June 2011

Book Review: "The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome" by Alois Riegl

Today I finished reading Riegl’s The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome (2009, Getty Publications). As I mentioned in an earlier post, this publication is very significant, since it is the first time that Riegl’s writings on Baroque art have been translated into English. Apart from a few introductory essays, this book is comprised of Riegl’s lecture notes. Riegl taught lectures on Baroque art during three different university semesters in the late 19th and early 20th century. These lecture notes were first published posthumously in 1908, and now have appeared in English almost a century later!1

I have to say, I think that this book is very interesting in many respects, but it’s not a book for someone who has a casual interest in Baroque art. Although Riegl’s lecture notes are written in a relatively approachable manner (since the text was written with the intent of being spoken in a lecture hall), the publication itself is rather dense. Riegl takes many specific arguments in his lectures, and he assumes that his audience already has a solid foundation of Renaissance history. In fact, much of this book discusses Renaissance art, as opposed to the Baroque art that is commonly found in today’s art history textbooks. For example, I was surprised to see more discussion of Bramante than Borromini (the latter was hardly mentioned at all!).

One of Riegl’s arguments is that Michelangelo and Correggio should be seen as the earliest predecessors of the Baroque style. I think this is an interesting argument. On a whole, I think that today’s Baroque scholars don’t give a lot of attention or emphasis to Michelangelo, at least in comparison with Riegl. Michelangelo really is the core of Riegl’s text. I think that today it is more common for people to think of Correggio as a “proto-Baroque” artist than Michelangelo. Perhaps 20th and 21st century Renaissance scholarship has such a vice-like grip on Michelangelo, that Baroque scholarship has been forced to back off a little bit?

I thought quite a bit about historiography while reading this book, and it wasn’t just because I noticed a discrepancy between today’s scholarship and Riegl’s treatment of Michelangelo. Riegl also made a passing comment about naturalism, which caught my attention: “Naturally, for us northerners the naturalists are the most interesting [artists to discuss].”2 As an Austrian art historian, Riegl realized that his geographic area and cultural origins influenced the way he responded to artistic style. Is there more scholarly interest in “naturalist” Baroque artists because so many great Baroque art historians came from Germany and Austria? Perhaps so!3

As for the publication itself, I liked that many of the key ideas and artists were highlighted in bold text. This small detail helps the viewer to maneuver and search through the text quite easily. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see so few images included in the publication – and the images that are included are only black and white! Although I have a solid foundation of Renaissance/Baroque sculpture and painting, I am less familiar with the secular architecture that is produced during those periods. Without images to help me visualize Riegl’s descriptions of the architectural pieces, I found myself a little bored and frustrated in that section of the text.

That being said, I really enjoyed reading the sections about painting and sculpture; I wasn’t bothered by the lack of images since I am familiar with the works of art that were discussed. Since I had this mixed reaction to the images (and lack of images!) in this book, I really would recommend this book only to Renaissance and Baroque scholars. Without many pictures to entice or engage the casual reader, this publication could disappoint. However, if you are interested in early Baroque scholarship and historiography, this is a great resource!

1 Riegl died in 1905 at the young age of 47.

2 Alois Riegl, The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2009), 216.

3 One such “naturalist” artist is Caravaggio, as opposed to more-so classical artists (or “eclectic” artists, to use Riegl’s term) like the Carracci and Guido Reni. I personally think there is more interest in Baroque naturalism today, but I’m biased toward Caravaggio myself!

Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Getty Research Institute for supplying the review copy.


Book of Kells Folio 34 Description!

I sometimes have trouble finding satisfying discussions of illuminated manuscripts in general art history textbooks. I have found that many descriptions, while very informative about a specific illumination or artistic style, tend to focus on illuminated manuscript pages as isolated works of art. Although I realize that such isolated descriptions are part and parcel of the general survey textbook (it’s impossible to discuss everything in depth!), I still am a little disappointed. I feel like medieval gospel books were meant to be experienced as cohesive whole, not as merely isolated illuminations.

One such example of an isolated description can be found in a recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which discusses the “Chi-rho-iota (XPI)” page, folio 34 recto of the Book of Kells (c. 800, shown right). Although I really like that Gardner’s touches on historical context by explaining that this particular passage would be read on Christmas Day, I feel like a sense of the illustration within the biblical text and Book of Kells itself (as a whole) is relatively lacking.

