16 Pages

Body and Clay: Material Agency from an Early Modern Perspective

ByJoris van Gastel

The material of clay has received relatively little attention from art historians, even though there were times in which it was considered a significant substance for the history of art.8 In the seventeenth century, clays were praised for their pleasant smell, as famously discussed by Lorenzo Magalotti in his Lettere odorose.9 Lorenzo Legati, in his discussion of the vases in the Bolognese Museo Cospiano, pays a striking amount of attention to the medicinal qualities of the clay from which they are made.10 Most of all, however, clay is a material of creation, of endless shaping and reshaping. Cheap and easy to come by, clay is the malleable Urstoff of artistic invention.11 Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris has gone as far as to argue that clay is “one of the earliest truly neuro-compatible materials in the history of humanity.” “Neuro-compatible,” he clarifies, “here refers to materials that afford the flow of noetic activity beyond skin and skull thus bridging neural and cultural plasticity.”12 In other words, clay is a material that not only follows, but also facilitates or even constitutes certain cognitive processes, including, we may surmise, the creative process. The idea, then, is that the material, by virtue of its particular material qualities, plays an active role in what can be said to be a dialectic exchange between subject and object: the material has an agency of its own.13