Making Trails in the Art World

Spring/Summer 2015

Could there be a Leonardo without Vinci? The Italian Renaissance master is so closely associated with his home city, located about 30 miles west of Florence, that his name and birthplace have become inextricable. Scholars have traditionally viewed this era’s painters and sculptors through the lens of place, as though they were rooted in a primary locale: Leonardo and Michelangelo are said to epitomize a “Florentine” style, Bellini is identified closely with Venice, and Raphael’s style is said to be “Roman.”

“We’ve been looking at Italian Renaissance artists as though they spent their lives working out of a single studio that they never left,” says David Young Kim, Assistant Professor of History of Art, who specializes in the teaching and research of Southern Renaissance art.

These artists lived in an age of discovery—one we associate with the Italy of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus—and like these explorers, they were mobile and eager for new sights, says Kim. They traveled to see the work of other artists, explore new landscapes, and gain commissions.

Artists not only traveled, but many wrote autobiographies in which they described their journeys. Kim is fascinated by the link between artists’ travels and the impact their mobility had on their artistic process and changing style. Foreign lands and foreign artists influenced their work more than has been previously recognized.

In his new book The Traveling Artist in the Italian Renaissance: Geography, Mobility, and Style, Kim bridges the divide between these artists’ work and their writings. In doing so, he broadens the conceptual scheme of art history, which organizes artists by time and place, and offers a comprehensive and holistic account of the development of Italian Renaissance art.

The relationship between culture and place is personal for Kim. He was born in Michigan to Korean-born parents and grew up in a number of states because his father’s engineering job continually relocated the family. In addition, his mother’s parents lived in South Korea and his father’s family had settled in Brazil. Kim’s world was tripartite: the United States, South Korea, and Brazil.

“We were constantly moving around, so I grew up with an outsider’s perspective,” says Kim, who cites Bernard Berenson, an American art historian who popularized the scholarship of Renaissance art, as one of his heroes. “That view has given me a fresh outlook which I think is valuable because many of the experts in this field are from the same places as the artists they write about.”

Kim says being a Korean-American was one of the most challenging things about writing in his field. “Students didn’t know you could become an expert on European art and be Korean,” he says. “At Penn, you are part of a community where you can pursue what you want regardless of who you are.”


By Abigail Meisel