This being said, I was quite delighted when I read the following passage yesterday afternoon (see below). This is one of the best descriptions of Folio 34 that I have seen in an introductory textbook. Although the passage doesn’t exactly describe the folio in relation to any other pages in the book (and, as I mentioned earlier, I realize such analysis is largely beyond the scope of an introductory textbook), I really like that the author tries to tie the decoration of the page into the actual context of Saint Matthew’s gospel:

“The earliest surviving Hiberno-Saxon religious manuscripts reveal and interest in decorating the letters themselves, a not surprising development when we remember that the words were believed to be proclamations of God. This tendency reaches its peak in the Book of Kells. When the text discussing the life of Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1:22) reaches the point where the Incarnation of Christ is mentioned, the letters burst out into joyful, exuberant patterns. This whole page is devoted to three words – Christi autem generatio (“the birth of Christ”) – with most of the page devoted to the first three letters of Christi (XPI). The X is the dominant form, and it surges outward in bold and varied curves to embrace Hiberno-Saxon whorl patterns. Interlace fills other areas, and simple colored frames set off the large initials amid the consuming excitement. The human head that forms the end of the P also dots the I. Near the lower left base of the X, a small scene shows cats watching while two mice fight over a round wafter similar to those used in the Mass – a scene surely of symbolic intent, even if its meaning is lost to us today. The pulsating vitality of the word of God is thus visually demonstrated.”1

Have you found any descriptions of illuminated manuscripts that you like? Do you know of other descriptions that help the reader to better understand either the biblical context or the folio’s physical context within the gospel book itself?

UPDATE: The Book of Kells is available online as a digital copy through the Trinity College Library in Dublin (which has the book in its permanent collection). You can see a high-res copy of the Book of Matthew, for example, with Folio 34 HERE. The library also has provided an introductory page to the Book of Kells.

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 171.


Altar of Pergamon and Baroque Scholarship

I’m in the middle of reading The Origins of the Baroque Art in Rome by Alois Riegl. This recent publication is a really exciting and influential textbook in its own right, since it is the first time that Riegl’s essays on Baroque art have been translated into English. I plan on writing a full review of the book very soon, but I just wanted to write something that I found particularly interesting.

As an introduction to Riegl’s discussion of Baroque art, this book is prefaced with three essays. These essays largely deal with historiography in regards to Baroque scholarship. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I was particularly interested in the discussion about the excavation of the Altar of Pergamon in the late 19th century. Fragments of the altar started to arrive in Berlin in 1879 (which, incidentally, was the same year that prehistoric cave paintings were first discovered. But that’s a topic for another day. My point: 1879 was a big year for art history.)

The Altar of Pergamon is from the Greek Hellenistic period (c. 175-150 BCE). It was excavated in the late 19th century by Carl Humann, a German road construction engineer. The continuous frieze depicts the Gigantomachy (“Battle of the Giants”) with extremely high relief figures, dramatic emotional expressions, lots of diagonal compositions, and light/dark contrasts (see detail on left). Baroque scholars (such as myself) eat this kind of stuff up, since the stylistic characteristics are very similar to those of the Baroque period. I think that even the placement of the frieze near the steps (as opposed to being placed above the columns, which is the traditional location for an Ionic frieze) ties into the Baroque characteristics of viewer participation and involvement.

So, how did the arrival of the Altar of Pergamon in Berlin change scholarship on Baroque art? Before this point, the Baroque period had been viewed with some disdain by art historians and scholars. In fact, in the 18th century Winckelmann used the word “baroque” as an abusive term (and unsurprisingly, Winckelmann also disliked Hellenistic art!). But the unquestionable quality of the Pergamon frieze caused 19th century scholars to reassess their previous negative interpretations of not only Hellenistic art, but Baroque art as well. In fact, the Hellenistic period began to be known by scholars as the “ancient Baroque.”2

Consequently, because of the Altar of Pergamon’s influence, German art historians began to write about Baroque art. Heinirch Wölfflin wrote his seminal book Renaissance and Baroque in 1888, less than a decade after the Pergamon altar began to arrive in Berlin. Wölfflin even wrote in the preface “that he had intended to include an evaluation of the ‘ancient Baroque’ but that his ‘little book’ did not afford enough scope for this project, and he promised to return to it at a later date.”2 Unfortunately, Wölfflin never returned to write about the “ancient Baroque,” though other scholars (such as Arnold von Salis) did. Now, I think that Baroque scholars take the connection between the Hellenistic and Baroque period for granted. But Baroque scholarship is quite indebted to the Altar of Pergamon. Without the arrival of the altar in Berlin, perhaps “baroque” would still be a demeaning term in art history.

1 Alina Payne, “Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque” in The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 8.

2 Ibid.

*Image for Pergamon altar photograph © Raimond Spekking (via Wikimedia Commons) CC-BY-SA-3.0


YouTube: Social, Cultural, and Religious Functions

I just made my first YouTube video to help introduce course material to online students. Normally I create QuickTime videos of PowerPoint presentations for my online students, but I thought that a short clip of myself could help to set the tone (and hopefully encourage excitement!) for the upcoming course, which begins next week.

