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Art & Nature

Giambologna, Apennine Colossus, late 1580s, Villa Medici, Pratolino, Photo © Elizabeth J. Petcu

Research Theme


My research on the rapport between early modern art and nature scrutinizes exchanges between artists and scientists (or, in early modern parlance, “natural philosophers”) through the dual lenses of environmental and colonial studies. My work foregrounds the dire contemporary stakes of the visual research of early modern artists and scientists, which laid foundations for systems of colonial and environmental exploitation that endure today.

My current book-in-progress, Nature and Imitation in Early Modern Architecture, responds to the need for an ecocritical history of architecture in the early modern world. The manuscript argues that architecture instantiated a fundamental shift in the rapport between humans and nature from c.1400-1800.


Before this time, Europeans saw nature on the one hand as the ideal model for architectural composition and on the other hand as a tool for managing natural environments. From the fifteenth century, Europeans began to transform ancient tactics for imitating nature through architecture into architectural methods for shaping nature. I contend that early modern architects’ efforts to imitate and control nature through architecture created scientific knowledge that catalyzed systems of natural resource extraction in Europe as well as the Viceroyalties of New Spain, Peru, and Brazil.


While European architects applied concepts of architectural naturalism and of “natural architecture” to colonize the Americas and their peoples, Indigenous and enslaved architecture experts also counteracted that strategy through their own modes of architectural naturalism. Europeans’ transformation of methods for imitating nature in architecture into ways of exploiting the natural world through architecture convinced colonizers that they controlled nature and shaped enduring systems of Western colonialism, but also prompted among colonized peoples alternative ways of imagining the rapport between the built and natural environments that linger to this day.


By exposing the origins and colonial dimensions of how architecture and environment relate in modernity, Nature and Imitation will contribute a new model for examining the global, environmental history of architecture during colonial early modernity.


My research for Nature and Imitation in Early Modern Architecture has been supported by the Frauenbeauftragte der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. A preliminary study for the book appeared as “Ryff’s Acanthus: On Field Research in Renaissance Architecture” in 21: Inquiries into Art, History, and The Visual / Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte und visuellen Kultur.


In addition, I am developing a grant project with Maurice Saß (Alanus Hochschule, Alter) called “Ecocritical Histories of Early Modern Art,” which will contribute a methodological apparatus for writing environmental histories of early modern art.

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