Of all the early modern Venetian visual art that has been studied over the centuries, few works of art depict diverse mental conditions. This blank spot in Venice’s visual history is telling of the government’s attempts to self-fashion a positive image of the city. As early modern Italian scholar David D’Andrea argues, the government of early modern Venice has a history of marginalizing people on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder in order to control the republic’s public image. Venice’s treatment of people with disabilities, particularly those with mental health conditions, fits into this pattern. Court cases record instances in which people with mental health conditions are exiled from Venice to remove from the city’s government the responsibility of care, often explicitly. Thus, this presentation will argue that the lack of early modern Venetian visual culture depicting people with diverse mental health conditions is reflective of the republic’s efforts to maintain a serene and controlled public image reinforced by the much studied “Myth of Venice.” This would be in line with Venice’s history of using visual art as a tool to promote certain positive ideas about the republic.
Despite the significant amount of scholarship produced about sixteenth century Venetian and Florentine visual cultures, there is a considerable lack of academic approaches to early modern research from the perspective of disability studies. However, this does not belie a lack of disability histories to analyze. In fact, Venetian and Florentine images of disability can be employed to paint a picture of early modern attitudes towards difference. Images of melancholy from Venice and Florence particularly speak to the significant difference between conceptions of the condition and the reality of the everyday lives of melancholics. Scholar Elizabeth W. Mellyn has supported this line of thought, arguing that those with privilege were afforded better circumstances in relation to their mental conditions than did the underprivileged. Thus, this presentation will argue that late 16th century Venetian and Florentine visual depictions of melancholy reveal early modern attitudes towards people with the condition that both ignore the lived experiences of the individual and provide persons with higher standing more privilege. Such disparities in privilege amongst those with diverse mental health conditions are relevant to contemporary perceptions of disability. Research for this project has drawn from interdisciplinary scholarship, translated primary sources, and visual analyses. Melancholy has a rich history, but scholarship often fails to represent the condition from the perspective of disability theory that acknowledges the ways in which the underprivileged have been left to disappear with time. The research employed for this project has aimed to address this issue, and therefore enriches the history of disability while providing considerable insight into two cultural hubs of the Italian Renaissance.