The Wandering Torso: Becoming Fragment in Early Modern Material Culture (2019-)

Anna Degler, Research Area 2: Traveling Matters
Postdoctoral Research Project

The aim of my project is a book-length study on the entanglement of the most famous fragment in Western culture – the so called Torso Belvedere – with the aesthetic concepts of body and materiality in the European Early Modern period. The  medial and material transformations of the Torso in art and literature will be examined in the broader context of antiquity reception, medical knowledge, and cultural techniques. Striving against the stable narrative of a conceptual break during the 18th century starting with Winckelmann, the project aims to detect other more differentiated notions of the fragment in Early Modern Europe. I would like to question the generalizing assumption that the Early Modern period had, paradoxically enough, a more holistic concept of fragments and of the body.

In Early Modern culture the Torso is a particularly ambiguous figure. The sculpture performs an openness and a lack as a fragment as well as a body. The question how concepts of the body, of gender and sexuality are treated by using the famous Torso as a model are of utmost importance. In the project, the unique way of sitting with splayed legs will be explored with the help of anthropological studies on sitting particularly with regard to gendering and with a close reading of historical sources describing the physical and material qualities of the Torso. This particular posture as a cultural technique must be linked to the Torso’s supposed identity as Hercules because Early Modern societies developed important new attributions to the antique hero concerning his flexible gender and sexuality.

If we understand the Torso as a fragment, the material properties of the fragment as an object come into play. I would like to argue against essentialist concepts of ‘Antiquity’ that conceive of antique marble fragments as something original, stable and unchangeable. The possibilities and limits of posthumanist material agency and its particular temporality as something that is always becoming and ongoing will be critically explored in different case studies from Maarten van Heemskerck to Joachim von Sandrart. By avoiding a stable and fixed idea of an antique origin, the Torso will be presented as ever emerging in its heterogeneous Early Modern reception.


Das Projekt möchte den stark fragmentierten Marmorkörper, den wir Torso Belvedere nennen, nicht länger als Ikone ‚klassischer‘ Antikenrezeption und somit als statische, feste Größe etablieren, sondern vielmehr seine Beweglichkeit und Veränderlichkeit über die frühneuzeitliche Rezeption erfassen. Dieses Vorhaben soll eine andere Perspektive auf Vorstellungen von der Antike, vor allem aber auf Körper- und Materialästhetiken des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts anbieten. Es geht darum zu ergründen, wie genau das ständige Auftauchen dieses berühmten Fragments aus den materiellen Gefügen der Kunst wie der Schriftkultur der Frühen Neuzeit an den Diskursen über ‚Körper‘ und Materialität beteiligt ist.