Faculty Speaker Series on Monstrosity in the Renaissance

On Feb. 28, at 5:30 p.m., the second annual faculty speaker series continued with Dr. Touba Ghadessi’s talk in the Mary Lyon Holman Room. Ghadessi, an associate professor of art history and associate provost for academic administration and faculty affairs here at Wheaton, spoke about her new book, “Portraits of Human Monsters in the Renaissance.”

The event began with an introduction by Megan Brooks, dean of library services, who congratulated Ghadessi on her work. Ghadessi was chosen to present for the faculty speaker series by the Library, Technology & Learning Committee (LTLC) which is made up of several library staff, including Brooks, and faculty members from multiple departments on campus. The LTLC chooses talk candidates after they have been nominated by faculty members within the nominees’ department. Brooks continued by explaining, “the goal of the faculty speaker series is to publicly recognize the scholarship of Wheaton’s faculty members.” Ghadessi was also presented with a plaque made by a Wheaton student and designed to look like the bookplate of Samuel V. Cole, a former president of the college.

The talk started with Ghadessi detailing the beginning of her research: “For a while, I had been interested in the history of anatomy, my interests, from the body itself as a source of knowledge and the history attached to its exploration, led many of my original inquiries.” After studying this history, she recounts how she saw “discussions and descriptions…that hinted at non-normative bodies.” In her research, she went on to ask: “What about these non-normative bodies? What happens when in the reality of a 16th-century person, not everyone looks like Michelangelo’s David? In fact, when no one looks like Michelangelo’s David? How does reality translate into the visual and anatomical theories of the early modern era?”

She found her answer by looking at renaissance “monsters.” Ghadessi explained that, “I use the term monster intentionally and in a historically mindful manner” and her exploration into what she calls monstrous bodies of the Renaissance was spurred on by a fellow grad school colleague leaving a copy of Agnolo Bronzino’s painting Morgantes from 1547 on her library carrel, with the note, “this is right up your alley, no?” Ghadessi asserted with a laugh that it was “up her alley,” and that “this double-sided painting of Morgante the dwarf became central to my dissertation and my first book.”

The question and answer session, moderated by associate professor Josh Stenger, revealed Ghadessi’s thoughts moving forward. Stenger questioned if Ghadessi has become more interested in monsters after researching, and she answered, “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. The [discovery of] the hirsute family was a complete accident. I didn’t know I would find so many dwarves, I didn’t know I would look at hermaphrodites as such a strong concept at that time. I wanted to find a black or white answer, were [these people] subjects or objects [of the court]? But I’ve found that I’m happy to be in the gray area. It’s led to more questions but it has solidified my interests.”