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Victoria Ehrlich // Heeding the Florentine Humanists: Lessons on Understanding and Viewing Mythological Heroes

Images of mythological heroes, the half-mortal descendants of pagan deities, abounded in the visual culture of Florence. Whether wrought in stone, depicted on canvas, or articulated in numerous other mediums, depictions of valiant deeds and those who accomplished them were commissioned and collected in growing numbers. Emerging from my dissertation, my book project, I Modelli di Virtù: Mythological Heroes in the Art of Fifteenth-Century Florence, considers the role of mythological heroes in the visual construction of the heroic ideal in Quattrocento Florence. I argue that changing notions of virtue and a robust culture of exemplarity inherited from ancient and medieval traditions influenced the reception of mythological heroes and account for their reemergence in the visual arts of the city at this time. This type of hero, I maintain, served as a model of civic virtue at a moment when secular ideals began informing public identities. By examining the reception and resonances of the figures of Aeneas, Hercules, and Orpheus—three mythological heroes who enjoyed significant symbolic ties to the Republic of Florence in the fifteenth century—my book-length study highlights and rebuilds the nexus of literary and visual precedents that together provided the foundation for the mythological hero’s visual prominence in the expansive painted narratives and large sculptures of the next century.
    Aligning with the scope of my book project, the primary goal of my research project at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte this summer will be to prepare an article for publication that illuminates the educative value Florentine humanists placed on mythological heroes, particularly with regard to their moral worth and potential as models of heroic virtue. These prescriptions borrow heavily from ancient writers and appear in commentaries and in letters of advice regarding the proper education of a Renaissance individual. I will be utilizing the rich collections of The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek for this purpose. In particular, I am interested in Renaissance manuscripts and printed books, including an illustrated volume of Virgil’s Aeneid with a commentary by Cristoforo Landino, that once belonged to the Florentine humanist, Petrus Victorius.
In tracing a classical theme from its representational origins in material culture, often located within the domestic or private sphere, to its eventual imbrication within the monumental arts commissioned for public spaces, my research situates mythological heroes and their representation in the Quattrocento within the social fabric of Florence and moves beyond a Medicean-centric context that has frequently framed discussions of classical reception in Florentine culture.