Color photograph of the head and shoulders of a light skinned woman with brown hair standing on a hill above a reflecting pool; she turns toward the camera and smiles

Arianna Brunori

Franco Zeffirelli Italian Fellow
March 27–May 19, 2023
Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
Project title
The Competition between Alchemy and Visual Arts between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Project description

​​“I don’t imitate nature, I work like her!” The famous quote uttered, according to André Malraux, by Picasso referring to his own pictorial work can be understood as the extreme recapitulation of a process started many centuries earlier. In the late Middle Ages, artists started to challenge the traditional interpretation of the Aristotelian precept ars imitatur naturam, presenting themselves no longer as mere imitators of Nature but as its refiners or even masters. Alchemists, accused since the Middle Ages of competing with God, made a similar claim. Some scholars have argued that alchemists and artists in the early modern period shared a common view of human creativity.” On closer analysis, their relationship was anything but peaceful. If these figures worked in the same courts, united by an interest in technical processes related to producing pigments, metalworking, and manufacturing imitations of precious materials, then competition inevitably arose. My research retraces the claim that alchemists and artists in Italy and France between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries operated in a manner identical or superior to Nature. By studying the networks of alchemists, painters, metallurgists, ceramists, and men of letters, I aim to shed light on the shifting distinction between natural and artificial reproduction—namely generation and imitation—during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.