Stories of Art

Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance I

Phaidon, $5.95 (paper)

Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance II

Phaidon, $7.95 (paper)

The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance

Cornell University Press, $22.50

From about 1864, the year of the publication of Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s New History of Italian Painting, the study of Italian art turned from the imaginative interpretations of Ruskin to the task of amassing information. Ruskin foresaw the change and recommended Crowe and Cavalcaselle as “a book which they have called A History of Painting in Italy, but which is in fact only a dictionary of details relating to that history.” In the 1870s, writers on art, from Morelli downward, set out to discover who painted what pictures, the occupation to which they gave the rather pretentious title of “the science of connoisseurship.”

This new direction of art history was overdue. No one can study an artist’s work without having a fairly correct idea of what he painted, and the accretions that had grown around well-known artists’ names were fantastic. Charles Lamb, writing from Blenheim, says that of the nine pictures by Leonardo da Vinci only two pleased him: needless to say there were no pictures by Leonardo da Vinci at all at Blenheim. The movement totally dominated art historical teaching and produced a vast number of monographs and a few syntheses, of which Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters was the most intelligent and Van Marle’s History of Italian Painting the most dismal. Although Berenson allowed himself some value judgments his fame and fortune rested on his famous “lists,” which aimed at authenticating the works of Italian painters, and I can testify that the young critic of the 1920s thought this was the only respectable course open to him.

This activity had one serious defect: it did not begin to look at works of art in their historical context. Berenson and Bode never considered what contemporary patrons, guilds, princes, or ecclesiastical bodies wanted from their artists. And one reason for this was that Renaissance patrons of all sorts wanted something almost incredibly different from what we want today. Instead of an aesthetic specimen in a glass case they wanted a symbol, or complex of symbols, which should express their thoughts and aspirations. By the mid-nineteenth century no one (except Ruskin) thought symbolically, and it required a man of wholly original mind to do so. Such a man appeared in the person of Aby Warburg. He was a genius. His approach to art history produced a revolution that has lasted till the present day. Since he was also the senior member of a large banking house he was able to found in Hamburg a library and an institution in which his approach to art history could be developed.

Sir Ernst Gombrich has been for many years the head of the Warburg Institute, now fortunately located in London, and most people interested in the subject would agree that he is the most intelligent, the most learned, and the wittiest of English art historians. He is also one of the most prolific. Eight of his volumes stand on my shelves. I have read them all, but owing to my pitiful…

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