Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The New Connoisseurship

The annual meeting of the College Art Association was held this year in New York City from February 13 to 16. It was a huge conference with panels galore and an incredible array of exhibitors.  I took the train down from Connecticut on Friday to have lunch with some other Art history bloggers, and then to attend the panel entitled, “The New Connoisseurship: A Conversation among Scholars, Curators, and Conservators.”

Bloggers at lunch in NYC

It turned out to be a large panel featuring two chairpersons as well as six prestigious presenters from high-powered institutions. Each presenter was slated to give a ten-minute talk, and when all were done there would be a round table discussion. The topic must be important since there were at least 200 people in attendance in the huge West Ballroom of the Hilton hotel.

Chairperson Gail Feigenbaum opened the proceedings with a mini overview of the concept of connoisseurship that included a review of the reasons for its apparent decline despite her belief that it was still “fundamentally indispensable.” She argued that the basic concept was sound enough in that connoisseurship involves both expert knowledge and an informed and discerning taste. However, the decline can be traced to a number of factors.

Noted practitioners of the past often were ignorant of or ignored scientific tools, and today scholars accuse them of being unscientific, and question the value of mere “close looking”.  Moreover, there is still a taint of corruption associated with connoisseurs like Bernhard Berenson who worked very closely with art dealers and collectors. A favorable Berenson opinion could substantially increase the market value of any work of art. Finally, there was a kind of aristocratic aura surrounding the old connoisseurship that offends modern sensibilities. Only the wealthy could afford to dabble in Old Masters, or even think of traveling to Italy to view them.

Bernhard Berenson

The first panelist was Maryan Ainsworth, a distinguished scholar and curator of Renaissance painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She outlined some of the scientific techniques that modern scholars are using to acquire expert knowledge. They study fingerprints in books of Hours in order to assess popularity and usage. Humidity stains are being examined in order to reconstruct old manuscripts. Some are examining the canvas supports of paintings in order to verify the proper placement of panels. Virtual restoration is now enabling scholars to decipher illegible texts in old paintings, and therefore relate the texts more closely to the subject of a painting. Students of Jan van Eyck are even using painted pearls as a kind of digital signature. It would appear that they are almost as good as a signature.

VanEyck: Ghent Altarpiece detail

David Bomfort, a conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, discussed the importance of technical analysis of underpainting and paint samples in the new connoisseurship. These scientific studies can produce what he called “unambiguous  information” that can be helpful in questions of authentication and attribution. As an example, he discussed Altdorfer’s, “Christ Taking Leave of His Mother,” as an example of how technical analysis of pentimenti can help to construct the narrative. In a similar vein E. Melanie Gifford of Washington’s National Gallery followed Bomfort with a discussion of the use of pigment analysis in assessing the still life’s of William van Aelst.

Altdorfer: Christ Taking Leave of His Mother

Carmen C. Bombach of New York’s Metropolitan Museum argued that the “new connoisseurship” placed a much greater emphasis on drawings and preparatory sketches. In her opinion the old connoisseurship tended to ignore or undervalue drawings and concentrate almost exclusively on the finished product. Anyone aware of the value placed on Renaissance drawings in the current art market would have to agree with her.

According to Michelle Marincola of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, reproductions of famous images are now seen by modern scholars as important objects of study in themselves. In the old connoisseurship these reproductions were largely ignored since they seemed to lose the power of the original cult image. Marincola argued that now these reproductions, usually depicting the Madonna and Child, can actually be seen as enhancing the prime image especially if one takes into consideration the departures from the original in order to satisfy varying devotional needs.

Elizabeth Honig, an Art historian at the University of California at Berkeley, gave the final presentation, “Oeuvre and the Internet, What Happens when People Stop Using Our Books”. I believe that she was the first to raise the issue of the Internet during the session. In the past her students would have to wade through piles of catalogs and texts but now most of them merely turn to the Web. For example, she pointed to sites devoted to Breughel and Vermeer that were incredibly comprehensive. She acknowledged the problems associated with Web scholarship but still believed that Art history would have to co-opt the Internet.

