Italian artist Caravaggio’s painting “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” features his characteristic use of chiaroscuro, or the dramatic use of light and shadow. But what is most remarkable about the image is not only the artist’s rendering of the scene but also the subject matter itself: St. Thomas leans towards Christ, poking at his flesh in disbelief of Christ’s resurrection.
On Friday afternoon, Columbia’s Italian Academy hosted a symposium titled “Competing Truths: Art and the Objects of History after the Council of Trent.” Friday’s roundtable discussion was part of a two-day conference held in conjunction with the Frick Art Reference Library at Columbia, while Saturday’s panel of museum professionals and scholars was held at the Frick Collection.
The event brought together scholars and museum professionals to discuss the changing nature and function of Italian artwork after the Catholic Church’s first formal response to the Protestant Reformation, also known as the Council of Trent, which was held between 1545 and 1563. The artwork that emerged in its aftermath is considered propagandistic in its promotion of the Catholic ideology and therefore a source of competing historical truth.
The roundtable discussion, aptly named “Historical Methodology and Discourses of Truth,” focused on academia’s understanding of history in terms of both historical and artistic truth resulting from influences from the Council of Trent. The symposium was organized by Alessandra di Croce, Columbia Core lecturer for Art Humanities; Hannah Friedman, Mellon Postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Columbia; and Grace Harpster, assistant professor at Georgia State University. In an interview with Spectator, Harpster described the discussion’s aims.
“We wanted to think about why this is a period worth studying today … and a lot more broadly about what it means to be a historian … and how [we] think about the stories that we are telling as historical truth,” Harpster said.
Harpster added that Saturday’s panel would focus more on recent academic research done on the time period.
The roundtable discussion consisted of six speakers hailing from different academic disciplines and states spanning the country, including moderator Karl Appuhn, associate professor of history and Italian at New York University; Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne professor of philosophy; Felipe Pereda, the Fernando Zóbel de Ayala professor of Spanish art at Harvard University; Alessandra Russo, Columbia’s associate professor of Latin American and Iberian cultures; Pamela Smith, the Seth Low professor of history and director of the Center for Science and Society; and Stefania Tutino, UCLA’s professor of history and Italian.
“They all bring something very different to the table. … It’s a bit rare to have people's work that all deals with the same theme, and oftentimes the same time period, who are specifically involved in the same conversation,” Harpster said.
Philosophical debates surrounding the meaning of truth and the ability of objects to shape history were recurring themes at the discussion. Smith reflected on the multidimensionality of contemporary truth, and Mercer commented on the ethics of scholarship and the voices we choose to highlight in the telling of history. Appuhn pushed the speakers to consider the role history plays in modern life, as well as the ethics of scholarship in studying an era of competing truths such as post-Council of Trent Italy.
Harpster stressed the relevance of the “Competing Truths” theme in a contemporary context.
“The idea of truth has been very much studied in terms of mistruth and alternative facts. … [Truth] is not this single thing that we all agree on. This is a big idea right now. ‘Competing Truths’ was a nod not only to the subject matter—a lot of these scholars deal with truth and theories of how we write history—but also of various … [and] competing truths. … It’s a very current notion.”
In this era of competing truths, perhaps we should look to history and art—specifically, to the 16th-century post-Council of Trent—to help us navigate the complexities of our day.