wyatt, the Imperial Sidney” and a historiographical talk by Anne van Buren (Tufts emerita) on the changing view of History in fifteenth-century France. Katharine Park (Wellesley) gave an evening lecture on Renaissance science and the “culture of the marvelous”, followed by the Hampshire Consort which offered a program entitled “Music in the Age of Exploration,” featuring period instruments such as the cornetto, the sackbutt (= modern trombone), the trumpet, the recorder, the krummhorn, the flute, and the shawm (= modern oboe). Saturday morning was brief, with just two talks: Marcia Hall (Temple) on Florentine Art in 1492, and Guido Ruggiero (UConn) speaking about “The Abbot’s Concubine: Illicit Sex and Microstrategies of Power at the End of the Renaissance”.

Brandeis University hosted the next year’s program, exactly thirty years after David Berkowitz had brought NERC to Waltham, MA for the first time (and it would be exactly thirty years more before Jonathan Unglaub brought NERC back to Brandeis in Fall 2013). The 1993 conference. Organized by Jessie Ann Owens of the Brandeis Music Department, bore the theme of “Power and Illusion in the Renaissance City”. It followed the traditional pattern of a pair of talks on Friday afternoon and another set of papers on Saturday morning, with a banquet and a chamber music concert on Friday night performed jointly by Capella Alamire and (again) the Hampshire Consort. Session I was comprised of Lawrence Manley (Yale) on “Sites and Rites: Ceremonies of Renaissance London” as well as Keith Polk (UNH) on the identity, payment, and reception of those who made music in 16th century Germany.  On Saturday morning John Paoletti chaired a session on Urban Space, including papers on the social topography of fourteenth-century Florence by Paula Spilner (Independent Scholar), on Florentine sculptor Nanni di Banco  by Mary Bergstein (RISD), and on “Michelangelo and Images of Rome” by Charles Burrough (SUNY Binghamton).

No conference was held in 1994.

Although Vassar College is in upstate New York and thus technically outside the region of the New England, it hosted the NERC on 3-4 November 1995. (A debate had ensued some years earlier amongst the leadership of NERC about whether the conference should be held at Cornell; ultimately it was decided not to go there.)  Benjamin Kohl and Nick Adams chose the theme of “The Material City in the Italian Renaissance”.  The program was more robust than in previous years, with a total of twelve papers, all on Italian topics. Such a narrow geographical focus violated NERC’s self-professed policy of diversity of topics, but clearly reflected the interests of the conference organizers and attendees. David Friedman (MIT, Juergen Schulz (Brown), and Melissa Bullard (UNC Chapel Hill) opened the program with papers emphasizing “The City” in Northern Italy, especially Florence. That Florentine emphasis continued in Session Two on “The Palace” with Brenda Preyer (UT Austin) describing how visitors were accommodated in Florentine palaces, while Alison Smith (Wagner College) explored inventories and family archives in Verona. On Saturday morning the focus turned to books, with papers by Paul Gehl (Newberry Library), John Ahern (Vassar), and Lilian Armstrong (Wellesley). The final session deliberately moved away from elites and toward those on the margins of society; it comprised a talk by Dennis Romano (Syracuse) on the material concerns of domestic servants in Venice, and another by Elizabeth Cohen about prostitutes and cultural history.

No conference was held in 1996.


After a one-year hiatus, the conference came to Boston College two years in a row. In 1997 a one-day conference (the first in NERC’s history) was organized by Virginia Reinburg on the broad interdisciplinary theme of “Prayer: Situation, Representation, Enactment.” The opening session was about prayer in specific places, including the contributions of Jodi Bilinkoff (UNC Greensboro) on priests and penitents across Catholic Europe, of Mary-Ann Winkelmes (Harvard) on meditation and representation at San Maurizio in Milan, and of David Coleman (Univ. of Minnesota Duluth) on public prayer in Granada in the 16th century. A successive session examined the representation of prayer in text and image; Roger Wieck (Pierpont Morgan Library) interpreted portraits in Books of Hours, while Elizabeth Rhodes (Boston College) discussed the gender of prayer in Teresa of Avila’s ‘Book’. The third and longest session included four papers: Robert Kendrick (Harvard) spoke on the amusing topic “A Courtesan’s Musical Prayer, or, Was Barbara Strozzi Putting Us On in 1656?” Joanna Ziegler (Holy Cross) kept the focus on women’s spiritual activity with a paper entitled “Ecstasy and Experience: The Mystical Dance of Elisabeth of Spalbeek”. Thomas Cohen (York) spoke more generally about prayer to one’s fellow man or woman in sixteenth-century Italy, and Brad Gregory (Stanford) explicated his research on “Prison Prayers: Preparation for Martyrdom and Communities of Belief”. Final remarks were offered by Clarissa Atkinson and Robert Scribner, both of the Harvard Divinity School.


