Category Archives: Research

New not new art history: reconstructing the Church of S Pier Maggiore, Florence

Image: The National Gallery (

Image: The National Gallery (

A neat little film here–brought to my attention by a good friend!–by the National Gallery, documenting their efforts alongside Cambridge University to reconstruct the now mostly destroyed church of S Pier Maggiore in Florence, which once housed Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece (1475-6). The research was undertaken in preparation for the National’s current show: Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece

Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin, 1475-6, National Gallery, London

Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin, 1475-6, National Gallery, London

The film gives a good glimpse into how architectural historians are able to make use of the latest technologies–in this case, photogrammetric imaging–in order to shed new light on works of art, this time by endeavouring to gain better insights about, in the National’s words: “long-perpetuated misunderstandings about [the altarpiece’s] authorship, date, original location, and iconography.”  It is, in other words, a good example of how new technologies can play a useful and important role in more “traditional” art historical enquiries. Regular readers might recall that this isn’t always the case–I’ve written several times before on this blog about how newfangled tech, and its manipulation (or misuse), can, sadly, lead to over-exuberant and highly-questionable conclusions about works of art (e.g. here and here).

In this case, the researchers have got it right. Using photogrammetric imaging the team have managed to gain a better understanding of the original fabric of S Pier Maggiore. This has then enabled them  to identify more precisely the original location for Botticini’s altarpiece and its relationship with other important works of art once displayed inside the church, namely Jacopo di Cione and workshop’s Coronation of the Virgin polyptych (the location of which on the high altar at the end of the main nave of San Pier Maggiore is now intersected by a road, appropriately named the Via di S Pier Maggiore):

Model showing the original nave of S Pier Maggiore and the location for Jacopo di Cione and workshop's Assumption of the Virgin, on what is now the Via S Pier Maggiore, Florence

Model showing the original nave of S Pier Maggiore and the location of Jacopo di Cione and workshop’s Assumption of the Virgin, on what is now the Via di S Pier Maggiore, Florence

Anyway, the brief video is below. And if it piques your interest in Botticini and his altarpiece, the National Gallery’s exhibition runs until March 28 next year.


The Bosch Research & Conservation Project, a new Bosch exhibition and a Bosch party

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch (probably about 1450-1516). Bosch–who, possibly, is my favourite artist of all time–is most well known today as the creator of what are amongst the most innovative (I refuse to use the term “strange” as people too often do) pictures ever to have been produced. These include the monumental and monumentally fascinating so-called Garden of Earthly Delights triptych that is now in the Prado.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480s (?), Prado, ,Madrid

Less well known, though, is the controversy that surrounds the artist, his life and his works. Bosch’s life is for the most part shrouded in mystery–we possess just a few scant references to the artist from his time, which, moreover, tend to be of a bureaucratic kind (e.g. “1486-7: Bosch joined the Confraternity of Our Lady”) and therefore tell us barely anything concrete about the artist’s beliefs or opinions. We possess no firm information about who Bosch painted most of his pictures for either (with a few, notable, exceptions), and no contracts for works have come down to us. Bosch is in other words an enigma: on the whole we lack the kind of information that might otherwise help us to understand better his pictures; his activities are hard to pin down; and the views or beliefs that inspired his works are graspable only in the vaguest sense.

Inevitably this has all only served to support the problematic rhetoric that surrounds Bosch’s name and which skews interpretations of his art. Bosch is, for example, often viewed as some kind of heretic, who, we are told, lived a secluded–or “hermetic”, to quote Wilhelm Fraenger who is responsible for what it perhaps the silliest contribution to Bosch scholarship–life at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, his hometown in what was then north Brabant, which he never permanently left. There, we’re sometimes lead to believe, Bosch worked alone, in complete isolation, and as a result “unorthodox views” flourished that apparently inspired his “heterodox” iconography.

Needless to say that none of that holds true for me. I do think that if we look hard enough at the facts that are available, few though they are, and if we look really carefully at his pictures, we do stand to gain real insights into his art and are able to understand them in their proper (rather than imagined) contexts: artistic, spiritual, and religious. There’s not time here to go into this but let me just say that Bosch clearly was a practising Catholic–he after all held a senior position in a lay confraternity that was devoted to the Virgin (!)–and this should, though it hasn’t always, provide the basis for any interpretations of his pictures. This way we can do away with the erroneous and completely unhelpful point of view that Bosch was a heretic and that the keys to ‘unlocking’ his pictures lie in the realm of the esoteric.

Much scholarship recently has endorsed this view. And next year things look to set to improve even more, with the appearance of a brand new two volume monograph on Bosch that is the result of the 5 year long Bosch research and conservation project (BRCP), the appearance of which will coincide with the opening of a remarkable exhibition that will be held at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Noordbrabants museumJheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius (12 Feb. – 8 May 2016).

