A Great Art Historian

Gothic vs. Classic: Architectural Projects in Seventeenth-Century Italy

by Rudolf Wittkower
Braziller, 192 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Palladio and Palladianism

by Rudolf Wittkower
Braziller, 192 pp., $22.50

Rudolf Wittkower, who died in 1971, was one of the most influential of contemporary writers on art history and one of the finest teachers in the subject. There is something deceptively simple about his writings. The facts are set out so clearly, one conclusion follows another so easily, the resultant point is so obviously true that one is tempted to say: “Surely I could have thought of all that myself”; but in fact the whole structure is founded on a far greater accumulation of knowledge than the author ever displays and on a profound understanding of art-historical problems which is never allowed to become obtrusive.

What Wittkower took the trouble to conceal was as important as what he revealed. He could sift masses of sophisticated rubbish and extract a few valuable ideas; he could read through pages of uninteresting detail, come up with one point of importance and dismiss the rest from his mind. His strength and persistence were without limits. No problem ever defeated him, whether it was mastering an obscure branch of archaeology, working out a complicated problem in harmonic proportion, or breaking the resistance of a recalcitrant sacristan in order to visit an obscure Italian church.

But the manner in which he ordered and imparted his knowledge was even more impressive. I can speak of this with firsthand knowledge, because, although Wittkower was only a few years my senior, I was for a long time—unofficially—his pupil. When I left Cambridge in 1937 and joined the staff of the Warburg Institute I had no training at all in art history, and it was at the Warburg that I gained it, partly from the inspiring example of Fritz Saxl, but even more from the day to day contact with Wittkower. At first this was over odd jobs such as editing articles for the Warburg Journal, but the largest task was revising Walter Friedlaender’s text for the first volume of the catalogue raisonné of the Poussin drawings. Friedlaender had wanted to write a book on Poussin as a draftsman and never relished the idea of writing a catalogue, which was suggested to him by Saxl; and the result was a text which needed complete remodeling.

Watching Wittkower at work on the minute and complex problems of scholarship involved was a lesson that I shall never forget. No detail was too insignificant to pursue and clear up—the precise source of a subject, the exact relation of a drawing to an engraving, the collectors who had owned the drawing—but even more exciting was the working out of the steps by which a composition was evolved through a series of drawings and the way Poussin approached the culmination in the painting.

Poussin was, of course, an ideal subject for Wittkower’s analysis because his own method was so logical. One could really feel that this was the way the artist had actually worked, not that this was an ingenious rationalization imposed on the evidence by a clever mind. Hundreds of Wittkower’s pupils…

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