Courtesans or Gentlewomen?

Associations between words and images in historiography are powerful. In the chapter “The Position of Women” in the 1958 Harper & Row edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), we see the term “courtesans” in the caption of figure 193 (p. 392), and the definition of “public women” as an “unhappy class of women” on p. 395. We know that Burckhardt distinguishes “public women” from courtesans or “kept women” according to his text. However, figure 193 is the only image in this chapter that depicts “women,” while the rest depict either “a woman” or “a woman and two men.” Thus, if there is any image in this chapter that depicts a “class of women,” figure 193, a painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1490-95), is it. Moreover, the women in this painting don’t look very happy: their body language as well as that of the dogs, and the resemblance of both women’s faces and haircuts make them the best candidates for being a visual representation of an “unhappy class.”

Jacob Burckahrdt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1958, pp. 392-93

But, interestingly, the Venetian Museo Correr which holds the painting, titles the artwork “Two Venetian Gentlewomen.” On its website, the museum clearly states that “Romantic art criticism had given this painting the title The Two Courtesans, but the sitters are clearly two gentlewomen, whose elegant garments and hairstyles clearly denote their wealth, their status – and their honesty.” It further elaborates on the symbols in the painting that connect it to modesty, marital harmony, fidelity, vigilance, the Virgin Mary, and the Venetian Preli family. “Hence” it says “the subject-matter of the entire picture becomes clearer, with two noblewomen becoming perhaps slightly bored as they wait for their husbands to return from a hunting trip.”

Well then, we agree that these two women, whatever their status, do not look very happy or interested, but we recognize a conflict between the caption and the women depicted in this painting. Consequently, the semantic connection between the verbal description of courtesans in the chapter and this illustration is questionable. More generally, this conflict illuminates the problem of titling artworks, and illustrating and captioning illustrations in historiography. Any association between verbal and visual components in what could become historical evidence and illustrated historiography, reflects a chain of semantic decisions, that establishes the basis for the epistemological experience. These combinations of words and images that occur in space and time to describe and explain the past, can, therefore, be analyzed as external to the “content” of the text, as what Hayden White defines as “prefigurative” or “poetic acts” (Metahistory x).


Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Photos from the Exhibition Infantile History

Infantile History is a group exhibition at the Department of History at York University, featuring children’s and childlike art to examine core questions faced by the discipline of history. It also explores art as an effective tool to delve into methodological challenges in creating and communicating historical knowledge.

Noa Yaari (photo: Lee Waddington)

The exhibition is part of my major project, ‘Visual Literacy in History,’ which focuses on vision as a first step in researching the past. The three main challenges the exhibition examines are: the use of artistic style as a means to periodize history; the creation and communication of historical knowledge through verbal-visual means; and history as a discipline and its classification into fields.

Noa Yaari, History of Africa and L. America, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Periodization of time into eras enables historians, students of history, and the public to communicate their ideas about the past. However, we must engage the following problems: how this periodization is made; which principles we use in dividing time into shorter periods; and what perspective we need in order to identify eras’ uniqueness.

Seeing artistic work as a record of bodily gestures allows its analysis as a medium that indexes its creator. Therefore, if we look at children’s and childlike art, we can ask: what do we see there that indicates the age or maturity of its creator? What exactly is there that suggests that the creator of the work has potential to be, to become, something else? The attempt to answer these questions is insightful and suggestive when examining history and its periodization, as well as our own expectations to find temporal changes in specific cultural domains.

Noa Yaari, Public History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Creation and communication of historical knowledge is based on varied sources and methods. In their research, historians turn to diverse sources, such as institutional and personal documents, photographs, maps, films, websites, and more, to draw a picture of the past. The exhibition explores the connection between verbal and visual languages in studying and teaching history: how we understand words and images when they are displayed next to each other; whether there is a better way to use both languages in the same text and argument; and the importance of visual literacy in history as a skill in historical study, holding that any domain of knowledge makes use of an outlook to the past.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

The historical discourse is classified into fields that are defined by periods of time and geographies, as well as themes. Infantile History draws visitors’ attention to the power of this classification: it raises questions about the different directions the historical discipline has taken through its own history; and the traditional and yet dynamic boundaries between the fields that serve the discipline as a mirror to ask “Who am I? And what would I like to be?”

The project also promotes visually stimulating environment in pedagogical settings. It beautifies the Department of History, and at the same time, raises deep questions about our approach to history and its making.