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The exhibition promises to be a must-see for all sorts of reasons, but not least because the show will feature the largest collection of Boschs ever to have been assembled in ‘s-Hertogenbosch since they were produced in that city over half a millennium ago. The organiser Charles de Mooij really has done a tremendous job managing to secure nearly ALL of the surviving Bosch paintings for his show, which is no mean feat if we take into account that he had not a single authentic Bosch to offer in exchange (though he did of course have knowledge gathered as a result of the BRCP). What’s more a couple of these are real coups, including the Haywain triptych, which is heading back home all the way from Madrid where it’s been for over 400 years! Other loans have been secured from collections in New York, Rotterdam, Paris and Venice (but apparently not London, as far as I can tell? Which is odd, since the National Gallery’s Bosch is one of the finest examples, to my mind, of Bosch’s less well known activities as a painter of more modest pictures intended as aids for domestic devotions… ). The show will in other words provide an unprecedented opportunity to study a large number of Bosch’s works alongside one another, in the city where they were made; a truly unique opportunity.

Equally exciting is the promise of Bosch fever that is set to descend on ‘s-Hertogenbosch to coincide with the exhibition. The town, it is plain to see, is bristling with excitement about the upcoming opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of its most famous son: Bosch’s images are going to be projected all over the grote mark’t–where Bosch lived and operated his studio and where there now stands a bronze statue of Bosch (inspired by a portrait in the Recueil d’Arras that may or may not accurately preserve Bosch’s appearance) made in 1929 by the sculptor August Falise–, there are going to be 3D recreations of some of his most iconic inventions going up all over the place, there will be tours of the town’s most important sites connected to Bosch including St John’s, as well as circus performances, dances, processions, games, 15th-century food and drink, and so on and so on. Basically, a right old jolly in memory of Bosch, and I can’t wait.

Bosch in 21st-C 's-Hertogenbosch

Bosch in 21st-C ‘s-Hertogenbosch (image:

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, 's-Hertogenbosch

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, ‘s-Hertogenbosch

But for now it’s the promise of things to come as a result of the BCRP that has grabbed my attention. The research project’s main aim was to subject the largest number of Bosch paintings as possible to rigorous technical examination, ranging from dendrochronological analysis (panel dating) to x-radiography, as well as various other high-res imaging processes. The main goal was to get a better idea of Bosch’s working methods, techniques and his creative process, which is embarrassingly little understood (only a few articles that I know of have even entertained the notion that Bosch’s inventions are the result of a coherent creative process!). All this scientific work doubtless will help us to get a better grasp of Bosch’s iconography and its meanings.

And already this work has generated some really high quality, interesting and useful images that, for a few works anyway, have been made available online. There we find images in high-res, infrared and infrared refloctographic formats:

Detail: Female St (image:

Detail: Bosch, Crucified Female Female St., about 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

Detail: Hermit Sts triptych (image:

Detail: Bosch, Hermit Sts triptych, after 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

There’s also the nifty option to see all 3 types of image tiled simultaneously, with a drag feature for the viewer to play around with:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

It is especially nice in the example of Crucified Saint triptych, which usually lives in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, to be able to get a proper up-close view of the donors which originally adorned the wings but were subsequently painted out:

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography)

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography revealing the overpainted donor portrait)

We’ve long known about the donor portraits but high quality, zoomable images have not before been readily available. Their existence might help us to test the hypothesis that the donors are dressed as Italians, and thus might provoke research that will in turn shed light on the whole Bosch and Italy problem. Did he go to Venice? Did he work for Italian clients? What’s the provenance of the Bosch paintings (there are 3 of them) in Venice? I’ve spoken about this before at conferences and in lectures, and maybe the appearance of the BRCP’s researches will help us to arrive at firmer answers. Indeed a suggestion that the research project might have yielded such conclusions is suggested by BCRP’s decision to specify that the female saint depicted by Bosch in this triptych is St Uncumber (a.k.a. Wilgefortis), since this has been a subject of considerable debate. Is it not St Julia? St Liberata? Granted, none of these–Uncumber/Wilgerfortis, Julia or Liberata–are what you could call familiar saints, but their identification is actually germane to the Italy question because Liberata and Julia are, if you will, Italian saints (i.e. their cults sprung up and were concentrated in Italy) which is important if the donor portraits really are of Italians, whereas St Uncumber/Wilgefortis was virtually unknown south of the Alps. So I eagerly await to see what the monograph has to say about this. (Maybe they’ve discovered something to do with a beard, since one of the more interesting things about Uncumber’s legend is that she was bearded at the time of her crucifixion, whereas Bosch’s saint is clean-shaven? I’ve already had a play with zooming-in on the saint’s mouth and chin area in normal view and in infrared photograph and have looked in vain for evidence of a beard. Is that a whisker-ish suggestion of facial hair? I don’t think it is… )

A beard? Normal and infrared photography image of mouth and chin

A beard? Normal and infrared photograph image of mouth and chin

Another important aim of the project is to refine Bosch’s oeuvre, which in the early 20th century expanded massively but was then narrowed and now looks set to be narrowed again. Though refining what is already a small(ish) corpus of works may seem regrettable, it is of the upmost importance for Bosch studies to be able to separate what’s Bosch from what’s not Bosch in order to provide a firm and accurate starting point for scholarly investigation. We know as a matter of fact, for example, that Bosch was not only copied or imitated in his own day but that he actually enjoyed a revival in the mid-1500s, when a number of imitators, pasticheurs and outright forgers (we can still read for ourselves grumblings from the 1560s about this!) made careers for themselves on the back of a vogue for all-things Bosch.

