Images and Emotions of Violence

As I have argued elsewhere the spectacle of mass murder did not render early modern writers and artists mute, even if the emotional key in which they sometimes depicted such events can appear subdued to modern taste. As André Chastel remarked of representations of the sack of Rome: ‘[I]t is as though there had been a refusal in Italy to portray the event, a kind of instinctive censorship.’[1] Moreover, the paucity of images of battles and soldiers in contemporary dress in Italian art led John Hale to wonder: ‘so much war, so much art: why did the two meet so rarely?’[2] When artists depicted events like the sack of Rome they often did so in an obliquely mythologized or allegorical way in recognition of the fact that war and violence carried a predominantly ethical or moral meaning. The depiction of the scriptural image of the massacre of the innocents in a modern setting, as I have argued in a previous post, was one way in which artists could link contemporary events to religious truth. The focus on the deeds of the military in such scenes, and their classicized appearance, not only reflected assumptions about the relative honour of soldiers and non-combatants but also conformed to the conventions of epic historical painting, a form which would be most acceptable to many Italian patrons.

There are two dangers which might arise from a casual reading of these images: one is the assumption that Renaissance men and women were emotionally traumatised by these events or lacked an emotional language with which to address them. The other, linked, danger, is the assumption that artistic portrayals of violence were predominantly aesthetic and in most cases intent on avoiding the ‘reality’ of war and atrocity. I want to look at each of these assumptions in turn here.

I have so far come across very few discussions of violence and emotion by Renaissance writers so it is fascinating to find the matter addressed in one of the ‘natural problems’ discussed by Girolamo Garimberto in his Problemi naturali e morali (first printed in Venice in 1549)  – a passage kindly brought to my attention by my colleague Dr Jill Burke. In this work Garimberto asks the question: ‘What causes a man to feel less upset at the sight of the death of many persons in war, than in seeing one die anywhere else [?]’[3] Garimberto’s discussion of this problem begins with the assertion that he has shown how the intense operation of one sense can impede the operation of the others. In war, in the same way, a man may find himself in manifest danger of his life and surrounded by death, or may be oppressed by fear or blinded by anger. In the first case, sensing manifest danger, a man is so intent on his own fate that he does not have eyes sufficient to see the damage to others, and not really seeing it, it does not come into his consideration, nor in considering it to bring about much of an alteration. In the second case anger causes the blood to rise, the bodily parts to be heated, and the spirit to behave bravely so that a man puts little store either in his own bad state or yet that of others. Just as the body is stronger when more unified, so those who form a single body in an enterprise will reasonably feel little of that fear that usually accompanies death.

By contrast, men feel that fear somewhat in every other place because where there is not a manifest danger to their own life there is not yet the virtue of the spirit and senses joined together so strongly as to rule over that terror that causes one to see the death of others. The image of it, in such cases, easily impressing itself on our fantasies and representing to us a similar future and inevitable evil for us disturbs and fills us with horrors. We see in small children how they lack this imagination and therefore lack the fear. There not being anything more contrary and hostile to life than the effect of death, and by nature nothing more friendly to man than life itself, naturally the living hate to see a dead person, as directly opposing to himself, especially outside of war and in particular in bed, where natural death occurs and where the length of the illness of the patient gradually displeases the mind of he who desires health and makes a battle between hope and fear, induces a certain sadness in his spirit, leading to a languidness from which is born that perturbation and terror that envisages the coming of death.

Garimberto then illustrates his point with reference to Caesar who never lost his composure in the face of so many terrifying spectacles in battle but then cried over the head of the dead Pompey his enemy. Vespasiano in the siege and capture of Jerusalem many times saw with those eyes the earth bathed with Roman blood but in Rome could no support to see the death of anyone. Saladin was moved even to pity to comfort the widows of the Christian soldiers killed in great number by his men in the capture of Jerusalem and lamenting with them the loss of martyrs searched not only with words but with deeds to mitigate the sadness with gifts of money. Renato, duke of Lorraine, after he had defeated Charles, duke of Burgundy, with the aid of the Swiss, nevertheless found his body among the dead, which moved his soul and for which he showed sadness, so that he commanded it to be buried with solemnity fitting such a great prince and wished to accompany it to the tomb with all of his family dressed in mourning.

