NWO / Internationaliseringsproject

Prehistories of the sublime 1550-1750


The history of the sublime is easy to write; but not so its prehistory, that is its development
from the first editions and translations in the 16th century until its codification as an aesthetic
concept by Burke and Kant after 1750. In the treatise Peri Hupsous or ‘On the Sublime'
the 1st-century orator Longinus described the experience of the sublime as one which sweeps
readers or viewers along, robs them of rational control over their feelings, and opens hitherto
unknown vistas of the infinite, the horrendous, or the incomprehensible. Longinus' description
continues to raise many questions, not the least what kind of experience this is: amazement
or wonder, aesthetic enjoyment, religious or mystical rapture. It seems easy to say the sublime
experience is related to all these sensations at the same time, but this in itself is the very issue
we seek to address. How exactly did this complex notion function in the period before its
codification, with which meanings was it endowed, and what is its relationship to the
‘neighbouring' experiences that we just mentioned?
After the codification of the sublime by Burke and Kant the term came to stand for an aesthetic
concept; but before 1750, it escaped easy disciplinary classification. Contrary to a widely held
belief, many Greek editions and translations were made from the 1550s onwards, but very few
of them have been studied.
The discipline that wrote the history of the sublime after 1750 is that of aesthetics; but that
discipline itself evolved only in the course of the 18th century. As a result, aesthetics imposed
a conceptual grid on the sublime as described by Longinus and others that made it very difficult
to reconstruct its pre-modern genealogy. To study the history of the sublime before 1750,
therefore, raises two problems: on the one hand, its meaning cannot be located in a
monodisciplinary way (e.g. as an aesthetic concept, on a par with the beautiful or the ugly);
on the other hand, in early modern Europe experiences that after 1750 would be characterized
as ‘sublime' did occur, but were labelled differently: as experiences of wonder and amazement,
as mystical experiences of rapture, as horror or fear. As a consequence, any nvestigation in the
pre-history of the sublime has to be multi-disciplinary, drawing on rhetoric, art history, history
of philosophy and religion, literary studies and anthropology.
This programme starts at the origins of such a prehistory: to investigate early editions of
It is funded by a NWO/Internationalization grant, and will be carried out in collaboration
with the universities of York (Helen Hills, Anthony Geraghty) and Leiden (Caroline van Eck,
Maarten Delbeke), and the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa (Lina Bolzoni).


Activities and output

Ekphrasis and the early-modern sublime
Panel convened by Jürgen Pieters at the IAPL-conference ‘Layering', Nicosia, Cyprus, 4-9 June 2007

This panel seeks to query the complementarity of two typically layered phenomena that centrally belong to the history of Western aesthetics: the notion of ekphrasis and the experience of the sublime. Both phenomena can be traced back to Antiquity (to the broad rhetorical tradition that we associate with Aristotle and Longinus) and both resurfaced in the important humanistic rehearsal of this tradition in the early-modern age, as a number of painters, poets and critics of a humanist bent tried to come up with novel answers to age-old questions regarding the relationship between art and the real. It is to this period (roughly, between the late-fifteenth and the early-eighteenth centuries) that we turn in this panel. While the notion of ekphrasis involves the conjunction of two media (word and image, as in the linguistic description of an object of visual perception), the experience of the sublime is layered in a different respect, entailing as it does the ‘balance' or ‘conflict' of different sensations: horror and relief in Burke's analysis of the feeling, Lust and Unlust in that of Kant. In the period under scrutiny in this panel, the sublime has not yet fully evolved in the direction that Burke and Kant take: that of the ‘natural' sublime in which the feeling is primarily provoked by a natural phenomenon, not some or other work of art. In the case of the early modern ‘rhetorical' sublime, the experience in general results from the viewer's or reader's confrontation with a work of art that stupefies and overwhelms. Each of the contributions to this panel will address such a specific work of art (a text, a building, a painting, ...) that was meant to provoke sublime feelings or that can be analysed in the traditional rhetorical terms of sublimity, and which belongs, at the same time, to the ekphrastic tradition. In joining together the two central notions of this panel the contributors aim for mutual clarification. Not only do we hope to produce novel insights in the separate traditions of ekphrasis and the sublime, it is also our aim to advance our knowledge of the specificities of the early-modern phase in the long European history of the sublime. By singling out the ekphrastic tradition for specific focus, we mean to suggest that this tradition played an important role in the gradual development from rhetorical to natural instances of sublimity.

Program of the panel

Maarten Delbeke (Ghent/Leiden): A swooping sword arrested in stone. Michelangelo Lualdi on Algardi's Beheading of St. Paul.

Caroline van Eck (Leiden): Why does rhetoric need the visual? 17th century English translations of Longinus and the architectural sublime.

Stijn Bussels (Leiden) & Bram van Oostveldt (Ghent/Utrecht): Rêveries de Diderot: The Promenade de Vernet, the Ekphrastic Tradition and the Sublime


First workshop Pre-Histories of the Sublime

The first workshop (convened by Maarten Delbeke, Caroline Van Eck and Jürgen PIeters) will take place in Ghent, on Friday and Saturday 18-19 January 2008. Participants will include among others Francis Goyet and Joseph Imorde. The programme can be found below.


Friday January 18

9.00 Coffee

9.30 - 9.45 Welcome and introduction by the organisers

9.45 - 10.30 Francis Goyet: La place du sublime dans la harangue (Longin lu par

10.30 - 11.15 Paul J. Smith: Sublime et grotesque: histoire d'un couple antithétique, de Montaigne à Perrault


11.30 - 12.15 Bram van Oostveldt & Stijn Bussels: The Sublime, le merveilleux and the Excesses of Tragédie en Musqiue


12.15 - 13.30 Lunch at Het Pand

13.30 - 14.15 Lex Hermans: The Sublime between Poetics, History and the Visual Arts in Late Sixteenth-Century Venice - The Circle of Francesco Patrizi

14.15 - 15.00 Caroline Van Eck: Figuring the Divine: On the uses of the sublime in 17th-century English religious art and poetry


15.30 - 16.15 Maarten Delbeke: Sublime martyrdom. Michelangelo Lualdi on Algardi's Beheading of St. Paul

16.15 - 17.00 Eugenio Refini: The Notion of fantasia in Longinus' Peri Hupsous and its Interpretations in Late Renaissance

17.00 - 17.45 Joseph Imorde: The Sublime is (the) now!