The “Bosch Renaissance” on the art market in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s is perhaps best illustrated by the engraving showing the Big Fish eat the Little Fish, which was published in Antwerp in 1557 by Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix:

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver) and Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, engraving, 1557

When Cock released this engraving he ran it with the inscription ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, that is “Hieronymus Bosch designed this image”. We know, however, that that is a fib, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving was made by Pieter Bruegel–who is the focus of my Ph.D.–who signed and dated it “brueghel” 1556. Cock in other words replaced Bruegel’s name with Bosch’s in order to ride the wave of Bosch’s fame and popularity at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy.

Given that the example provided by Cock’s redacting of Bruegel’s name in favour of Bosch’s is but one example of a much wider phenomenon it does strike me as being really important to figure out what is Bosch and what isn’t. This isn’t to say that Bosch’s posthumous reputation and his “Renaissance” in the mid-1500s isn’t an important and interesting topic in and of itself–I am, in fact, very interested in it and part of my thesis touches on it. It’s also not to say that works “demoted” from Bosch’s oeuvre are not important–simply by becoming “not Boschs” doesn’t de-value these works or make them any less interesting from an art historical point of view. But what it is to say is that to get a proper grip on Bosch, who up to now has proven to be so slippery, we need to know what he actually did. It’s a simple aim, but in reality has proven vexing. The BRCP, however, does seem to have made a number of interesting discoveries, which are now starting to emerge.

First there’s the idea that the Prado Museum’s famous “tabletop” showing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things might NOT, after all, be by Bosch’s hand.* The team have concluded that the underdrawing on this panel as well as its overall execution are not consonant with Bosch’s techniques and therefore attribute the work to a follower of Bosch’s (perhaps one who worked in Bosch’s studio, which is to say that this work has been deemed “close to Bosch” but not quite close enough). This really is an interesting conclusion since the tabletop has been traditionally feted as an exemplary early work of Bosch’s in which some principal characteristics of his art are announced. This reputation was of course partly formed on the basis of the picture’s stellar provenance, since this is one of the many works by Bosch, or perhaps better “works by Bosch”, that by 1560 had found their way into the collection of King Phillip II of Spain.

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The team have also rejected, once and for all, the authenticity of the Carrying of the Cross in Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten. As of Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet’s exhibition catalogue of 2001 we’ve had doubts about this work but the BRCP have amassed evidence that solidifies this work’s status as being “in the style of” or “after Bosch” rather than “Bosch”. The BRCP is even more convinced than Koldeweij, Vandenbroeck and Vermet had been that the execution of the picture just isn’t right. The framing also points to the 1520s as the probable date of this work’s production, which takes us to after Bosch’s death in 1516.

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

If these findings are likely to irk the owners of the pictures concerned–the Prado apparently is disinclined to accept them–one private collector’s luck is definitely in. For if the BRCP has trimmed the corpus of Bosch paintings by at least 2, it has enlarged the graphic corpus by at least 1:

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

This drawing, which is not new in the sense that I’ve never seen it before but is new in terms of its newly-proposed status, has long been thought to have been done by a follower of Bosch. Having thoroughly re-examined the sheet, however, the BRCP have determined that there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and it will go on display as such, as a bona fide Bosch, in the Noordbrabants museum’s upcoming exhibition.**

All told this makes for pretty exciting stuff. On the basis of what we’ve already seen, it looks as though the show and the new monograph will mark something of a watershed moment in Bosch studies, forcing us to reassess some of the received knowledge about the artist and his activities, and giving us cause to think in new and innovative ways. What I really hope is that the show will inspire renewed interest in Bosch and generate probing and innovative new scholarship–and I suspect that it will.

In the meantime, though, we have a new documentary film to look forward to, which takes us behind-the-scenes of the BRCP. It premieres at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam on November 20 before being shown on TV next Feb. (in the Netherlands anyway, but I’m hoping that it will somehow be made available in the UK as well). The trailer is below, and I noted with interest Matthijs Ilsink’s reluctance to commit to making even a vague suggestion on camera about which works the project might end up wanting to remove from Bosch’s oeuvre. ‘I’ll end up in political matters- no comment’, he says, which is a telling example, I think, of the kinds of frictions that can arise between art historians and museums and collectors on the back of this kind of research (CAUTION: trailer begins with awful owl squawking):

*UPDATE 1: Renowned Bosch scholar Dr Bernard Vermet kindly writes to let me know that for him and others the tabletop’s authenticity has been out of the question for ages. Turns out my grasp of the literature in this particular respect isn’t as tight as it should be–tut, tut!

**UPDATE 2: The same Vermet tells me that when the sheet was auctioned in 2003 it went for 10 times the estimate–so, as he says, “at least 2 persons were convinced it was by Bosch already then.” Quite!


More clamorous attributions: yet another pair of “new Michelangelos”?

1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494, each carved out of a glued and mortised and tenoned rectangular block made up of three parts. Previously unknown (not mentioned in either Vasari or Condivi). (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494.  (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Granted, I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but with the dust barely settled on the Panther Riders, which were revealed to the world just a few months back as “newly-discovered Michelangelos” (ahem) by the Fitzwilliam Museum–you can read my and Dr David Hemsoll’s thoughts about those here and here–a Swiss authentication firm has without hesitation revealed that the two sculpted wooden putti above, which form a pair of consoles, are “in fact the work of Michelangelo.” The firm in fact reckons that it has dispelled “any…doubts” that the putti are by Michelangelo’s hand. You can read their press release for yourself here, but it’s worth thinking for a bit about their main evidence and weigh-up just how far we can be sure that these sculptures are indeed the work of Michelangelo.