Noa Yaari, History of Europe, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Transnational History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

The participants in the exhibition are: Renato Barrera, Kevin Burris, María Ignacia Catalina (Ini), Axel C., Liam Dancy, Sean Dancy, Claire R. Dueck, Gideon, Joaquín Hidalgo, Norah Jurdjevic, Erica McCloskey, Antonia Morales, Leela Navaratnam, Ruben Navaratnam, Oriolle, Corinna S. H., Juliet S. H., Noa Yaari, Belén Zapata, and Michael Zinman.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Infantile History was made possible with the collaboration of the Department of History and the Graduate History Students’ Association, as well as the generous support of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Centre for Student Community & Leadership Development and the Departments of History at Keel and Glendon campuses.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

The reception of Infantile History took place on Thursday, March 23 between 12:30 and 2:00 pm, in the History Common Room (Vari Hall 2183). We had a great lunch and talks by PhD student and art teacher Ginny Grimaldi, History Professor Tom Cohen and myself. Everyone was welcome!

Noa Yaari, Migration History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

 Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Labour History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017


Infantile History on YFile: York University’s News:
Infantile History on the Faculty of Graduate Studies website: 


Posted in Contemplations, My Art

Names of Artists in Captions

Names of artists in captions enable the readers to look at artists as individuals who collectively create a professional community. The overall thesis of the historical book brings specific artists into the study, in most cases, based on commonalities in their work. Such shared features can be subject matter, symbolism and technique; all point to shared artistic tradition and conventions, body of knowledge, exposure to circulated ideas, and the ability – physical, intellectual and emotional – to express those through artistic work. Looking at the illustrations collectively in the book sheds light on the era in which these artworks were created; on contemporary artistic methods and the results of implementing them. Using the same kind of observation of all the names in the captions of the illustrations, the readers gain a perspective on the contemporary human factor, which used those artistic methods. Further, if there is a list of illustrations in the book, that indicates artists’ names, this professional community is displayed collectively. This enables the readers to see the number of works each artist has in the book, and if the readers are familiar with the artists, they can also identify connections between them. These two possibilities can enrich the reading, the understanding of the illustrated study, as well as the consumption of the art.

Helmut Newton, MANNEQUINS, QUAI D’ORSAY, 1984. Silver print, 24.1 x 36.2 cm
 (Image source:
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Indexation of Artists and Artworks

Indexation, like the list of illustrations, is a method that directs readers to artists, artworks and other related terms in the book; it makes them searchable, accessible and consequently more available for further study and discussion. When entries in the index indicate where terms are used in relation to other terms, the index provides the readers with historical contexts, since associations between terms reflect a certain connection between different past phenomena. Thus, when the index associates names and terms that are used in the image-captions with other terms used in the book, it links visual culture with other cultural and social domains. Further, this association indicates how the author sees visual culture in relation to these domains, and how they envision the readers doing so. Any indexation of artists, artworks and related terms is a representation of their representation in the book, and as such it has a political power over their place in the historical discourse.


M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948. Lithograph, 28.2 x 33.2 cm
(Image source:
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Artistic Technique in Image Captions

Identification of the artistic technique in captions reveals the main materials from which the artist has created their work, and, to a certain extent, the operations involved in it. Different materials and measurements of artworks require varied modes of working, therefore, pointing them out can raise questions about the use of specific tools, collaboration with other people and institutions, and interactions with local and international markets. Moreover, artistic technique suggests artistic traditions, discourses and schools that the work can be associated with, that the artist consciously or unconsciously addresses. Artistic technique, therefore, is a component within the caption that can develop new directions of understanding the artwork, analyzing its material, operational, social and psychological aspects. Historiography that points out this kind of information allows the visual evidence to testify not only to what is seen on its printed surface, but also to the varied processes that were involved in its creation, enriching it with context.


Venessa Bell, Abstract Painting, 1914. Oil and gouache on canvas, 44.1×38.7 cm, Tate Gallery, London
(Image source: qw2Sc8YG3UI/VNWUC4RBx6I/AAAAAAAANjk/00TdhcRhtrs/s1600/vanessa%2Bbell%2Babstract.jpg)
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

I think that…


Noa Yaari, I think that I’m a Cerebral Subject! 2016
Posted in Contemplations, My Art

Infantile History – Exhibition in the Department of History at York University

Dear all,

Have you ever been described as “infantile”? Have you ever classified someone or something as such?

As part of exploring what history is, whether it has a goal, age and direction, and what the means to answer these questions are, you are invited to submit artworks to be displayed in the Department of History. While all artworks that capture infantile elements are very welcome, the project is mainly interested in looking at history through children’s and childlike paintings. The fact that paintings record bodily gestures makes painting a medium that indexes its creator. What is there in paintings, and especially childlike ones, that indicates the age or maturity of their creator? What exactly do we see there that suggests that the creator of the work has potential to be, to become, something else? What can we take from this when approaching visual and material history: sources, methods and periodization of time?

