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« The Conservatives and the Arts- slight return | Main | From Rome to Porto Ercole: Caravaggio’s Crime Scene re-visited »



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H Niyazi

Fascinating article David! I think my background as a scientist perhaps makes me biased towards the scientific approach when it comes to identifying and verifying art. A scientist will look at data gaps with consternation, whereas this does not phase those who spend more of their energies looking for meaning and allegorical relevances.

Maurizio Seracini in particular has done alot to advance this field, particularly with regards to Italian Art. His work on the search for Leonardo's 'Battle of Anghiari' was truly groundbreaking.

I myself recently experienced the divide between the connoisseur vs scientific community in navigating the frosty terrain between Sotheby's and Kew Gardens. I understood the reasons why it was happenning, but also could clearly see that the lack of communication between the institutions hindered the free flow and sharing of knowledge.

Like with anything, an all or nothing approach is not the answer. Future generations of Art Historians can only benefit from having an appropriate grasp of the scientific principles used in these 'forensic' identifications. It would be interesting to know whether the science of being an art historian is now officially being incorporated into the syllabus?

H Niyazi

Art History Today

Thanks H.

There's room for both scientific method and hunches in art history, though I can see how a scientist would abhor the latter.

Auction houses can be really sensitive about these issues, especially when money and reputations, not to mention egos are at stake.

I can't see the 'science of art history' coming on the university some time soon, not unless it's presented in the context of museum studies or something like conservation. I'm hoping to teach a course on art crime next year, so I'd be bringing forensic issues to bear on traditional art history areas. THe growing subject of art crime might provide a point of intersection.

BTW, I think I owe you those Raphael lectures. I'll sort them out.

Best- David

David Byron

I'm glad to see your discussion of the detection analogy and the Morellian (and later) methods of attribution.

I recall that Benedict Nicolson also used the 'detection of clues' analogy to frame his discussion of the Candlelight Master problem.

I agree with your sense that connoisseurship and empirical practices are complementary. Examples vindicating traditional methods on the one hand (e.g., the Getty Kouros) or scientific analysis on the other seem to support the importance of both and their mutual relevance.

From time to time, apart from the question of scientific assessments, we find connoisseurship vindicated by previously unconsidered documentation or inscriptions. (La Tour's Fortune Teller comes to mind.)

The issues you raise are also current with regard to the supposed Velazquez recently hauled from the basement at Yale. It's now undergoing both connoisseurial and chemical assessments.

Thanks for your interesting overview of some of the issues raised by the NGA show.

Art History Today

David- Thanks for your comments.

I recall the La Tour 'Fortune-Teller' teller which went in to the Wrightsman collection, if memory serves. You've probably read Chris Wright's book on 'The Art of the Forger'. I think he got into hot water with Anthony Blunt who supported the attribution.

THanks for the Velásquez piece. It does raise the same issues. I'll keep an eye on this.

Best- DAvid

David Byron

Yes, I was alluding to Wright's treatment of La Tour in that book. IIRC, the painting was later vindicated by the discover of an incontestably authentic document that pushed the painting's provenance back into the 1800s, at a time when nobody on the planet would've been forging a La Tour.

Blunt-- terrible spy but not a bad art historian. ;)

Art History Today

Yes, I seem to remember now.

As a Poussin scholar, I have a lot to thank Blunt for, though it can be a mixed blessing at times. There were problems with his connoisseurship of Poussin's paintings, but that's another story.

David Byron

Another story? Another post!

Peter Paul Fuchs

That was a very fascinating article for sure. You got into some details which are really out of my field of knowledge, but still I want to raise a question dear to my heart. Isn't the basic criterion of authorship for a great artist simply a certain aesthetic greatness per se. I know this sounds a bit fuddy-duddy at this point. But when I stand in front of an enthralling work of art, I am also conscious that talent is not distributed terribly democratically in life. We live in a such a leveling age, which seems to want to make everything the same. I know from your blog that you have the very opposite view. I am appreciative of that fact. It runs against the societal grain. But isn't the emphasis on forensic matters really a sort of grudging sop in that leveling direction?