The main thrust of the evidence concerns the date and likely place of origin of the sculptures; in their own words: “The study analyzes the plausibility of the object’s time of origin using technical and scientific methods.” What they’ve discovered is that the present layer of polychromy and bonding substances are original. Not only that, the technique and materials point to Italy as the place of manufacture and “the time of origin as circa 1494”. This approximate, but surprisingly precise (which is say, suspiciously engineered), date was then “confirmed” by scientific dating of the wood using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, which “showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.” Having thus “established” that the putti were made in Italy in 1494, they embarked upon stylistic analysis, comparing the sculptures to authentic works by Michelangelo. This is all to say that somebody involved had from the get-go a hunch, however wishful, that these might be by Michelangelo and so having decided on the date and place of production by means of science, let’s actually think about this in terms of art and try and prove this basic proposition. Backwards though this method of working may be (when dealing with art it seems sensible to me to begin with considerations of an artistic kind) this is, in any case, what they came up with:

In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.

In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.”

Err. This all seems to me dubiosuly vague evidence, underscored by the irresistible desire to discover new Michelangelos at the expense, it seems, of proper art historical rigour. Let’s consider the individual bits of evidence.

The polychromy and binding materials may well be original and may well point to Italy in the later 15th century. I’m sure they have abundant scientific facts to support this thesis that obviously were not regurgitated in the press release–the function of a press release being, of course, to be pithy and engender unabated excitement in the press. But what this evidence cannot do is generate the precise result that the putti were made in 1494. The dendrochronology (wood dating) cannot even determine such a date. For the benefit of the uninitiated, their statement that “the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability” doesn’t mean that the wood dating showed that sculptures were definitely made in 1494. Rather what the wood dating will have shown is that “the sculptures are made out of wood which is from a tree felled at some point in the later 1400s”. To be sure, the results can sometimes even say “a tree felled in 1491” etc., thus giving a terminus post quem, but never, ever says “was produced in 1494”. In other words the wood dating will have generated a broader time period for the sculptures (let’s say, the 1490s), and the researchers themselves have decided to pronounce the date as being 1494 (their what they call “assumed” date for the sculptures’ production). So we have to ask: why pick that date?

And we needn’t look far for the answer. The 1490s is after all the decade when Michelangelo the sculptor was born and the earlier years of that decade were especially frenetic and experimental. Michelangelo’s biographers Vasari and Condivi both relate that it was the young artist’s time in the Medici sculpture garden from 1490-92 that really ignited his interests in carving. During his time in the Medici court and in the following few years Michelangelo sculpted an all’antica Head of a Faun (lost), the Battle of the Centaurs relief and Madonna of the Steps, the latter in rilievo schiacciato, or “squashed relief”, in purposeful imitation of Donatello’s pioneering technique; Michelangelo also did a little Hercules (also lost), and in the very cold winter of 1493-4 even made a snowman in Piero de’ Medici’s courtyard (lost, obviously); at about the same time Michelangelo also carved a Sleeping Cupid, which, infamously, was fraudulently sold–apparently unbeknownst to Michelangelo–as a genuine antique to Cardinal San Giorgio (also lost). Crucially the middle years of the 1490s also saw Michelangelo embark on the carving of a wooden Crucifix for the church of S. Spirito–apparently as a gift in exchange for the wardens of the church having allowed Michelangelo to dissect cadavers in the crypt there!–as well as two sculpted Saints for S. Domenico in Bologna, and, most importantly, an Angel bearing a candelabrum for the same church.

This is all to say that at around 1494, Michelangelo was demonstrably a busy sculptor and, moreover, is known to have been sculpting in wood, as well as producing more utilitarian, or else “functional”, statuary such as the candelabrum, which might well justify the belief that he would have also carved in wood a pair of consoles (what the putti are reckoned to be). In other words, 1494 is a neat date that coincides with some important documented and still extant works by Michelangelo… So 1494’s a good date. But, and here’s the problem, the science could never have generated that precise a date. The science, which is to say the materials and techniques of the polychromy, as well as the wood dating, will, as I’ve said, have thrown up a vaguer result and definitely not anything near as firm as “made in 1494”. This I think leads to the skeptical but inevitable conclusion that that date 1494 was purposefully selected by the authors of the study because of the attractive correspondence between this date and Michelangelo’s known output during this early stage in his career. To put all of that another way, the date 1494 was ostensibly engineered because the study set off with the a priori purpose of proving that the putti are by Michelangelo, and the available science was subsequently deployed in order to sustain that premise, with the scientific results being manipulated to suit predetermined conclusions (i.e. made in 1494, during Michelangelo’s ascendancy as a sculptor); the science did not generate this result.

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

“So what?” people will say, “that’s just how these things work”. Authors have hunches, and use both scientific and connoisseurial evidence to build a case. Vague wood dating results are often narrowed and refined in the way we’ve just encountered in order to bring unattributed works into line with a known artist’s activities. But the problem in this case is that the scientific result, and their consequent proposal that the consoles were made by Michelangelo in 1494, doesn’t gain any robustness or credibility by virtue of other, external evidence.