No conference was held in 1998.

NERC returned to Boston College on 20 March 1999; the program theme of “Religious Culture in Caravaggio’s Italy” was again quite specific both in geographic and disciplinary focus, and was designed to accompany the exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art entitled “Saints & Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image.” Peter Burke (Cambridge) gave the keynote address first thing in the morning with the title of “Rome as the Center of Information & Communication in the Catholic World.”  Steven Harris (Wellesley) complemented that introduction with a paper on the circulation of “natural knowledge” among 17th-century Jesuits, while co-organizer Gauvin Alexander Bailey (Clark) also focused upon the relationship between Rome and the world with his subtitle “Artists in the Service of the Overseas Mission, 1540-1600.” The afternoon saw back-to-back sessions that continued with the theme of religion in the late Renaissance: “Preaching in Borromean Milan” (Benjamin Westervelt, Lewis & Clark College), “Poetry & the Shroud of Turin” (Sheldon Grossman), and even “Martyrdom and the Seventeenth-Century Motet” by Robert Kendrick (U. Chicago). The final session, chaired by co-organizer Pamela M. Jones, included papers on theatre (Michael Zampelli of Santa Clara University), literature (Fiora Bassanese, UMass Boston), and art history (David Stone, U. Delaware).

The new millennium was marked with a conference at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. on 7 October 2000. The explicitly interdisciplinary theme of “Emotion and Creativity in the Renaissance” was selected by Sandra Andrews. Two sessions were bundled into the morning, beginning with James Amelang’s overview of “Early Modern Emotion”, followed by Philip Fisher’s remarks on “Vehemence and Action” and Bette Talvacchia more specific comments on “Responses to Sexual Imagery in a Catholic Culture.” The second morning session included Patricia Emison’s observations on “Durer’s Melancolia and Artistic Creativity, Mikael Hòrnquist’s disquisition on Machiavelli, Montaigne, and the Charismatic Text,” and Jeffery Persels on “Indiscreet Excretions” in French Renaissance literature. The conference concluded in the early afternoon with a keynote address by John Martin on the broad theme of “identity and Creativity.”

“Renaissance Courts” was the theme of the 2001 NERC, sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst. Organized by Arthur Kinney, who not only selected the participants but cooked the entire lunch by himself, this conference followed a slightly different structure: five papers, each with its own chair to provide a comment and moderate questions. The conference began with Frederick McGinnis (from Mt. Holyoke and Smith Colleges) on “Preaching and Propaganda at Wittenberg, Geneva, and the Papal Court.” Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Princeton) followed on Arcimboldo and the origins of still life painting, and then Richard McCoy (CUNY) on examples of sacred kingship at Court. In the afternoon Robert Schneider (Catholic University) spoke about “Court Culture without a court in 17th-c. France” and Alastair Bellany (Rutgers) on “poison and poisoners in Early Stuart England.” The conclusion of the conference was a concert of 17th-century English and Viennese court music from the Five College Early Music Program.

On Oct. 19, NERC returned to its roots at Brown University for a program focused on intellectual history, with the theme “Teaching, Learning, and the Transmission of Knowledge.” Morning remarks were offered by Gail Cohee (Brown) on Mary Tudor, by Peter Stallybrass (Penn) on erasable tablets, and by Patricia Reilly (Swarthmore) on the “grammar of the human form” in Alessandro Allori’s Ragionamenti.  In the afternoon Massimo Riva and R. Burr Litchfield (both of Brown) described two early efforts at creating online resources for Renaissance Studies, including the Decameron Web, the Pico Project, and the Florentine Catasto. Ann Blair (Harvard) previewed her new research on “information overload” and how early modern people responded to it; Bonnie Gordon (SUNY Stony Brook)  spoke about “Vocal Disciplines”, followed by a vocal concert of the music of Monteverdi from the Schola Cantorum of Boston.

Gregory Semenza of the University of Connecticut organized the next year’s conference at his home institution, under the theme of “Cognitive Sciences and the Renaissance,” but no conference program is extant.

No conference was held  in 2004.