I don't know why I am thinking of this, but recently I saw that dubious gadfly Deepak Chopra on TV talking about Michael Jackson. He said, as an aside, that he thought that Michael Jackson was as great as Mozart or Michelangelo. In a society where statements like that can be made without producing horrified guffaws, don't we tend to reduce even a great artist's identity to quirks by way of reaction? I am not saying you are doing that. I guess I am asking a question which fascinates me based on my own aesthetic joys in life. Is there a rigorous and/or technical way of assessing great art QUA great art. That is, that the ultimate recognizable sign or signal of great art is that simply really strong artists generally tended to produce works which hang together very well. I know I am stepping into a scholarly quicksand here. I think of this every time I see a work at the National Gallery (Washington) demoted to "Workshop of" or "Follower of". Of course one admires their honesty for doing so. But I will say this. And I am really not trying to give myself a back-handed compliment. I have spent a lot of time going to the National Gallery to enjoy pictures. And so far they have not "demoted" one picture that I thought really great. The day they demote Luctretia of Rembrandt I will pack it in.

Art History Today

Thoughtful post Peter Paul.

I agree with your points about the leveling process; if it's great art, then it will always transcend this attempt to relativise- relativism is just a symptom of postmodernism anyway.

The aesthetic approach, though valid, was rooted in 19th century notions of pure art, but obviously in the modern age that doesn't sit well with a lot of people, especially those who think art should "work" for a living- hence the unfortunate spectacle of Titians on tour in the U.S.A.

I think what you're saying about great art shining through no matter how much it is bombarded with X-rays, micro-scopic analysis etc holds true. That's what MOrelli's connoisseurship was based on- identifying distinction rather than seeing a work as the product of a cooperative or a studio. But it's difficult to return to that position as initiatives like the Rembrandt Research Project have institutionalized the idea of the workshop in connoisseurship.Obviously when they visited Washington- and they went everywhere- they were satisfied with the autograph status of the Lucretia.

In answer to the question of is there a rigorous/technical way of assessing great art, I don't think so. No matter how CSI you get about it, there's always the subjective point of view, which science can't entirely obliterate.

I'll be returning to this science v art debate in another post in the near future.

Best- David

peter silverman

As a principal involved in the current Leonardo debate I think I might add my comment here.
I totally agree with those who wish to find a judicious blending of connoisseurship and science.I think that Martin Kemp has done this admirably in his book. I myself was sceptical of the attribution-but never of the period,15th c. when I first brought the drawing to the Lumiere-technology lab.I was careful to say nothing of what I thought it was, wishing for them to find out on their own. After 2 hours, THEY came forward with the Da Vinci attribution based on their database, having previously digitalized the Mona Lisa and the Lady with an Ermine.This obviously was a pleasant surprise.
Now, just two years on, I am surprised again, more astounded really, at the amount of drivel that has been circulated about the Bella Principessa-often by people who have never even seen her in the flesh.
I have now had to ask myself: does this all imply that many of our top museum directors and curators are in fact unable to distinguish a Leonardo da Vinci from a forgery or 'screaming fake'??I am afraid it would indeed seem so. I would sincerely ask anyone seriously interested in this debate to check the lumiere-technolgy site and view Pascal Cotte' s lecture at the Courtauld insttitute last May for the Da Vinci society.
Also, they might want to read prof. Mina Gregori's article in the latest edition of 'Paragone'(Longhi Foundation) as well as the article by Dr Cristina Geddo, a noted scholar on the Da Vinci followers, in Artes, published by the university of Pavia. They both fully endorse the attribution-independently and before Martin Kemp.I will be delighted to forward the english translation now being prepared by Dr Nicholas Turner.The Polish national museums as well as a major Italian State museum have requested the Bella Principessa on loan for next year.
By the way, you will be amused to note that we originaly planned to call her -more accurately, 'La Bella Milanese' until italian friends pointed out that this means a juicy veal steak!! best, peter silverman [email protected]

Art History Today

Thanks Mr Silverman for that.

Martin Kemp's book has gone a long way to convince me- but I'm not a Leonardo scholar.

Good point about curators, museum professionals, and just with L. This debate will run and run.


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It's interesting that you compare police work to art. In a way solving crimes is artistic. You have to put all the pieces together. Maybe you could argue solving crimes is more logical then artistic but I think understanding how people think and following their thought patterns is a form of art.


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