For a start and not unlike the bronze Panther Riders there is no mention of the putti consoles in the primary sources, namely Vasari and Condivi. I am surprised that having carefully selected the date of 1494 for the putti’s manufacture, that those behind the study weren’t more concerned that neither of Michelangelo’s biographers mention consoles, or wooden putti, or anything that feasibly could be related to the present works at all. This should at the very least have inspired some reticence or caution on their part about making the pronouncement that these sculptures are “without doubt” the work of Michelangelo. (It is important to remember at this point that the account provided by Condivi is especially useful in this connexion since Condivi’s account was sanctioned by Michelangelo himself, to the degree that it is not unreasonable to think of Condivi  as having been Michelangelo’s mouthpiece!) It is therefore troubling to say the least that there is no mention here, or anywhere else, of a pair of wooden consoles showing putti. Had Condivi or Vasari (or somebody else) mentioned wooden consoles, then there would be a sound foundation on which to build a case and to try and relate these sculptures to Michelangelo. We might also be more the wiser about why Michelangelo carved them: for where, why and for which patron? Indeed the lack of provenance for these works is a bit of a problem in general. Don’t they look a bit clean for wooden sculptures that are half a millennium old? This would suggest that they’ve been looked after well by a line of conscientious owners (or, less good for the authors given the importance of the materials, have been CLEANED!), and so we should want to know more about where they’ve been over the last 5 centuries.

Next there is the “connoisseurship” involved in supporting, but crucially not determining, this attribution which, we remember, is predicated on science and only backed-up by the art. First there’s the vagueness of their connoisseurial pronouncements which should and will raise eyebrows. What on earth does “The subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo actually mean? Are they saying that they’ve identified 52 instances where Michelangelo did angels or putti? Or 52 instances where Michelangelo actually designed consoles decorated with putti? I can’t think of 52 of the latter?! Ditto “For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history [… eh?], the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates. And then there’s “it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work“. Taken altogether, I think that what they’re saying here, without saying it, is that Michelangelo was interested in angels and putti, and that every individual bit of the putti’s anatomies can be compared with one work or another–whether that be a drawing, painting, or sculpture–by Michelangelo. But isn’t this all just a bit worryingly imprecise and unspecific? Of course you can compare one pec from a putto to another pec elsewhere of Michelangelo’s invention, or one toenail (or even in the case of the Panther Riders the shape of the pubic hair), and sure enough you’ll find similarities from such piecemeal connoisseurial dissections. But such an approach hardly seems robust. One should want to have some more precise, compelling examples? What’s more one should also want to know what the parameters were that circumscribed the selection of examples of Michelangelo’s works for comparative purposes. You can’t really, for example, enter into discussion here late works by Michelangelo in order to arrive at convincing arguments about the formal or stylistic merit of the putti because the putti are supposed to be very early, which should have imposed limits on which works were used for the purposes of stylistic comparison; or else, should have imposed limits on the number of works that can be used in order to arrive at useful, instructive, precise and convincing comparisons rather than generic ones. It is dead easy to say, for instance, that the abdomens of the putti, and the arrangements of the legs, bear a general resemblance to the Dying Slave–and I imagine that this is the sort of comparison that was indeed made–but the Dying Slave is a more accomplished work that postdates the putti by some two decades (…unless, of course, their dating of the putti is wrong in which case their entire thesis falls apart and needs to be started over).

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The best and most measured results would arise if the putti are compared to contemporary works, viz.,early  sculptures made by Michelangelo in the 1490s. Especially useful might be the wooden Crucifix, since it is wooden, as well as the candelabrum, given the similarities in type between the candle-holding angel and the console putti. But these comparisons aren’t especially instructive. The consoles are a million miles away from the Crucifix (which harkens back, apparently deliberately, to older Tuscan crucifixes that would have been ten a penny in the churches Michelangelo hung out in). The bent legs and hunched shape of the Angel candelabrum, meanwhile, is a bit better but then this comparison throws up the problem of the faces: the chubby Angel in Bologna has a soft, sweet face that is well-composed and clearly the work of an already accomplished sculptor, whereas the faces of the putti are decidedly ungainly, if not grotesquely ugly, and seem to me to be the work of an unsure hand. There’s something about the faces of the putti that just does not seem right. The putti’s hairstyles are also, er, problematic… Does Michelangelo ever do the kind of scraggy hair that we find here? Overall, the console putti lack the beauty and careful finish that we find in Michelangelo’s other angels or cherubs from this period, including those that we find in the paintings: the candelabrum angel’s face is fully in line with the faces of those in the so-called Manchester Madonna in London, for example, whereas the console putti are patently different to both. In short, from a connoisseurial point of view, might we not conclude that the putti are, to be crass, a bit ugly? And then we have to ask: did Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors ever to have lived, do ugly?

In short, I think that this proposed attribution once more leaves serious questions unresolved, with the quality of the art history involved leaving a fair bit to be desired. Certainly, the authors of the study have a long way to go before convincing any serious scholar (and consequently, I suppose, an auction house!) that the putti are the real deal. The lessons that could have been learned from the way that the Panther Riders were sensationally revealed to the world seem not to have been heeded, with the wish to attach Michelangelo’s name to a sculpture once more overriding the importance of careful art historical analysis. Science can–and in this case probably does–tell us that the wooden consoles were made in Italy in the later 1400s, but that’s not quite the same as telling us that “these are definitely by Michelangelo”.



