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.


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


The "Sumptuous" Arts in Greece

The quarter is over. Over the past few days I’ve reflected on what lectures I enjoyed teaching to my ancient art students. I think that my favorite lecture was based on Kenneth Lapatin’s essay, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts”1.

The reason why Lapatin includes a question mark after the word “minor” is important: his whole essay revolves around the argument that the Greeks valued the so-called “minor arts” much more than they are valued today. For Lapatin, the “sumptuous” artistic materials like ivory, gold, silver and gemstone were the artistic mediums that the Greeks most prized. In other words, the Greek marble, bronze and (painted) pottery (all of which are placed at the heart of Western art history) weren’t as valued by the ancient Greeks.

To prove his point, Lapatin gives one especially interesting example. He writes that “in the middle of the sixth century BC, the inhabitants of Phocaea decided to abandon their city rather than submit to the Medes. Herodotus reports, ‘They loaded onto their ships their children, women, and household property, and above all the images of the gods from the sanctuaries and other dedications, everything, in fact, except bronzes, stoneworks, and paintings, and they sailed to Chios.'”2 Now I realize that there may have been some practical reasons why the Greeks didn’t load their ships with stonework (it is heavy, after all!), but isn’t it interesting that the art we value today is precisely the art that the Greeks chose to abandon?

In some ways, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise to art historians. We have known for a long time that the main purpose of the Parthenon was to house Phidias’ chryselephantine cult statue of Athena (see above left for a reconstruction of an original of c. 438 BC). The cult statue was the most valued thing by the Greeks, not the building which housed the statue. This is very ironic, because today much more emphasis is placed on the architecture and exterior sculpture of the Parthenon. In fact, it’s interesting that one ancient Greek writer, Pausanias, only mentions the two pediments and cult statue when he described the Parthenon. He ignored the metopes and frieze completely, which suggests that they weren’t very important.3

So, why do we value painting, architecture, and sculpture above the “minor” materials and objects created by the Greeks? Lapatin traces this ideology back to Vasari’s writings of the 16th century (see a 1566-68 self-portrait of Vasari on right). Vasari’s Lives focused on the achievements of three artistic types: painters, sculptors, and architects. As a result, painting, sculpture, and architecture became “the canonical triad” in art history.4 In some ways, it’s not surprising that Vasari promoted these types of art: after all, he was a painter and architect himself. Although the effect of Vasari’s “triad” was not immediate (gems were still were considered part of the arts for a long time afterward), Vasari’s writings took part in “the displacement and demotion of items fashioned from sumptuous materials from the lofty position they held in ancient art and culture (as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).”5

Lapatin’s argument is fascinating. He also delves into interesting discussions of how Winckelmann affected our modern perception of Greek sculpture, particularly in terms of what we value today (i.e. unpainted white marble). It’s great stuff. I recommend that everyone should get their hands on a copy of this article. Unfortunately, his essay is found in a book that currently is out of print. But I promise that your efforts in securing a copy of this essay will be well worth the effort!

1 Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” in Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: 2003): 69-91.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art by Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 53-54. Part of the citation is available online here.

4 Lapatin, 74. It should be noted that Vasari did discuss and laud the importance of gold work and glyptic in the first edition of his Lives (1550). However, the 1568 revision of the text demoted the sumptuous arts and elevated painting instead.

4 Ibid.


Boy Bitten by a Lizard: Posner vs. Gilbert

About this time of year, several years ago, I was assigned my absolute favorite project in graduate school. I was required to read every single published work about one work of art, in order to trace the artwork’s historiography. I ultimately decided to research Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c. 1594).

Soon after I began to research my topic, I discovered that there are actually two versions of this painting – and both are attributed to Caravaggio. One version (shown left) hangs in the National Gallery in London, and the other (shown below, right) is in the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence.  Several connoisseurs argued over the authenticity of the paintings during the 20th century, but that debate essentially ended in 1992 (when Denis Mahon asserted that both examples are original, although he thinks that the Florence version was painted several years earlier than the London version).1

The most interesting thing I learned from my research project, however, was that one single article can forever change the shape of discourse (for better or for worse). In 1971, Donald Posner wrote a seminal article on the homo-erotic nature of Caravaggio’s early paintings.2 Posner argued that Boy Bitten by a Lizard is one of the most pronounced homosexual characters painted by Caravaggio. He finds the boy in this painting to appear sensuous, androgynous, and seductive (as suggested by the off-the-shoulder robe). Since that 1971 article, just about everyone has latched onto this homo-erotic theory and it still remains (mostly) undisputed.

What is interesting to me, though, is that no one (not even Caravaggio’s contemporary biographers) ever mentioned anything about homosexuality or effeminate characteristics until 1971. If this was such a key part of Caravaggio’s work, why was it unmentioned (perhaps unnoticed?) for centuries? I think that “Posnerian” scholars have imposed a 20th century perspective on this painting, and we need to rethink some of the homo-erotic interpretations of Caravaggio’s work. Creighton Gilbert also has come to this conclusion, arguing that the fair appearance of youthful men, was long celebrated in society.3 Gilbert argues that it was only during the nineteenth century, with the rise of capitalism, that men no longer wanted to be considered beautiful. The life of the artistocrat was not considered a social ideal anymore, for it was replaced by work ethic. With this change, men (particularly those of the middle class) began to insist on their difference from women, which not only changed clothing, but also changed other social norms (such as men kissing or crying).

From a historical (and historiographic!) perspective, I think that Gilbert’s argument makes a lot of sense. I also like much of Gilbert’s argument that this painting has roots in classicism. Gilbert finds that Boy Bitten by a Lizard was inspired by a Latin poem which was popular during the time of Caravaggio: O treacherous boy, spare the lizard creeping toward you; it wants to die in your fingers. The elements in this painting point towards this poem, including the bare shoulder, which recalls classical antiquity (instead of homosexuality, as interpreted by Posner).

What do people think? What was your immediate reaction upon seeing this painting for the first time? (Did you think that the subject was “effeminate” or merely “classical”?) Are we so entrenched in homo-erotic theory that it is difficult to examine this painting in any other way?

P.S. This post was indirectly inspired by the ongoing contest at Three Pipe Problem. People can submit a limerick about Caravaggio in order to win a copy of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Last night I was thinking up words that rhymed with “lizard,” and decided I also better write a Boy Bitten by a Lizard post.

1 See Keith Christiansen and Denis Mahon, “Caravaggio’s Second Versions,” The Burlington Magazine 134, no. 1073 (August 1992): 502-04.

2 Donald Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971): 301-324.

3 Creighton E. Gilbert, Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).


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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.