Seeing the invisible: visual representations of disability in early modern Europe (1400–1700)

Project: Research project

Project Details


The proposed project is the first study that comprehensively analyses how disability and impairment were represented in western art, focusing on the period 1400–1700. Situated at the crossroads between art history, social history and disability studies, it locates understandings of disability in the context of history, medicine, literature and visual culture. By looking at a wide range of visual and written sources, it maps the different attitudes that early modern societies had towards disability and analyses the intellectual framework within which disability was positioned. Furthermore, it examines how impairment affected the everyday life of people and highlights the presence of artists with disabilities in the history of art, using their artworks, notebooks, letters and documents pertaining to their life to describe how through art practice they asserted their own profession, identity and even citizenship. The study investigates visual sources that relate to and/or portray disability and impairment by dividing them into five categories: i) religious images portraying miraculous and charitable actions; ii) scientific illustrations related to medical conditions; iii) genre paintings detailing scenes of daily life; iv) portraits of people with disabilities; v) artworks created by artists with disabilities. These images are not considered as historical documents in the narrow sense but rather as records that reflect personal and social reactions and interpretations of impairment. They highlight that disability as we understand it today did not fully exist in the early modern period and demonstrate that the consideration of intersectional factors such as age, gender and social status were essential to how people responded to impairment. Aside from investigating historical constructs of disability, the project retraces the personal and professional stories of early modern artists. Some, such as the celebrated Dutch printmaker Hendrick Goltzius, took advantage of their disability achieving unprecedented technical virtuosity. Others, such as the Italian sculptor Giovanni Gonnelli, have almost completely been forgotten. Responding to recent calls in the fields of art history, social history and disability studies, the proposed project looks for the very first time at art practice, visual culture and disability in the early modern period, addressing a major research gap in contemporary scholarly literature.
Effective start/end date1/01/2331/12/25

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities


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