Holy Cross welcomed the conference for the first time in the spring of 2005, led by Thomas Worcester (Holy Cross) and Franco Mormando (Boston College) with an exciting theme of “Piety and Plague in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe.” A companion exhibition and catalog, “Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a time of Plague, 1500-1800” provided stunning visual images to accompany the scholarly papers presented. Those included five papers in a long morning session, beginning with the Black Death of 1348 in Northern Europe (Pamela Berger of Boston College)) and “Visualizing Death in Medieval Plagues” (Elina Gertsman of U. Chicago), followed by Ronald Rittgers (Yale Divinity School) on the 1562 peste in Nuremberg, Thomas Worcester on the spiritual actions of Etienne Binet, S.J. in the early 17th century, and Franco Mormando on deciphering a 1650 published text about plague in an ancient city. Two art history papers by Nancy Andrews (Holy Cross) and Sheila Barker (Independent Scholar) preceded the keynote speaker, William Eamon (New Mexico State) on “The Canker Friar: Piety and Intrigue in an Era of New Diseases.”

NERC President Kenneth Gouwens brought the conference back to his home institution of University of Connecticut in 2006. There was no overt theme, but many of the papers focused upon heterodoxy, subversion, and transgression—proving once again that Renaissance Studies had moved far beyond its traditional focus on high culture or politics. The morning session began with Laurie Shannon (Duke) on “Comparative Anatomies: Galen’s Monkeys, Vesalian Man, and Harvey’s Heart”. Jutta Sperling considered “Queer Locations in Renaissance and Baroque Art”, and Christopher Celenza followed with thoughts on “Marsilio Ficino, Human Agency, and the Boundaries of Orthodoxy.”  The afternoon session opened with Tara Nummedal (Brown) discussing her research on Anna Zieglerin and alchemical transgression in Wolfenbüttel court ca. 1571-75. Bette Talvacchia (UConn) offered observations on “Body Fragments: A Disjoined View of Renaissance Art” and Victor Coelho (Boston University) spoke about subversion and non-conformity in Renaissance Music. Valerie Traub (Michigan) gave the keynote address on “Historicizing the Normal”, thus providing an intriguing counterpoint to the focus on alterity in the previous two sessions.

Once again Brown hosted in 2007, with Evelyn Lincoln, Tara Nummedal, and Nicolas Wey-Gomez teaming up to plan a day’s gathering on “Nature’s Disciplines.” The CFP provided the rationale for this theme, and called for participants who were “testing the limits of their disciplines as they question[ed] structures of knowledge in the Renaissance and early modern period.” [Note: the conference program is at a different website, http://epnc.uconn.edu/nerc/past/2007.%5D Three paired sessions formed the structure of the day. Sean Cocco (Trinity College) kicked things off with “Arduous Terrain From Afar: Pietro Caselli’s Investigation of Nature” while Ricardo Padròn (Virginia) continued the theme of mapping nature with his paper “Envisioning Empire: Competing Cartographies in the 18th-Century Hispanic World.” A second morning session turned to death and prayer: Elizabeth King (Virginia Commonwealth University) spoke on “Perpetual Devotion: A 16th-Century Machine That Prays” while art  historian Frank Fehrenbach (Harvard) described “The Renaissance of Death and the Dead”. The last two papers focused on science: Mary Crane (Boston College) on “Analogy, Metaphor, and the New Science” and Brian Ogilvie (UMass Amherst) on “Late Renaissance Natural Theology: Between Natural History and Apologetics.” An evening concert, featuring the music of Monteverdi and deWert, was offered by Fred Jordy and the Boston Schola Cantorum, just as they had in 2002.

Nadja Aksamija and Michael Armstrong brought the NERC to Wesleyan with a theme that welcomed armchair scholars as well as those who travel regularly to foreign archives: “Travel, Trade, and Translation in Early Modern Europe.” A professionally-printed pamphlet, complete with the program, related images, and information about a concurrent exhibition on Renaissance and Baroque Prints, was mailed to all NERC members and interested scholars. Held on Oct. 10-11, this conference returned to the classic two-day format with a dinner and concert on Friday evening. Friday afternoon featured three papers with an Italianate focus, beginning with a historiographical talk by Francesca Trivellato (Yale) on recent historical work about Renaissance Italy and the Muslim Mediterranean. Musicologist Sean Gallagher (Harvard) used the title “Acquired Tastes” to describe how collectors amassed examples of music and painting in 15th-century Italy. Susanne Wofford (NYU) used literary analysis to decode the topic of “Translating Festivity: Ovid, Bellini, and Shakespeare’s Feast with the Gods.” The next morning Sarah McHam (Rutgers) described how Pliny was interpreted by Renaissance Readers. Her colleague Henry Turner summarized travel and trade in the work of Richard Hakluyt while Jacques Lezra (NYU) drew upon his skills in comparative literature to discuss the enigmatic topic of “Trade in Exile: The Fetishism of Translation(s) and the Secret Thereof”.

