Narcissus and the moon: Parallax in early modern images

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Abstract / Description of output

This essay develops a comprehensive approach to the study of parallax effects in early modern images, with critical emphasis on painting. Parallax is the apparent displacement of an object relative to a given background, as caused by the movement of the observer. In the cosmological debate that accompanied the Copernican revolution, the apparent absence of stellar parallax was taken as decisive evidence against the hypothesis of the motion of the Earth. Surprisingly, the emergence of a parallax view in the early modern arts has not been considered in relation to this crucial scientific debate, and it is still largely understudied. In this context, this essay puts forward a twofold argument: first, it contends that the debate on stellar parallax informs, integrates, and transforms the theory of perspective in the late Renaissance; second, it argues that the parallax view sheds new light on the representation of movement in the Baroque visual culture. The semiotic model of uttered enunciation provides a methodological framework to study of the inscription of a moving observer in images, and the question of the semiotic nature of mirrors finds here a new pertinence. This framework is developed with a focus on Giordano Bruno’s art of memory, where the parallax view enables a semiotic embrace of the movement of images. In painting, analysis focuses on Caravaggio’s Narcissus, where the observer is displaced to reflect the point of view of an image that appears motionless but sees itself as a moving image.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSignata: Annales des sémiotiques / Annals of Semiotics
Early online date31 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • movement in images
  • painterly realism
  • semiotics
  • early modernity
  • scientific discourse
  • mirrors
  • Brunelleschi
  • Galileo
  • Giordano Bruno
  • Caravaggio
  • enunciation
  • painting
  • reflexivity
  • movement


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