It is true that many scholars are reluctant to deal with the Internet. One noted Titian scholar told me that he refused to read anything on the Web. Even young scholars at the conference admitted that even if they blogged and used social media, they would still not consider publishing their work on the Web. I believe that it was Dr. Honig who ending her presentation by quoting another scholar, “the Internet is an eight-lane highway but no one’s on it.”

Unfortunately, I had to leave to catch the train before the round table discussion. On the ride home I could not help but think that the “new connoisseurship” was not so much different from the old. There is still a need for expert knowledge and close looking and study are still valuable. Today’s scholars have more arrows in their quiver, and the Internet has opened up the Art world to a much wider audience. Nevertheless, the distinguished panelists at this session still were representative of a kind of aristocracy of the Art world.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Raphael: St. Cecilia

In 1514 Elena Duglioli dall'Oglio, a patrician lady and mystic from Bologna, commissioned Raphael to do an altarpiece featuring St. Cecilia for her family chapel in the church of San Giovanni in Monte. The story of this painting is well known and the five main figures are easily identified but  there is still mystery about the reasons for their inclusion.*

St. Cecilia was one of the four great Virgin saints of the Western church. Mrs. Anna Jameson devoted a chapter to her and her legend in “Sacred and Legendary Art”.

The veneration paid to her can be traced back to the third century, in which she is supposed to have lived; and there can be little doubt that the main incidents of her life are founded in fact, though mixed up with the usual amount of marvels, parables and precepts, poetry and allegory…**

She was a chaste virgin who even after her marriage was reputed to have converted her new husband to a life of virginity. They both eventually suffered martyrdom. Somehow she also became the patron saint of music and the creator of the organ.

As she excelled in music, she turned her good gift to the glory of God, and composed hymns, which she sang herself with such ravishing sweetness that even the angels descended from heaven to listen to her, or to join their voices to hers. She played on all instruments, but none sufficed to breathe forth that flood of harmony with which her whole soul was filed: therefore she invented the organ, consecrating it to the service of God.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Jameson believed that only in the fifteenth century did artists begin to depict Cecilia with musical instruments. She rightly pointed out that the most famous version was Raphael’s version now in Bologna’s Pinacoteca Nazionale. In Raphael’s painting St. Cecilia stands in ecstasy among her cast-down instruments whose music bears no comparison with that of heaven. Despite her uplifted eyes, her sandals indicate that she is still of this world. Her heavenly onlookers are barefoot, a sign of their superior status.

It is easy to understand why the visionary Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio would want to feature St. Cecilia in the altarpiece of her chapel. Although a married woman, she too lived a life of celibacy. But the presence of the other saints has been difficult to explain. In his magisterial study of Raphael Oskar Fischel wrote,

The reasons that may have existed for the choice of the saints surrounding Cecilia have remained hitherto completely in the dark; and yet their relationships to the person of the lady who gave the commission and to the place of its destination were not unfamiliar to Raphael. At that time nothing of the content of a devotional picture can have been left to the artist; only in Raphael did every commission work itself out as a self-chosen theme, thanks to his free and dominating imagination and to the profound culture by virtue of which he adopted everything and caused it to become part of his own vital experience.*** 

St. John the Evangelist and St. Augustine are in the background but St. Paul and Mary Magdalen are figured much more prominently in the foreground. Fischel thought that they all were representations of love.

the significance of these saints precisely to the donors of the picture can scarcely be surmised. Only St John is adequately explained as patron of the church of san Giovanni in Monte—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” …He exchanges a glance of tearful radiance with the Doctor of the Church, St Augustine,…”How often have I wept at thy hymns of praise and chants, filling thy Church with soft strains, and have been stirred by its voices to the very depths.” …He too is a confessor of love:…”our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”…
St. John seems to come from St. Paul: he understands the sublime Apostle—in the book on which the eagle stands there is a sign with the word “Corin”; here, then—from I Corinthians xiii—we have the explanation of the connection between St. Paul and the Magdalen. The Apostle mighty in speech acknowledges of himself: “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” There at his feet lies the allegory—but at this point St Mary Magdalen may come in; she that “loved much” goes “in peace”.*** 

Fischel argued that the figure of St. Paul could not just be explained allegorically.

