Exploring the Meaning of "Finished" in Early Modern Art

Nov. 6, 2023

Carolina Mangone convenes a two-day conference on an infinitely thought-provoking topic

Professor Carolina Mangone convened the two-day conference “Finished? Early Modern Arts in the Imperfect Tense,” to explore “unfinished” or “imperfect” works of the Renaissance from c. 1400–1650.  She pointed out that while the question of when a work of art is deemed finished is not unique to the early modern period, “What is distinctive to this era is the hitherto unprecedented self-consciousness with which notions of finitude and perfection, not to mention their troublesome opposites, were approached.”  Mangone brought together scholars from Boston, Columbia, Stanford, and Yale Universities, the Universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania, and Southern California, and several Princeton colleagues who unpacked the topic from myriad vantage points.

“The conference presented a stunning array of scholars whose work has been very influential to me, especially ever since going through generals,” said John White, who was among several A&A graduate students in attendance. “The conference had such a terrific lineup,” Sharifa Lookman agreed, “in addition to meeting and speaking with these scholars, it was a unique opportunity to hear their work in progress and get a glimpse into their research and approach. I especially appreciated how collaborative the discussions felt. In this way, the conference was for me a kind of model for what academic meetings should look like - unencumbered testing grounds for ideas, questions, and works in progress.”

James Pilgrim speaks at podium in dimly lit auditorium with sculptures projected on the screen behind him

James Pilgrim presents his paper "Poliodoro’s Finish" (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Fellow graduate student Mathilde Sauquet said, “We were so lucky to have this group of leading scholars together in one room - each of the papers made unique contributions to the '(un)finished' conversation and elicited exciting questions from the audience.” “It was particularly energizing to hear a number of questions and comments coming from people outside of the field, which speaks to the potential of these papers to be relevant and stimulating across fields and periods,” she continued.

Through their diverse contributions, participants engaged with questions like: In what ways might imperfection be understood as generative or desirable, as constitutive of the age, even as it was the subject of significant anxiety and discomfort? What artistic boundaries are blurred by incompleteness, and what critical categories do such transgressions remake? Who or what determines when something is finished and by what terms? Can we speak of an aesthetics of imperfection, of categories of unfinishedness? What is(are) the semantic field(s) of imperfection in the arts? What possibilities for interactive participation and viewership are produced by unfinishedness? What social, political, religious, or scientific concerns might have encouraged deferral of ends in the arts?

“As the varied papers in this conference made evident, early modernity’s new attention to finishedness/unfinishedness was stimulated only in part by antiquity (the oft-cited catalyst), with its continual supply of fragments and its stories about paradigmatic instances of incompletion by celebrated artists. Equally galvanizing to early modern reformulations of acceptable finish included: aesthetic, social and religious concerns over excessive material splendor; endeavors to satisfy a humble religious aesthetic; the collision of political uncertainty and symbolic representation of rulership; openness to alternative modes of viewing and new categories of viewer; increased awareness of the imperfection of human emotion and perception; challenges to accepted notions of what constituted secondary, extrinsic versus primary, intrinsic artistic devices; receptivity to the creative potential of artistic failure; and anxieties about paradoxical emptiness of abundance.” – Professor Carolina Mangone 

Professor of French and Italian Simone Marchesi, who moderated a session, found the diversity of contributions on the conference theme to spark vibrant discussion and new ideas. “I learned a lot, I met new people, and I’m renewing engagements with people across campus,” he said. A case in point, Marchesi found in Carolyn Yerkes’ presentation of “Callot’s Return” the bridge he had been seeking between Dante Alighieri and John Milton; he now looks forward to hosting Yerkes in his upcoming seminar.

Oil painting in dark tones showing a young boy holding onto a white  og with several other dogs nearby

Titian, Boy with Dogs in a Landscape (1565-76), oil on canvas, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement at the Princeton University Art Museum Janna Israel, one of the conference’s moderators, found the subject and presentations thought-provoking and original. “The papers delivered, as well as Carolina Mangone’s precis, recovered the several meanings of incompletion in relation to early modern art and architecture,” she said. “Several papers not only addressed a work of art’s state of completion, but how deviation from the ideals of finish--a lack of refinement or polish--might demarcate a dynamic site of experimentation, polemic, and expression; a meditation on artifice; and a disruption of the ideals of perfection, art theory, and an entrenched patronage system. In reevaluating the religious, artistic, political, economic archaeological, and material stakes of art and architectural endeavors that sustained a temporary or permanent state of unfinish in conception, execution, or assessment, the conference expanded pathways to understanding the unfinished as a fundamental epistemological principle of art.”

A&A graduate student Aleksander Musiał agreed, “I was impressed how the conference's scope brought together perspectives on various artistic media, methods, and historiographical approaches to question the conventional use of the category of non-finito and encouraged, as an alternative, to appreciate the creative potential of imperfection both in works of art and their subsequent history.” 

A&A graduate student Sofia Hernandez especially appreciated Michael Cole’s paper, “Despoiled Painting.” “He was my undergraduate professor and one of the main reasons why I wanted to become an art historian in the first place,” she said. “It was really special to see him at Princeton and hear about his rich, new project: the anti-materialistic aesthetic of Renaissance painting.”

Both Sauquet and White found Jodi Cranston’s (Boston University) paper titled “The (Un)finished Animal” particularly impactful. “I especially enjoyed Jodi Cranston's paper on the instability of human/animal positions and relationships as manifested in a supposedly unfinished painting,” said White. “Her presentation was very influential for me and my work, particularly her reflections on animal matter used in painting as well as her rigor in thinking through how the humanistic project of defining the animal as perhaps human-like but nevertheless below or other than the human is never finished.” Sauquet agreed, adding, “Her ecocritical approach to animal paintings and insightful comments on animals as subjects of art vs. objects of art-making were particularly compelling.”

“Whether the issue of finishedness/unfinishedness in these papers pertained to facture, to critical discourse, to hermeneutics, or to the act of beholding, what they highlighted is the centrality of this dyad—its twofold nature inherently unfixed and in tension—to the construction of early modern art,” Mangone concluded.

As participants began their presentations with notes of praise and gratitude, there were resounding and unanimous thanks to A&A Events Coordinator Mo Chen, who left nothing at all unfinished or imperfect.


Carolina Mangone speaks at the podium to a packed auditorium

Carolina Mangone opens the conference to a full lecture hall (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)