Charles Hope was Director of the Warburg Institute, London, from 2001 to 2010. He is the author of Titian.


Rubens: ‘Dramatic, Moving, Convincing’

Peter Paul Rubens: <i>The Massacre of the Innocents</i> (detail), 1636–1638
When we visit museums today, not only are the works that we see no longer in settings like those for which they were made, but in many cases the reasons why particular subjects were carved or painted are obscure. The subjects themselves are often unfamiliar, or at least they do …

England: How the Masterpieces Came and Went

David Teniers the Younger: <i>Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery in Brussels</i>, 1651–1653. Many of the archduke’s pictures were bought in bulk from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton after the duke was executed during the English Civil War.
Until about sixty years ago art historians were mainly interested in works of art and the artists who had made them. But especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they also began to consider the wider setting in which art was produced, often associating artistic changes with other social …

The Art of the Phony

The American art forger Ken Perenyi with one of his works, 1988
The existence of a market for any kind of valuable object almost always encourages the production of counterfeits. It happens with drugs, banknotes, and designer handbags. It also happens with works of art. But whereas counterfeiting banknotes or other documents has always been considered a crime, attitudes toward art forgery have changed greatly over time.

The Wrong Leonardo?

The Louvre’s <i>Virgin of the Rocks</i> by Leonardo da Vinci, 1483–1490 (left); the National Gallery’s version of Leonardo’s <i>Virgin of the Rocks</i>, circa 1508 (right)
Exhibitions of drawings by Leonardo, almost always based on the uniquely rich collection in the Royal Library at Windsor, are relatively common. But outside the Louvre, which owns four of Leonardo’s pictures, it is rare indeed to have the opportunity of seeing more than a couple of his paintings together. The museums that possess such works are understandably reluctant to loan them, both because of their fragility and because of their fame; and apart from the Louvre, only the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg can make a plausible claim to possess more than one finished picture by him. Yet the exhibition currently at the National Gallery in London includes, according to the sponsor of the exhibition, Credit Suisse, “around half of the 15 or so paintings by Leonardo which are known to be in existence, as well as 50 of his original drawings,” including thirty-three from the Royal Collection. For most of those fortunate enough to have acquired tickets, for which demand vastly exceeds supply, this is an experience that is unlikely to be repeated.

Mind Your Maniera

Living in an age of museums and exhibitions, and when interest in the history of art is widespread, one easily forgets that until a couple of centuries ago what mattered to critics and the wider public, as well as to artists, was contemporary art. The art of earlier periods that …

E.H. Gombrich (1909–2001)

Ernst Gombrich, who died on November 3, was born in Vienna in 1909. His parents participated in the cultural and intellectual life of their time, numbering Freud and Mahler among their acquaintances, while remaining rather conventional in their tastes. From his mother Gombrich inherited a lifelong passion for music, and …

The Last ‘Last Supper’

Leonardo belongs to the very small group of painters who are as famous for their personalities or their lives as for their work. The basic elements of the legend are already present in the biography produced by Vasari in 1550: his precocious and prodigious talent, the range of his interests, …

On Francis Haskell (1928–2000)

Francis Haskell, who died on January 18 at the age of seventy-one, was one of the most important art historians of his time. He developed new ways of approaching the subject, and in doing so profoundly influenced the way in which we think about the art of the past. Throughout …

A Wind from the West

The idea of dividing art into distinct “schools,” usually centered on a single city, such as Venice or Florence, or on a restricted geographical area, such as Flanders or Lombardy, goes back to the early seventeenth century and still survives to the present day. This approach has an obvious validity …

In Lorenzo’s Garden

When the future Philip II, on his first journey outside his native Spain, made his ceremonial entry into Antwerp in 1549, a series of triumphal arches was erected in his honor, including one financed by the local community of Florentine merchants. As one might expect, its purpose was both to …

The Myth of Florence

When tourists began to visit Italy in large numbers in the eighteenth century, their favorite destinations were Venice and Rome. If they chose to stop in Florence they wanted above all to see the masterpieces from the ducal collection displayed in the Uffizi, notably ancient statues such as the Medici …

Can You Trust Vasari?

Few visitors to Florence pay much attention to Giorgio Vasari’s vast cycle of paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio or to his architecture of the Uffizi, but his Lives of the most excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 and again in a much expanded form eighteen years later, is …

The Possessed

The definition of collecting adopted by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal could hardly be broader. In their introduction they refer not just to Noah, with his comprehensive assembly of animals, but also to tax collectors, ticket collectors, and refuse collectors; to the medieval church, which supposedly collected souls, and even …

Restoration or Ruination?

Like anything else, works of art inevitably change over time. Some of the pigments in Renaissance paintings are unstable, and the varnishes often used to protect the surface gradually become discoloured. Alterations in temperature and humidity, which happen anyway but are more acute when pictures are moved, cause panels to …

Tempest over Titian

Le Siècle de Titien is the fourth major show of sixteenth-century Venetian art in ten years, following The Genius of Venice in London in 1983–1984, Titian in Venice and Washington in 1990, and Jacopo Bassano in Bassano del Grappa and Fort Worth last year, to name only the most ambitious.

Wall Power

In Italy panel paintings and frescoes were first used to decorate churches, then town halls and the palaces of rulers, only later becoming commonplace in the houses of private families, especially the well-to-do. Painting was therefore an art directed at a wide public, an instrument of power. Yet from its …

Michelangelo, True or False?

More than any other artist of his time Michelangelo exemplified the Renaissance idea that art should improve on nature. He also subscribed to the Florentine belief that the use of preparatory drawings was an indispensable part of the creative process. At various times in his life he is said to …

Storm over the Storm

One of the best sellers of Renaissance Europe was Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. This manual of social conduct, first published in 1528 but written some years earlier, was in the form of an imaginary conversation set at the court of Urbino in 1507. In a discussion about literary …

Rediscovering the Bellinis

In Renaissance Italy art was often a family business, and no family of painters was more successful than the Bellini. Jacopo Bellini, who was born about 1400, was the foremost painter in Venice in the decades around 1450. His sons Gentile and Giovanni acquired an even greater reputation, as did …

The Real Leonardo

The first public exhibition of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci took place in Florence around 1500. According to Giorgio Vasari, writing fifty years later, Leonardo, who had been asked by a patron for an altarpiece, instead made a cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, “which not …

The Eyewitness Style

Large numbers of pictures were produced in Italy from at least 1300, but Italians began to write extensively about art only in the sixteenth century. This development coincided with the growth of private collections, particularly the princely galleries of painting and ancient sculpture that were the predecessors of modern museums.

Sight Gags

The reputation of the Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is based entirely on a dozen or so bizarre pictures showing portrait-like heads made up of animals, plants, or inanimate objects. The most famous are the four Elements and the four Seasons. Fire, for example, is a combination of burning coals, guns, …

Renaissance Beauties

Until the establishment of the Kinsey Institute, no one, except perhaps when talking to his confessor or doctor, had any obvious reason to be entirely frank about his sexual behavior, and few people, in reading about the subject, wanted or expected accurate factual information. This makes the task of the …

Jupiter’s Boy

In 1557 Benvenuto Cellini, who was then living in his native Florence, was convicted of sodomy, and after a brief spell in prison had his sentence commuted to house arrest for four years. It was in this period of enforced inactivity, when his attempts to win major sculptural commissions were …

How Venetian Is Venetian Painting?

Historians of Renaissance painting in Italy generally make a very sharp distinction between Venice and the other major centers of artistic activity, notably Florence and Rome. Venetian painters, so it is said, may have borrowed elements from their contemporaries in central Italy, but they worked for patrons with different requirements …