The contrast between the pathos provoked by a single dead body and the sense of detachment or self-preservation arising in the midst of slaughter likely has classical roots that I need to investigate further with the help of colleagues here in Edinburgh working on the history of emotions. However, I want to move on now to the puzzle about the absence of depictions of atrocity in a realistic fashion. Where some historians have seen in some Renaissance depictions of battle a ‘purely aesthetic production’ with the painter as ‘more theatre director than a historian’,[4] it seems that for other artists aesthetic concerns were hardly divorced from broader considerations and theories of war and violence, which were embedded in the discourses of just war with which commissioners or viewers were familiar. Even the supposedly ‘laicized’ Miseries of War (1633) series by Jacques Callot formed a catalogue of military behaviour in warfare to be condemned, punished and contrasted with virtuous soldiers suitably rewarded, drew on Callot’s perennial interest in violence and criminals, and may reflect Callot’s knowledge of military manuals such as that by Fourquevaux as well as the political and personal difficulties of his final years.[5]

The narrative of a development in the representation of violence from the highly stylized and emotionally distant to realistic proto-‘reportage’ exhibiting or inducing heightened emotion is as unhelpful as a desire to focus on accuracy and truth in textual evidence to the exclusion of rhetoric. It can encourage historians to look for modern paradigm of suffering in war in early modern depictions. For example, the mercenary-artist Urs Graf’s ‘Armloses Mädchen’ (Armless maiden) (depicted at the top of this post) has been presented as a possible prostitute and an example of the artist’s ‘condemnation of the misère de la guerre’.[6] By contrast, this striking image has also been interpreted as an indictment of municipal justice and administration in Basel at a moment when it was riven with discontent with evidence of councillors accepting private income from the French crown keen to secure troops. The armless maiden, in this reading, is ‘analogous to the motif of Justice without hands’ found in some late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices.[7] In a similar way, the apparently emotionally distanced form of the siege plan can be read as a representation of ‘religious dramas, confessional testimonies, and delights to curious audiences across Europe.’[8]

I have sometimes been tempted to read into certain Renaissance images of violence a modern intention to depict the ‘reality’ of war and massacre, some hostility towards war, or the expression of emotions such as pathos. All of these intentions, readings and feelings may be involved for the viewer and artist. But it has been more valuable for me to recognise the ways in which representations of violence can be related to an idea of war quite distant from the modern terms within which I have been most familiar until I began this research project. This unsettling recognition has also operated in relation the poetry of the Italian Wars, which I may write about in a future post. The presentation of the peaceful state in Italy or the world before 1494, sometimes found there, grew out of the assumption that peace was the natural state of man. The repeated emphasis on the bestiality of the enemy, the storms which raged over Italy, and a general sense of natural disorder linked descriptions of massacres and other events with the natural law basis for the theory of war. The direct appeal to God, Christ or the Virgin Mary, and to the northern princes who acted as the instruments of His punishment for sinful humanity, as well as to the machinations of classical gods such as Mars clearly stemmed from a general millenarianism and a desire to frame events in cosmic terms. These motifs may also related to the Augustinian sense of war as a punishment for sin and as a right path to the restoration of justice. Finally, the repeated comparisons of contemporary Italians with the valour and virtue of ancient Romans together with sporadic appeals for a new Camillus or Scipio to lead the Italians to salvation as well as the frequent disregard for the fate of civilians in favour of accounts of noble and chivalrous princes or captains was a distillation of the sense that just war required a valid and virtuous authority and that what mattered was the cause of war rather more than its conduct.



Garimberto, Girolamo. Problemi naturali e morali. Venice: Nella bottega d’Erasmo di Vicenzo Valgrisi, 1550


Chastel, André. The Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983

Groebner, Valentin. Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts: Presents and Politics at the End of the Middle Ages. Trans. Pamela E. Selwyn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002

Hale, John R. Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990

Roeck, Bernd. ‘The Atrocities of War in Early Modern Art.’ Trans. Olga Pollack. In Joseph Canning, Hartmut Lehmann, and Jay Winter (eds), Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern and Modern Times. 129-40. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004

Sandberg, Brian. ‘“To Have the Pleasure of This Siege.”: Envisioning Siege Warfare During the European Wars of Religion’. In Allie Terry-Fritsch and Erin Felicia Labbie (eds), Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. 143-62. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012

Wolfthal, Diane. ‘Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War’. Art Bulletin 59/2 (1977): 222-33

[1] Chastel, Sack of Rome, 44.

[2] Hale, Artists and Warfare, 145.

[3] ‘Perche causa l’huomo senta minor alteration d’animo in veder morire una moltitudine di persone su la guerra, che in vederne in ogni altro luogo morir un solo’. Garimberto, Problemi, 50-52 (problem 29).

[4] Roeck, ‘Atrocities’, 129, 130. The argument here is not entirely clear, though, and is hampered by a rather clunky translation into English.

[5] Ibid., 139. In contrast, see Wolfthal, ‘Jacques Callot’s’.

[6] Roeck, ‘Atrocities’, 133.

[7] Groebner, Liquid Assets, 134-5.

[8] Sandberg, ‘“To Have the Pleasure of This Siege”’, 145.

Author: Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).