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CFP: Superficies–Surfaces, Skins and Textures. Sensory Encounters with Books and related multi-layered objects

The research group “Textures of Sacred Scripture. Materials and Semantics of Sacred Book Ornament” ( and the Chair of Medieval Art History at the University of Zurich invite paper proposals for an international conference on “Superficies – Surfaces, Skins, and Textures. Sensory encounters with books and related multi-layered objects”. The conference, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, is scheduled to take place at the Institute of Art History of the University of Zurich on 18-20 January 2024.

Surfaces are boundaries that mediate our sensory interactions with objects. Surfaces reveal, but they also conceal. In traditional aesthetic discourse, their multiple tactile and visual qualities are often contrasted with depth, and in a pejorative sense, superficiality is opposed to inner virtue and an intellectual understanding of things. This stark opposition between outer surface and inner core is put to the test by multi-layered objects such as books. Here, surfaces abound. Once opened, books in codex format display a multitude of layered skins and textures that are essential for the visual and haptic experience of the object in space and time. Perhaps more than other objects, books tangibly embody the complex relationship between surface and depth, through their composition and spatial structure as multi-layered objects. While the surfaces of sculpture and architecture have recently come to the attention of art historians, the surfacescapes – to use an expression coined by the art historian Jonathan Hay – of books and other multi-layered objects have been far less examined.

The conference aims to take a fresh look at the diversity of surface landscapes in books and other multi-layered objects. From the highly valuable vestments that clothe the exteriors of precious books to the parchment skins of their interiors, all layers are the product of diverse surface treatments. Techniques such as coating, polishing, tooling, and engraving determine the visual and haptic qualities of bindings and pages, and are reflected in their textures and sensory qualities.

We welcome proposals that consider the various surfaces of books and related multi-layered objects, such as handheld foldable objects, albums of prints and papers, multi-layered clothing, accoutrements, and containers. Paper topics may range from antiquity through the Middle Ages and beyond, in all cultures; transcultural studies as well as broader theoretical approaches are also welcome. Discussions across disciplinary boundaries are encouraged. Topics of particular interest are:
Relevant research areas: Medieval, Renaissance

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