Susanna Caviglia will give a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Thursday, December 5, at 12:15 pm. Her talk is entitled, “Seeing Through Touch, Touching with the Eyes: The Sensorial Construction of Rome in the Age of the Enlightenment.”

In 1775, the French traveler Gabriel-François Coyer recounts his rapture in the face of Rome’s ancient treasures and how he touched a statue to make sure that it was only lifeless marble. Expressing a conventional trope about the power of ancient culture, Coyer’s emotionally charged touching points to the changing relationship between objects and emotions in the age of the Enlightenment. Contemporary French travel accounts of Rome, however, reflect an ambiguous response to the physical encounter with the past. Although most visitors were culturally prepared to react with the proper intellectual intensity to individual artistic objects, they were disoriented by their haphazard urban context. Christian relics invaded pagan monuments, miraculous virgins competed with a vast culture of prostitution, ramshackle structures clung to monumental architecture, and ancient statues were made to hurl current political invectives. This spatial and temporal hybridity obstructed the elevated emotions these objects were meant to arouse. To counter this confusion, French travelers deployed their sensual responses to the city as a foundation upon which ancient stories and myths could be overlaid. French painters, who came to Rome to study, developed a representational apparatus that transformed this visual regime through the corrective power of touch. Instead of isolating objects for aesthetic reflection, they immersed themselves and their work in the material complexity of Rome, where touching fragments emerged as the primary motivator of a sensual awakening. Like Coyer’s hand, this emotional touching not only dispelled any anxiety about the superiority of the past but also brought a new understanding to the meaningful way in which its objects continued to structure daily life. In doing so, these painters constructed a new image of the city that travelers would come to understand as modern Rome.

Susanna Caviglia is Assistant Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1700–1777 (Arthena, 2012), and History, painting and the seriousness of pleasure in the Age of Louis XV (Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment & Liverpool University Press, 2020). She has also published three edited volumes: L’événement tragiqueaux époques moderne et contemporaine: définition, représentations (with Michel Cassan, Presses Universitaires de Limoges, 2009), Le prince et les arts en France et en Italie, XIVe-XVIIIe siècles (Presses Universitaires de Limoges, 2011), and Body Narratives: Motion and Emotion in the French Enlightenment (Brepols, 2017). Before joining the Duke faculty in 2017, Caviglia taught at the University of Limoges (France) and the University of Chicago. In France, she acquired curatorial expertise working at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the musée Condé in Chantilly, and the musée du Louvre; she curated the exhibition Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700–1777), le dessin à l’origine de la création artistique at the musée des Beaux-Arts in Nîmes (2012). Caviglia is the Editor-in-Chief of the series The Body in Art (Brepols, 2017-). Her current project is entitled “Wandering in Rome: French travelers and the image of the early modern city,” in collaboration with Niall Atkinson (University of Chicago). Tracing the movements of French travelers to Rome, the book will reinterpret the ways in which mobile viewers reconceived and represented an emerging sense of both the history and future of Rome as a modern imperial capital.