skip to main content

Visual Culture Seminar

Thursday, April 13, 2023
4:00pm to 5:00pm
Add to Cal
Dabney Hall, Lounge
How and what do we know of a work of art?: The Strange Case of Giovanni Morelli and ‘Scientific Connoisseurship'
John Brewer, Eli and Edythe Broad Professor of History and Literature, Emeritus, Caltech,
  • Public Event

It is art historical orthodoxy that in the late nineteenth century the Italian physician and collector, Giovanni Morelli, invented a scientific means of art attribution based on the analysis of small (often unself-consciously rendered) details. His method was praised by Freud and approving invoked by Carlo Ginzburg as analogous to other forms of scientific detection. This talk re-examines this story, showing that Morelli almost never used the method he advocated and usually used other methods he disparaged. His claims to originality are also exaggerated: his method imitates those used earlier by art historians and archaeologists. He himself undercut views of scientific certainty. Why the fuss? Morelli used Morellianism as a weapon in battles over Italian cultural patrimony, and his followers used it as a tool to enhance the trust of buyers in the art market. Neither stratagem was entirely successful. But the endurance of Morelli as an art historical figure, in part attributable to the value of the formalist method he advocated but only sporadically used, chiefly attests to the compelling and persistent attraction of a narrative in which progressive ‘scientific' knowledge will eventually secure attributional certainty.

The Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture, which is funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and based in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), features new undergraduate course offerings, guest lecturers, and other programming to foster conversations between humanists and scientists. Its activities are organized by HSS and other Caltech faculty in collaboration with scholars at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

For more information, please contact Cecilia Lu by phone at 626-395-1724 or by email at [email protected].