Some ideas of artworks to get the ball rolling, but any additional ideas are welcome:

  • Children’s and childlike drawings and paintings, made in the near or far past.
  • Photographs of yourself as a child, and/or other children (and pets, naturally).
  • Pictures of settings, objects or people that use childlike rhetoric.
  • Any materials from your scholarly work that relate to infancy and childhood, and/or the relation between these and other stages of the human life cycle.

The submission is open to everyone, there is no limit on the number of submissions per person, and all submissions are accepted!

The exhibition is planned to run between December, 2016 – early April, 2017, in the main corridor of the Department of History. Works, in any size and shape, can be submitted by putting them in a box, in the department office, across from Jeannine’s desk. Please attach a note to the work with your name and email address. Any additional details that will be displayed in a label next to the work are welcome. These could be: name of creator, their age at time of producing the work, year of production, places connected to it, and further information/insights. Please note that the works will be returned to you, but will not be covered by insurance.


If you have any questions or ideas, or if you’d like to participate but cannot come to campus and would like me to print your submission/s, please contact me at:

Thank you very much for your collaboration!

Looking forward to it,


Posted in Contemplations, My Art

Back to School


This year I’m teaching two tutorial groups in a first year introductory course: ‘War, Revolution & Society in the 20th Century.’ Our main secondary source is the book Twentieth Century and Beyond: A Brief Global History (2008). In the third chapter, ‘The Great Powers of Europe,’ on p. 39, there is a photograph of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family. As you can see, the second part of the caption reads “His only son, Alexei, was born in 1904.” When I read it, I was wondering why it conveys this piece of information. Since there is no explicit reference (in parentheses) from the verbal text to the photograph, and therefore the reader cannot know the photograph’s specific context or what point it comes to make or support, I had to hypothesize the relation between both kinds of text. Influenced by the caption, I focused on Alexei: Is there anything special here? Or did I miss anything written about the Tsar’s only son? I didn’t remember anything relevant, so I went back to the verbal text and looked for “Alexei,” “son,” “heredity,” and “dynasty,” but found nothing in the entire chapter. So, I searched the index but “Alexei” as well as the other terms weren’t there. What is, therefore, the meaning of the second part of the caption? What do the readers get from knowing that Alexei was the Tsar’s only son, and that he was born in 1904? Since the book doesn’t answer any of these questions, it seems perfectly appropriate to ask: What makes Alexei who, like his sisters, is surrounded by his parents and the other siblings, special? Why is he, except for the Tsar, the only figure who is treated differently in the caption? And lastly, since we discuss the book in a class which consists of students of varied gender indemnities, how does the caption affect the students’ emotions and identification with the history we study? And more generally, how does it position each one of us in relation to memory and commemoration?

Goff, Richard et al. Twentieth Century and Beyond: A Brief Global History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008
Posted in Contemplations

Dates and Places in the List of Illustrations

When the list of illustrations informs about the times in which the artworks were produced, and their location at the time of conducting the research or publishing the book, the readers can gain a perspective on the sources’ temporal and geographical scope, right from the beginning. In the case of Colin Morris’ The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (1987 ed.), the temporal scope of the whole study is in the title of the book. However, in the list of illustrations, figs. 5, 6 and 7 are all from the tenth or late tenth century, which raises interesting questions. For instance, did the visual arts precede written language in expressing eleventh and twelfth century individualism, which, according to the title, deserves special attention? Are there less surviving eleventh and twelfth century visual artworks that express individualism and hence the turn to works from earlier times? Or perhaps it’s a question of production rather than survival? And, finally, given the fragmentary and fluctuating nature of cultural evolution, would it be beneficial to define the studied process using broad and porous terms, allowing more sources, places, people and ideas into the historical scope? At any rate, displaying the temporal and geographical scope of visual evidence in the list of illustrations allows readers to fantasize about and even plan a research trip, to the past and the future, and read the book as a deep scholarly preparation.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Noa Yaari - Fontevraud Abbey - 2016

Top image: Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) at Fontevraud Abbey, France (sources:
Bottom image: Noa Yaari, Fontevraud Abbey, 2016
Posted in Dissertation, My Art

Interdisciplinary Method and Human Behavior

Interdisciplinary method in research on human behavior is the other side of working with a diverse group of participants in a social experiment; both halt reductionism in our perception of “human being.” If the perception of the examined phenomenon and its agents is not restricted by the examiner by narrowing down the tools of inquiry, the effect is that the potential varied input of the inquiry can be reflected in its output. Any reduction of either the group or the method to narrowly classified definitions would yield biased results that would not reflect “human behavior,” which can still be quite conformist and homogeneous.

Noa Yaari - Untitled - 2016

Noa Yaari, Untitled, 2016
Posted in Contemplations, My Art