Person of the Week
Making History: Art Historian Bass Wins Inaugural Guggenheim Fellowship
Marisa Bass is an art historian who’s just made history. The Guilford resident and Yale faculty member has been awarded an inaugural 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship in Early Modern Studies, in recognition of her current book project, The Monument’s End: Public Art and the Modern Republic. (Photo by Cindy Ringer of LJR Images)
Marisa Bass is an art historian who’s just made history. The Guilford resident has been awarded an inaugural 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship in Early Modern Studies, in recognition of her current book project, The Monument’s End: Public Art and the Modern Republic.
At a time when the removal or renaming of public monuments reflecting past political ideals often sparks fervent debate, there’s no doubt Marisa’s book project stood out among this year’s nearly 3,000 applicants under consideration by the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s peer-review process.
“My project is about art in Rembrandt’s time, and it’s about the way that the Dutch in the republic in the 17th century used art to think about the kind of novelty of their political circumstances, which was the foundation of the first modern republic,” Marisa explains. “And so the question that I’m interested in exploring, which is very relevant to the history of this country, is how do you tell the story of a nation’s history through images and monuments, when that nation is founded on the idea of a collective; that it’s meant to be a space for everyone, and not just a space in which one person represents everyone?”
On April 7, Marisa’s book project was selected as one among a diverse group of 184 Guggenheim Fellowships awarded in the foundation’s 96th competition. Guggenheim Fellowships are grants meant to support fellows with a significant block of time—from 6 to 12 months—so they have creative freedom to complete their projects. Marisa, an associate professor in Yale University’s History of Art Department, will be taking a year-long sabbatical to complete her new book, expected to be published with Princeton University Press in 2023.
In her profession and as a published academic author, Marisa neatly checked many preliminary boxes of the Guggenheim Fellowship application process, which brings with it an expectation that applicants demonstrate “prior achievement and exceptional promise” according to the foundation’s website (learn more at www.gf.org/fellows/current).
In 2020, Marisa won the Bainton Prize from the Sixteenth Century Society for her book Insect Artifice: Nature and Art in the Dutch Revolt (Princeton 2019). She recently co-authored the book Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe (with Anne Goldgar, Claudia Swan, Hanneke Grootenboer, Princeton University Press, 2021).
“I always try to write a book that I can feel proud of, that I feel tells a good story and presents new information and material,” says Marisa, who also authored a monograph, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity (Princeton 2016) in addition to many academic articles and book chapters.
A Guggenheim in Guilford
Due to a perfect storm of circumstances including a new home, a new baby, and a rising global pandemic, Marisa was on maternity leave at home in Guilford last year when she decided to take her first crack at submitting for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“I had always thought about applying for a Guggenheim, and I heard that you had to apply sometimes many times in order to receive the award, so I thought I might as well start trying. I never expected to win the first time I applied,” says Marisa, who moved to Guilford in March 2020 and had to meet the fellowship application deadline of Sept. 17, 2020.
“It’s crazy to me, especially, because I moved with my family to a new house in Guilford two days after my son was born, and that was about a week before the whole state shut down for the pandemic,” says Marisa. “And so I wrote the application for the Guggenheim with a five-month-old child at home. So I don’t know if the pandemic gave me the opportunity, but I’m in some ways amazed that it all happened during this crazy time.”
Marisa applied for a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Arts Research. She was floored when a separate Guggenheim Fellowship in Early Modern Studies was created, with Marisa as its inaugural recipient.
“I think what happened is they had a group of really generous donors, former Guggenheim Fellows, who decided they wanted to create an award for Early Modern Studies, and I feel really honored that they chose to support my project under that rubric,” says Marisa.
One of the reasons Marisa thinks she may have been aligned with the new fellowship is that she’s an “unusual type of art historian” in what is “a fundamentally interdisciplinary discipline.”
“If you think about the two words, art and history, you’re putting two different things together. It’s about looking at history through art,” she says. “And so I like to think about the history of art in relation to the history of literature and the history of politics and the history of ideas.”
Marisa’s book project for the fellowship will be written in Guilford, she says.
“I’ve created a deadline for myself and my editor, I have this year of sabbatical, and I will only get more busy as my son gets older,” she says. “I want to finish writing it next year, which I think I can do. I was very fortunate to have done the bulk of the research before everything shut down with the pandemic—I’ve been thinking about this book for five years and researching it. For me, the writing is sort of the last stage. When I sit to down to write it, that’s the point at which I know what I really want to say.”
A Charlotte, Virginia native, Marisa and her partner, Rafeeq Hasan, who teaches philosophy at Amherst College and is from the Chicago, Illinois area, first found Guilford in the early 2000s, when she was a Yale undergraduate.
“My first experience of Guilford was as an undergraduate [and] we all had heard about The Place in Guilford,” she says of the town’s storied, seasonal outdoor restaurant at 901 Boston Post Road. “And we would drive from New Haven out to The Place, and it felt like a big adventure to us as students. My partner and I went on our first date at The Place, too.”
After earning her B.A. from Yale University in 2003, Marisa went on to earn her M.A. from Harvard University in 2006 and Ph.D. from Harvard University, 2011. She joined the faculty at Yale University in 2016 and now finds herself full circle as a resident of the town she discovered as an undergrad.
“I love that Guilford’s history goes back to the 17th century. So it is, in its origin, an early modern town,” she says.
Marisa’s looking forward to getting to know her new community and fellow Guilford residents.
“Since we moved here with everything closed down, we don’t know a lot of people in Guilford, yet. But we have an amazing next-door neighbor who’s just helped us tremendously,” she says of their new neighbor, Lenore Martorelli. “We also love Jacobs Beach, and we can’t wait to go back, now that our son’s a little older.”
Their now one-year-old son, Aldus, is named after the Renaissance scholar and publisher Aldus Manutius.
“He has a very nerdy Renaissance name, because he’s named after a very famous Renaissance book printer and publisher who made really beautiful Renaissance books,” says Marisa. “And Aldus Manutius is famous today among people who do graphic design because he designed very beautiful fonts.”
This spring, Marisa is teaching online classes at Yale and working from home. After her sabbatical, she’s hoping she will be back to teaching in a physical space with her students.
“Teaching is a shared experience. I feel like I become a better scholar and writer from working with students of all levels and listening to their thoughts and ideas,” she says. “When I think about teaching, it’s more about creating a classroom environment where learning is something exciting and collaborative.”
One of the online courses she’s teaching right now, titled “Thinking Small,” will result in a student-driven exhibition expected to open at the Yale Art Gallery within the next two years.
“It will be curated by some of students in my course. It’s a course about planning the exhibition, and figuring out a theme and which objects to include,” she says. “I really love courses that are practical, and I really enjoy doing exhibitions, as it’s another form of outreach.”
Together with Elizabeth Wyckoff, Marisa co-curated the exhibition Beyond Bosch: The Afterlife of a Renaissance Master in Print (St. Louis 2015, Harvard 2016).
“An exhibition is a great way to get people interested in the past and connect them through objects, which is the best way to get excited about the past, as far as I’m concerned as an art historian—you see the stuff in person,” says Marisa.
At Yale, Marisa is one of four faculty members awarded 2021 Guggenheim fellowships.
“I think it’s our job as faculty at Yale to help make the university a better and more exciting place, which it can always be,” says Marisa. “Universities are living bodies. They have to keep changing and growing, and they need vibrant life within them.”