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Vincenzo Campi’s Ricotta Eaters (c.1585) : viewership and the early modern market Nguyen, Kim-Ly Thi

Abstract

This thesis examines Vincenzo Campi's painting Ricotta Eaters (c.1585) in order to provoke questions about the practice of viewing and its relationship to an emerging art market. Ricotta Eaters draws on familiar types and narratives from genre painting and is usually interpreted as a comic, but moralizing allegory. I argue, however, that the painting resists this reductive interpretation, particularly by manipulating the conventions of genre painting to produce different and unexpected effects. Most striking are the aggressive yet unexplained outward gazes of the ricotta eaters. By turning my attention to how Ricotta Eaters constructs the experience of viewing, I will explore how the art market produced a new kind of viewer (an unspecified, potential buyer instead of a known patron) and provided different incentives and opportunities for artists to approach this viewer. I argue that Ricotta Eaters strives to be marketable by the way it disrupts the "normative" (stable, privileged) viewing position, offering instead a more "novel" (active, reciprocal) way of engaging with the painting. The "tactical" mode of rendering the irreducible properties of food, the eating body, the face, and laughter unfixes conventional limits of representation creating a more dynamic experience of viewing. Further, I explore the interrelationship between viewing Ricotta Eaters and viewing in the marketplace. In Ricotta Eaters, an unresolved conflict between a realistic and theatrical mode of representation complicates the viewer's relationship to the painting. The boundary of viewing is destabilized, creating an anxiety that parallels growing concerns over forms of representation in the marketplace. The breakdown of commercial and social boundaries in the marketplace produced new doubts and possibilities for exchange that, I argue, are present in Ricotta Eaters. The painting creates a difficult experience of viewing; but this challenge becomes an opportunity for the viewer to become actively involved in the production of meaning. By considering the overlaps between the marketplace and Ricotta Eaters, the various ways in which the market impacted on the production and reception of painting are revealed. Thus, Ricotta Eaters offers a new way to think about connections between viewership, representation, and the marketplace.

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