The video encourages students to look for ways that prehistoric and ancient art is connected with cultural, social, and religious functions. Before students even open their textbook, I want them to understand that definitions for art have changed over time. Today’s definitions for art (including ideas behind “Expressionism,” “art for art’s sake,” and a keen interest in aesthetic) are somewhat different from those of earlier centuries.

P.S. Yes, that’s a puzzle replica of the Sistine Chapel in the background of the clip. You can lift off the roof to reveal Michelangelo’s ceiling and Last Judgment fresco inside!


Condivi and Michelangelo’s "Pietà"

Well my friends, I think I may have found another minor error in an art history textbook. The textbook I use for my Renaissance classes, The Changing Status of the Artist, says the following: “Ascanio Condivi recorded that his friend Michelangelo carved himself in the guise of Nicodemus mourning over the dead Christ”1. This seemingly insignificant comment has captured my attention for several months, and consequently I have long wanted to read Condivi’s biography of Michelangelo (first printed 1553). Now that the school quarter is finished, I finally found time to read the biography this past weekend. But when I got to Condivi’s discussion on the Duomo Pietà (c. 1550, see below), I couldn’t find any discussion about a self-portrait! Only in the footnote of biography did I notice this information from the editor: “The figure of Nicodemus, according to a letter from Vasari to Michelangelo’s nephew Leonardo shortly after the artist’s death, is a self-portrait”2

Now, in the great scheme of things, perhaps it isn’t too a big deal that my textbook misattributed this self-portrait information to Condivi instead of Vasari. I understand that. But I also am in favor of historical accuracy, and I thought I would put the record straight here. If any of my past students are reading this, please make a note of the error on page 69 of your textbook!

That being said, this misattribution happily led me to become familiar with Condivi’s book first-hand. Many scholars believe that Condivi’s work is the best account of Michelangelo’s life; this book can practically be considered an autobiography. Condivi wrote that he got his information “with long patience from the living oracle of his [master’s] speech.”3 It appears that Michelangelo wanted this biography to be written for two reasons: 1) to correct omissions and errors about Michelangelo that appeared in Vasari’s first edition of Lives of the Artists and 2) to exonerate Michelangelo from accusations that he deceived the heirs of Julius II and embezzled sums of money (in regards to Michelangelo’s seemingly-endless sculptural project for Pope Julius II’s tomb).

Condivi’s biography is a great resource for any Renaissance scholar, and it’s a rather quick read. And although I didn’t read any new information about Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the Duomo Pietà, I was prompted to consider reasons why Michelangelo included his self-portrait. Condivi wrote that “Michelangelo plans to donate this Pietà to some church and to have himself buried at the foot of the altar where it is placed.”4

So, if this was to be a funerary function in some sense, Michelangelo may have wanted to include his portrait as part of the traditional convention to represent an image of the deceased on funerary monuments. Michelangelo may have also identified with Nicodemus for either spiritual or personal reasons. For example, according to legend, Nicodemus was a sculptor.5

However, this Pietà never was placed next to Michelangelo’s tomb. Vasari, who designed Michelangelo’s tomb, unsuccessfully tried to acquire the Pietà from the family who owned the sculpture at the time. However, I think it’s best that Vasari didn’t get his hands on the Pietà: it appears that Michelangelo changed his mind and didn’t want the sculpture for his tomb after all. In 1555, two years after Condivi wrote his biography, Michelangelo abandoned and mutilated the Pietà. He then sold the sculpture in 1561 to his friend Francesco Bandini, a Florentine banker in Rome. So if Michelangelo sold the sculpture, it’s very likely that he had no intention of using the sculpture on his own tomb. In a way, I’m surprised that Vasari didn’t pick up on that simple concept.

A lot of scholars have discussed and analyzed why Michelangelo mutilated the Duomo Pietà, and I think I will compile some thoughts in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honor c. 1450-1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 69.

2 Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl, edited by Hellmut Wohl, 2nd ed. (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 140 (my emphasis). I realize that the Changing Status textbook could be referring to something else written by Condivi besides his biography (such as a letter), but I highly doubt it. The editor of this Condivi text probably would have mentioned if Condivi had written anything about Michelangelo’s self-portrait, instead of only mentioning this letter by Vasari.

3 Ibid., xvi-xviii.

4 Ibid., 90. Michelangelo wanted to be buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, but was actually interred in the Florentine church Santa Croce. Vasari writes details of the internment (and opening Michelangelo’s casket to reveal a body untouched by decay!) in his second version of Lives of the Artists (1568). See Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 486.

5 King, 69.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.