It is to him precisely that Raphael acknowledged himself to be indebted, by him attracted...the painter of the figure was no stranger to the character of the great preacher of Conversion. Raphael at that time lived with the words of St. Paul. When, in the course of his work on the Disputa, the pages of his sketchbook were being filled with ideas for the figures, a hasty sketch was made for St Paul with his sword…And then, on a drawing at Oxford, for the Disputa, line after line is set down for a sonnet out of an overflowing sense of bliss, occasioned by an incident by night which must remain for the world in obscurity, Raphael discovers that his tongue is bound in a sudden kinship with the Apostle…***

 Fischel himself then began to wax rhapsodically.

And now, as the Apostle stands beside Cecilia, these ineffable hymns are re-echoed from above, and the hand of the apostle is laid like a clamp upon his chin, checking every word,…His fingers merely play about the pommel of his menacing sword; more important for him seem to be the letter, the Epistles they are clutching….in him Raphael embodied his ideal for society, the “cortegiano” perfect in his power, in an equilibrium of essence and semblance…***

At this point Mary Magdalen joins the group from the right, and invites the viewer to enter the scene.

Thus by the moving power of the back view of this figure, who has with sweeping cloak just entered the circle of the elect, the worshipper is, as it were, carried along with it into the region of other-worldly happenings—seized, with St Paul, by a sense of the vanity of all action “that has not charity”; and a bridge is thrown across to link him with her who “loved much” and therefore, her sins forgiven, may enter in before many.***

There is a text that also linked St. Paul and Mary Magdalen in the popular imagination of the time. In the third volume of his classic work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed a small book whose fame spread all over Europe during the fifteenth century. The book was the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying).

The text was often striking, but it was the astonishing woodcuts above all that spread its fame throughout Europe…. death appears not as a farcical dance, but as a serious drama played around the bed of the dying man; angel and devil stand at his side, contending for the soul that will soon depart. #

Male based his discussion on a 1492 French commentary, the L’Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good dying), a “book that edified all Europe.” [349-350]. After a series of temptations where the devil is unable to shake the dying man’s faith, the devil tries another approach.

Hideous monsters again rove around the sick man’s bed. One presents him with a large parchment document: this is the list “of all the evils that the poor creature has committed during his sojourn on earth.”…#

But the angel intervenes and brings four helpers.

They are St. Peter, who thrice denied his Master; Mary Magdalene, the sinner; St. Paul, the persecutor whom God struck down to convert him; and the good thief, who repented on the cross. These are the great witnesses of divine mercy….”do not despair. Even though you had committed as many crimes as there are drops of water in the sea, one contrite impulse of the heart is enough. God is greater than the greatest crimes.”#

Raphael received the commission for the St. Cecilia in 1514. At the same time Titian was working on “The Sacred and Profane Love”. I have interpreted that famous and mysterious painting as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”, and argued that Titian included a depiction of the conversion of St. Paul on the centrally located antique relief.

It is hard to imagine today but the ideas of conversion and repentance must have been like a tsunami in Renaissance Europe. We like to think of the Renaissance as the revival of the gods and goddesses of antiquity but figures like St. Paul and Mary Magdalen were of far greater importance in the minds of contemporary believers. At the same time as Raphael and Titian were bringing Christian art to a new level, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Germany, who had struggled for years with his own sinfulness, finally found conversion and salvation in the epistles of St. Paul. ###

*For a very thorough discussion see "Virgin Cults and Raphael's St. Cecilia" at the popular Art history blog, Three Pipe Problem.

**Anna Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol. II, Boston, 1885. pp. 571-2.

***Oskar Fischel, Raphael, London, 1948, pp. 246-8.

#Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton,1986, pp. 348-351.


Here is an image of San Giovanni in Monte supplied by David Orme. See comments for his note on the site in Bologna.

San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna