Professor of art history, Dr. Maria Maurer, spoke about Renaissance spaces and their effects on viewers.
What is the relationship between gender, space and experience? How do we become subjects? How does the built environment act upon its inhabitants? These and many more are all questions that Professor Maria Maurer sought to answer in her book launch, “Gender, Space and Experience at the Renaissance Court: Performance and Practice at the Palazzo Te.” The talk was sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, a group that facilitates a think tank of TU students, faculty and community members to address aspects of living through the humanities as well as host public events. The talk took place in Tyrell hall at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8. This lecture was organized for Dr. Maurer’s book launch and featured an interactive tour of the spaces talked about through the Google Arts & Culture app, which allows the user to walk through these spaces remotely. The talk lasted an hour, with time for questions.
Dr. Maurer is an associate professor of art history and teaches classes on Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque art. Her research focuses on space and gender and how artists and visitors use art to construct gender identities. Her book was published earlier this year in March, and explores specifically the Palazzo Te as a space where ideals of masculinity were enforced and manipulated.
Dr. Maurer began with focusing on the Palazzo Te, a retreat for the wealthy Italian court by Giulio Romano. One room, the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche, has intimate frescos that depict sensual scenes from Greek Mythology and a profusion of actions and images using gold, pink and flesh tones. The beholder is physically pulled into the room by the broken bodies seeing through the door frame — it’s required to be fully in the space to fully experience it. Additionally, the room requires the viewer to walk around it in order to understand it. This room is dynamic and forces movement. It acts upon the beholder. It makes the space seem provocative, open and mobile.
The second room in the Palazzo Te is the Sala be Giganti, which features a panoramic fresco of the giants attempting to overthrow the gods. Jupiter looks down hurling thunderbolts into the world below. The floor is made of river stones meaning it is uncomfortable and unlevel to walk on, especially for men who at the time wore high heels. Additionally, the space is designed to be an echo chamber: the only way to truly hear someone is to stand at opposite corners and whisper to one another. These corners are right where the giants are, forcing the viewer to identify with the monsters themselves.
Monsters in the Renaissance were both nature’s creation and their anthesis. They were exotic in origins and boundary markers on maps and policed the borders of gender. Dr. Maurer focused on the idea that masculine women were monstrous and therefore become inhuman objects. Women and monsters are both creatures of the body. However these monsters allowed gender to be seen as artificial and occasionally even vague. Going into a space like “The Gates of Hell,” the second building she focused on, forces the beholder to be enveloped by the monster as well as become the monsters voice.
Entering this banquet hall feels like entering certain death; however, the inside was created for eating, laughing and music making. It invites you to become a monster, and therefore explore gender. The final space, the “Appennino,” is a giant that users must literally enter in order to take part in the entertainment. It is a blend between pleasure and destruction. The eyes are actually looking points, giving the viewer the experience of giant’s power and melding their identity to it. Going into these monstrous spaces questions gender and how space truly works. Visitors are engulfed, threatened and transformed into something unlike what they were before they entered.
Space and transformation are ultimately good things. By becoming monsters, humans transcend forced gender binaries and are allowed to resonate with the “other.” Ultimately, space acts upon the viewer as much as the viewer acts in the space.