The colours of silence: untold histories of mute and deaf painters in early modern Europe.

Project: Research project

Project Details


The proposed project will investigate the interconnections between art and disability in the European early modern period (1400–1700) by focusing on the careers of deaf and mute painters. Documentary evidence suggests that artists with hearing and speech impairments started entering European workshops from at least the late medieval period. Some of them achieved a remarkable success, such as the Italian painter Pinturicchio, who was chosen by the Pope to decorate the Sistine Chapel. Many others, however, were less fortunate, and their lives and careers have been largely forgotten. Regardless of their professional achievements, painters with disabilities have been neglected in scholarly studies. Little is known about how they trained or about the difficulties they had to overcome to become professional artists. Through the examination of case studies from Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, the proposed project will show how the practice of art provided an opportunity for mute and deaf painters to find a way of expression and overcome the barriers created by their disability. The study will not simply be a recovery of forgotten biographies; it will also chart the development of the belief in the ability and educability of deaf and mute people. The research will determine how the artists trained; provide a model to map their socio-economic backgrounds; evaluate their artistic careers against the backdrop of sixteenth century medical literature; and examine how visual culture played a role in the history and process of marginalisation, understood as the constitution of a ‘centre’ from which those designated as ‘abnormal’ are excluded. Responding to recent calls in the fields of art history, social history and literary studies, the proposed project will make a significant contribution to studies on visual arts and disability. In contrast with a strictly art-historical analysis, an interdisciplinary approach will be used based on cross-disciplinary methods from visual culture studies, social studies, material culture studies, literary studies, archival research and socio-economic investigation.

The project will make a serious and original contribution to our understanding of art practice in the early modern period and encourage researchers to conduct similar studies in the context of East Asian art to provide a more global perspective. The project will result in the following outputs:
(i)conference presentations;
(ii)two peer-reviewed articles to be published in major international journals;
(iii)a database of the biographies and works of deaf and mute painters active in Europe in the period 1400-1700;
(iv) an international seminar organised at the Academy of Visual Arts, HKBU; exchanges with local and international academic and non-academic communities;
(vi) a presentation to be held at a public institution in Hong Kong.

Effective start/end date1/09/2031/08/22


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