A new term, a new name, new students & some fresh advice for our new students from 2nd year student Rebecca Savage!

Ambrosius Holbein, Signboard for a Schoolmaster, 1516, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Ambrosius Holbein,
Signboard for a Schoolmaster, 1516, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

With the new academic year now in full swing, and having welcomed all our new Undergraduates and Postgraduates to the Department, The Golovine is also springing back to life!

First thing: a bit of news! The more observant reader might already have noticed that with the new academic year comes a new name for the Department, which is now called the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. The name change has come in the light of new additions to the Department’s academic staff, which has enabled the institution of, among other things, an exciting new postgraduate pathway in Art History and Curating.

And in order to kick things off on The Golovine, Rebecca Savage (2nd year student) volunteered to write a post for us about what she learned as a 1st year student in the Department and offer some experienced advice to our new students. So here’s Rebecca’s thoughts on what she learned during her first year as a student of Art History at the University of Birmingham:

R Savage

CLICHÉD though it may sound, the first year of university really does fly by. The whole thing–from your first meeting with your flatmates, which is followed swiftly by numerous meetings with your course mates and the staff in your department, and going right through to the exams at the end of the year–really does, somehow, seem to whizz by in just 5 minutes. Most of your time will be spent finding your feet (and loosing them again on nights out), all the while trying to get your head around what it really means to study Art History–or any subject for that matter–at Uni. The first year is certainly a steep learning curve for many, so here’s a couple of things that my first year as an Art History undergraduate taught me…

ONE   There will be a lot of reading. A lot. The reading lists I took away from my first few lectures and seminars certainly quashed the (misguided) view of (some of) my flatmates who believed that I’d just enrolled on a “looking-at-paintings-every-once-in-a-while sort of degree”. From translations of 16th-century Italian texts to modern critical or theoretical analyses of artists, works and exhibitions, most seminars will come accompanied with at least one piece of reading for you to work your way through in preparation. Forget about it to your peril; not unlike most other humanities degrees, reading has a direct correlation with marks and the more you read the better you will do. This is because if you do the core reading in preparation for each seminar and lecture, you’ll not only be equipped to participate in discussion but will have already done the legwork when it comes to researching your essays and preparing your revision!

TWO   There’s lots of reading and some of it you’ll just “get”, which is great. Some of it, though, you’re bound not to understand and, you know what, that’s OK too! It’s not necessary–or expected–that you will understand absolutely everything you read the first time you look at it. Academic texts are often complicated, sometimes dense and regularly lengthy, and inevitably it will sometimes feel as though you are walking through thick fog with no idea of your where you’ll end-up. But what’s key is: don’t panic. Take a break, get a cup of tea and then try again, making a note of not just the things you do understand but also the things you don’t (even if that’s the whole text), and take it with you to the seminar. Chances are everyone else is in the same boat and the seminars are the perfect place to iron out any confusion under the guidance of the seminar tutor. So make the most of it!

Following on from this…

THREE   You will not understand every topic you study and this is also OK. History of Art degrees cover a huge range of ideas, from religious views in Europe in the 14th century through to psychoanalytic theories of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is impossible to understand everything, and you’ll find yourself more interested in ABC topics compared to XYZ. Even Ph.D teaching assistants and our lecturers have areas they are not so confident on or, indeed, especially interested in (I’ve checked). So if, after hours of study, you still don’t understand how Micheal Craig Martin’s Oak Tree is anything more than a glass of water, then discuss it with your mates, think about it a bit more and if you still don’t get it, then fine, move on: you’re not gonna fail the whole year! Focus most of your efforts instead, especially when it comes to writing essays and revising, on the topics you do understand or are most interested in, and strive to learn even more about them.

Craig-Martin's err... Oak Tree?!

Craig-Martin’s err… Oak Tree?!

FOUR   Getting to know your course mates early on is very important. The first few weeks of freshers can be overwhelming when it comes to meeting new people but make an effort to talk to the people you are studying alongside. Group work is much easier when you all get on and a meet up when you don’t understand something (see above) is invaluable. study sessions outside of lectures are also helpful for highlighting gaps in your knowledge and proving just how much you do know.

FIVE   Don’t forget a spare pen. Rudimentary but the pen giving up on you half way through that seminar on Semiotics is nightmare stuff… Oh, and, something to write on.

SIX   Do not underestimate the power of good grammar and referencing. A well written essay is the only way to reach a 2:1 and above! Markers do not appreciate silly, which is to say avoidable, mistakes, so go back and check your work before handing it in. And then check it again just to be sure! And maybe check again. And if you’re not sure, make sure that you go to the Academic Writing sessions run by Ph.D teaching assistants in the Department (details will be made available soon!).

SEVEN   The more you contribute to seminars the better they are. Yes, it’s daunting at first but a room full of silence is no use to anyone. In fact it’s downright awkward, not just for us but for the seminar leader as well. The more people contribute to a discussion the better that discussion is, and the more ideas you leave with at the end of the day. No one wants to end a seminar feeling it was a waste of time, so do the reading and come along with something to contribute, whether that be a list of points that you found most interesting or the stuff that you just did not understand.