Halloween weekend saw Boston University host the NERC on October 30-31, 2009. Harvard historian Ann Blair, recipient of a Macarthur “genius” award in 2002, gave the opening keynote address on theory and practice in Renaissance pedagogy. The theme of the conference, “Value and Judgment in the Renaissance”, provided great latitude to the six speakers on Saturday. Robert Proctor (Connecticut College) described “The education of Vitruvius’ Architect and Raphael’s ‘Stanza della Segnatura’”, which was complemented by the remarks of Kate Isard (Columbia) on “The Index in the Sixteenth-Century Architectural Book”. Caroline Duroselle-Melish (Harvard’s Houghton Library) spoke on “Learning and Controlling Print Technologies: The Work of a Renaissance Naturalist.” In the afternoon, Andrew Morrall (Bard Graduate Center) talked about “Inscription and Substance in the arts of Early Modern Northern Europe; Thomas Martin (Bard High School Early College) followed on Filarete’s Bronzes, and Yuen-Gen Liang summarized his research on how sixteenth-century Spanish administrators evaluated “experience’ and ‘qualification’ in selecting employees in the nascent Spanish empire.

Yale University introduced a new twist to the structure of the New England Renaissance Conference on October 9, 2010 by organizing a two-hour morning roundtable on “History of the Book: Promises and Limits” featuring Tom Conley (Harvard), Alexandra Halasz (Dartmouth), Adrian Johns (Chicago), and Sara Wall-Randell (Wellesley). Conference participants were able to take advantage of tours at two of Yale’s most important institutions: the Yale University Art Gallery (with a guided tour of sixteenth-century Italian objects) or the Beinecke Rare Books Library. Following lunch, a panel entitled “The Renaissance Quasi-Object” featured talks by Mario Biagioli (then at Harvard), Adrian Randolph (Dartmouth), and Julian Yates (Univ. of Delaware). The keynote address on “The Pre-Historic Renaissance” was given by Juliet Fleming (NYU).

NERC returned to Wheaton College in November 2011 for the first time since Jane Ruby had assumed the conference presidency several decades earlier. Organizers Touba Ghadessi and Yuen-Gen Liang integrated the conference with their undergraduate teaching by recruiting students to serve as volunteers and even more importantly by organizing an art exhibition for which students did all of the research and writing. The theme of “Families in the Renaissance” encouraged historians, literary scholars, and art historians to tackle related themes. The first panel opened with art historian Cristelle Baskins (Tufts) analyzing Pietro della Valle’s Babylonian Love, followed by historian Laurie Nussdorfer (Wesleyan) on “Ecclesiastical Families in Baroque Rome: Manhood in a Male City” and Kentston Bauman (Rhode Island College) on “Aristocratic Endogamy and Social Miscegenation in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. In the afternoon Sara Murphy turned to Britain as the source for her discussion of “Fashioning New Families: Autobiographer Anne, Lady Halkett, and the Redefined Royalist Retreat. Erika Boeckeler (Northeastern) kept the focus on Royal families with her remarks about “Handwriting and the Royal Family”, and Sarah Ross (Boston College) also looked at handwriting, albeit in the wills of Venetian physicians. Anthony Grafton was to give the keynote address on the Renaissance printing-house but a medical emergency made it impossible for him to travel.

As part of NERC’s conscious effort to reach out to new campuses under Tara Nummedal’s leadership, the conference came to University of Massachusetts Lowell for the first time on October 20, 2012. The theme of  “Classical Revival and Reception in the Renaissance” returned to a familiar theme and lent itself to a more Italianate focus. The first panel focused on “Classical Authority”, including a paper by Heather Horton (Pratt Institute) on “The Afterlife of the Auctor and the Invention of Renaissance Narrative.” Francesco Benelli (Columbia) used captivating images of ancient text and Renaissance sketches for his remarks on the annotations of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger in his copy of Vitruvius. Ellen Longsworth (Merrimack College) described the patronage of Carlo Borromeo for the sculptures in the choir of the Church of Santo Sepolcro in Milan. A walking tour of historic Lowell, and another tour of the Whistler Museum of Art, gave participants a flavor of historic downtown Lowell. In the afternoon conference organizer Christopher Carlsmith described the reception of Horace in sixteenth-century Bergamo, while Thomas Hopper (UMass Amherst) focused on one specific Horatian text for his analysis. (Matthew Landrus and Michael Tworek were on the program but unable to participate on the day of the conference). James Hankins gave a commanding keynote address on “Renaissance Views of the Roman Republic” to conclude the evening.

NERC will be held at Brandeis University in November 2013. Organized by art historian Jonathan Unglaub, it will include a keynote address by Leonard Barkan and a consciously interdisciplinary theme of history, music, and art.

NERC will travel to the Durham campus of University of New Hampshire when historian Liz Mellyn organizes the 2014 iteration of NERC.

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