EIGHT   Get involved wherever and whenever you can. There is a reason everyone keeps telling you this! It is so, so, so important to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Not only will getting stuck in enrich your CV but it will teach you things a degree doesn’t teach. You will also get to know lots more people this way which, given what I said in number 4, is no bad thing.

NINE   Birmingham gets cold. Wrap up warm. Then go to the Christmas Market.

TEN   Lecturers, tutors, markers etc. want you to pass. More than that, they want you to thrive and do really well. Contrary to popular opinion, academics and your markers are not looking for a way to catch you out or reveal how little you actually understand. So make sure to visit your lecturers, seminar tutors, academic writing advisor or whoever during their office hours, or else arrange meetings with them, so that you can discuss any essay anxieties that you may have and ask them the questions that you really want the answers to! The support of your lecturers is invaluable when it comes to passing your degree, so make the most of what they have to offer and in return do the work they set you on time.

Finally: good luck, and have FUN!

Cleaning Charles Le Brun’s Portrait of Everhard Jabach and his family at the Met

LeBrun half and half

A fascinating video below documenting Michael Gallagher’s painstaking, 10-month restoration of Charles Le Brun’s 1660 Jabach family portrait at the Met in New York.

LeBrun rolled

The picture, which is 355 years old, was it’s fair to say in much need of a bit of t.l.c. It’s surface was muddied by that all-too-familiar old, discoloured varnish, which, as this video amply demonstrates, really does make a significant difference to the appearance and impact of a painting. There was also a whopping great fissure in the canvas near to the top edge, as well as other, more minor, losses at various places on the picture’s surface. This video, as well as its associated blog, reveals the intricacies and work involved in repairing an old work such as this one and returning it to a former glory. It also demonstrates fairly effectively, I’d say, the hard and meritorious work that scrupulous restorers are continually engaged in in order to preserve major works of art for the future.


REGISTRATION NOW OPEN: House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities

Yayoi Kusama, I'm Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Registration is now open for the conference House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticitieswhich will take place on 3 and 4 July 2015 at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. The conference has been co-organised by our very own Fran Berry and Jo Applin (University of York).

The keynote speakers are Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley).

Other speakers include: Sarah Blaylock (UC Santa Cruz), Amy Charlesworth (Open University), Agata Jakubowska (Adam Mickiewicz University), Teresa Kittler (UCL), Alexandra Kokoli (Middlesex University), Megan Luke (University of Southern California), Barbara Mahlknecht (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna), Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Robles (University of Bristol), Harriet Riches (Kingston University), Giulia Smith (UCL), Catherine Spencer (University of St. Andrews), Amy Tobin (University of York).

For further details and to register (tickets £10), please visit the conference website.

House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities is co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham, University of York, and the Oxford Art Journal.


Research Seminar Thursday 26th February: Imogen Wiltshire, ‘Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of Actor-Network Theory’

UoB crest


Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of
Actor-Network Theory
Imogen Wiltshire
(University of Birmingham) 

Thursday 26 February, 5.15 pm
Barber Institute Photograph Room


‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,  published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,
published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

This paper examines the Occupational Therapy courses that László Moholy-Nagy developed at the New Bauhaus in Chicago during the Second World War through the lens of Actor-Network Theory. As is widely known, Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus, which later became the Institute of Design, in Chicago in 1937 after his emigration from Nazi Germany via London to the US. Less well known, however, and forming the focus of this paper is that in Chicago in 1942 he applied Bauhaus educational techniques, based on investigating materials and gaining tactile experience, for therapeutic purposes, especially for injured war veterans. The New Bauhaus’ Occupational Therapy training courses proposed, significantly, a new function for art within modernism and constitute important historical intersections between art practice and rehabilitation.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a methodology developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon, amongst others, which so far has had little attention in the Humanities. By challenging the notion of a fixed ‘social’ and the concept of ‘context’ (such as a preconceived social context) into which subjects of enquiry are located, this theory is arguably pertinent to art history, particularly in view of Latour’s suggested solution of instead tracing associations between human and non-human actors in a network. Accordingly, while this paper analyses the dissemination of Bauhaus pedagogic approaches for rehabilitative training in the 1940s, it also offers less concrete, more exploratory methodological suggestions about the possible relevance and uses of Actor-Network Theory.

All welcome!

Dates for your diaries.

With the new semester in full swing, there’s no shortage of events to get yourself along to in the Barber Institute and elsewhere on campus. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Tuesday 27th January 2015 at 5pm in the Muirhead Tower Room 121.

The next CeSMA seminar is being given by Erica O’Brien, an art historian from Bristol University. Her paper is entitled ‘Family and faith: sensory experience and devotional memory in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy’.

All welcome!

This Spring the Barber celebrates the research of recent and current postgraduate students from the University’s art history department in this mini lecture series.

Pam Cox (4th Feb.)

An Open and Shut Case? An Exploration into Jan de Beer’s Joseph and the Suitors and the Nativity at Night

Faith Trend (18th Feb.)

Venice Through the Eyes of its Artists: Canaletto and Guardi’s Landscape Paintings

Jamie Edwards (4th March)

Il fiammingo in Italia: Netherlandish artists and the allure of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries

All welcome!

The return of the Institute's Jan de Beer

The return of the Institute’s Jan de Beer

  • Wednesday 18th March: Special Lunchtime Lecture ‘How many Brueghels make Four?’, Ruth Bubb (conservator), 1:10pm, Lecture Theatre 

Find out more about the mysterious ‘behind the scenes’ world of art conservation with paintings conservator Ruth Bubb, who has just completed the restoration of the Institute’s Peasants binding faggots by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

All welcome!

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

The Barber Institute’s full programme of events for January through to April is available here.

  • Monday 16th March: Cadbury Research Library’s Annual LectureCivic Life: Oliver Lodge and Birmingham, Dr James Mussell (Associate Professor, University of Leeds), 12:00-12:50, Muirhead Tower Lecture Theatre G15

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email to reserve a place.

  • Wednesday 18th March: Cadbury Research Library seminar: Ten Books that Changed Medicine, Professor Jonathan Reinarz (Director of The History of Medicine Unit, The University of Birmingham), 13:00-14:00, Cadbury Research Library – Chamberlain Seminar Room

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email to reserve a place.

The Barber Association

The Barber Association

The Barber Association’s programme for Spring is now available here! Highlights include: 

  • Thursday 19 February: BEDFAS at the Barber: THE INSIDE STORIES: The Real Stories behind the Most Intriguing Cases of Nazi Looted Art,  6-8.15pm (Gallery viewing and refreshments at 6pm; Lecture at 7pm) 

Free for Barber Association members (usually £10). No booking required!

  • Wednesday 18th March: Art History Speed Workshop: Sight and Sound, 2:30-4, Barber Galleries 

Free but booking is required. To reserve a place email

(To find out more about the Speed Workshop, see here and here.)

  • Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies research seminar schedule for the Spring term is now available. Seminars take place at 5:15 in the Barber Photograph Room. The line-up is as follows: 

Thursday 29 January

Rosalie van Gulick (University of Utrecht; Barber Institute)

“Utter lack of true dramatic feeling”: Exploring Jan Steen’s The Wrath of Ahasuerus

Thursday 5 February

Richard Taws (University College London)

Trickster, Charlatan, Apparition, King: Representing Royal Impostors in Post-Revolutionary France 

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

‘Better Than Before’?: Actor-Network-Theory and László Moholy-Nagy’s Occupational Therapy Courses 

Thursday 5 March TBC

Sophie Bostock (Qatar Museums)

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

Title TBC 

Thursday 19 March

Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

Seeing Spiritually and Seeing the Spiritual: Seeking some Perspective on Pieter Bruegel’s Paintings 

Thursday 26 March

Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

Palpitatingly Modern Luxury: Electrifying the Country House




To fringe or not to fringe? And other dilemmas for fashionistas in art . . .

A silly, but harmless, video here by Sotheby’s Jonquil O’Reilly ahead of their Old Master sale in New York on 29 January. It’s about fashion and style in pictures: what does, say, a certain hairstyle tell us about the date of a picture, or what does a toga tell us about who’s who in a Carpaccio? And what’s the deal with the chaps in tights? Watch the video to find out . . .


House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities


Conference, Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, UK: Friday 3 July – Saturday 4 July 2015.

Keynote speakers: Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley)

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

This conference is motivated by the premise that it is appropriate for feminist art history to re-visit and newly configure theoretical, methodological and political debate around modernist, postmodernist and contemporary artistic practice in relation to the domestic. Having been a significant focus of 1980s feminist art-historical scholarship, domesticity has since been eclipsed in feminist analysis by focus on corporeality, subjectivity and globalisation, amongst other significant concepts. This conference seeks to evaluate the intellectual and political gains, and potentially losses, to be made from investing once again in existing feminist theoretical frameworks, including the materialist, the psychoanalytical and the postcolonial. It also invites contributions framed by alternative or more recent modes of feminist enquiry, including those constituted through the framework of artistic practice itself. The sexual politics of domestic, artistic, and scholarly labour, productive agency, and the obedient or disobedient domestic imaginary might constitute one focus. However, these are by no means the only or defining parameters of this conference’s aim to engage with a feminist politics and practice of home making and unmaking since the late nineteenth century.

This conference is particularly timely in the light of art and art history’s ‘new’ domesticities. These include queer art history’s turn towards the domestic as a site for imagining, making and inhabiting space within or without the hetero-normative, and recent art-historical and curatorial projects focusing on modern and contemporary art practice and the home, but in which the question of feminism is downplayed in favour of more generalised concepts of subversion, labour and belonging. More broadly, the rise of the ‘new domesticity’ within popular culture continues to proliferate, such as the cult of the cupcake, knitting groups, home-baking television programmes and, more generally, 1950s ‘housewife’ design aesthetics. Contrast, for example, the discursive de-politicisation of today’s home-making in art and mass culture with the actively feminist domestic ambivalence of 1970s artistic practice, exemplified by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Laurie Simmons’ Early Color Interiors (1978). Finally, we might remember that these new domesticities and today’s artistic and art-historical practices take place in spite of, and as a product of, ongoing global, domestic, social and economic inequalities, violence, and oppression, even in the so-called ‘post-feminist’ West.

This two-day conference invites proposals from art historians of up to 500 words for papers of 30 minutes. Proposals should be sent to Dr Francesca Berry (Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham) at and Dr Jo Applin (Department of History of Art, University of York) at by Sunday 15th February 2015. Please also attach a brief biographical note and institutional affiliation.

The conference is supported by the University of Birmingham, the University of York, and Oxford Art Journal.


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