textbook errors

Boccioni and Bronze (Or, “Is the Artist Rolling in His Grave?”)

Umberto Boccioni, "L' Antigrazioso," 1913. Varnished plaster

This week I have been thinking a bit about the Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni. Like other Futurist artists, Boccioni wanted to radically change society and the artistic scene. These artists thought such radical change could be brought about by completely abandoning tradition and heritage (and also advocating war as a “cleansing agent” for society). Even the Futurist Manifesto, written in 1909 by the poet F. T. Marientti, suggested that libraries, museums and academies should be destroyed in order for extreme change to come about in society.

This being said, I think it’s interesting to see what Boccioni did to try and revolutionize the world of sculpture. In 1912, Boccioni wrote to a friend, “These days I am obsessed by sculpture! I believe I have glimpsed a complete renovation of that mummified art.” To me, this “complete renovation” must have included a rejection of traditional artistic mediums (like marble and bronze). If you look at Boccioni’s sculptures, you’ll notice that they are often made out of plaster.

Ah! But I can hear you now, gentle reader. You’re saying, “Wait, but isn’t Boccioni’s most famous sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space made of bronze?” Yep. Today the sculpture is very much made out of bronze (see below). But this sculpture was cast posthumously, after Boccioni died. Boccioni actually made this sculpture out of plaster. I wonder what he would think about this sculpture being cast in bronze. Would Boccioni be rolling in his grave? Perhaps!

Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space," 1913. Cast in bronze (originally made of plaster).

In addition to using non-traditional materials, Boccioni also was interested in creating mixed-media sculptures. In 1912 he encouraged other sculptors to follow suit in his publication, Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture. In this manifesto, Boccioni writes, “It is necessary to destroy the pretended nobility, entirely literary and traditional, of marble and bronze, and to deny squarely that one must use a single material for a sculptural ensemble. The sculptor can use twenty different materials, or even more, in a single work, provided that the plastic emotion requires it. Here is a modest sample of these materials: glass, wood, cardboard, cement, iron, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirrors, electric lights, etc.”1

Boccioni, "Dynamism of a Speeding Horse + Houses," 1914-1915. Gouache, oil, paper collage, wood, cardboard, copper, and iron, coated with tin or zinc.

One can get a sense of Boccioni’s eclectic approach to artistic mediums in his sculpture, Dynamism of a Speeding Horse + Houses (see above). If only the artist had lived longer (he died at the age of thirty-five, tragically being trampled by his own “speeding horse” in a calvary training exercise).2 I like to imagine what Boccioni might have created in his later life. Perhaps he would have explored using more unconventional mediums in his painting, too? That would have been fun to see. Boccioni’s paintings are typically oil on canvas creations. (What irony!)

1 Umberto Boccioni, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture,” 1912. Found in Robert L. Herbert, “Modern Artists on Art,” (Mineola, New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2000), p. 50. Can be accessed online HERE.

2 Boccioni enlisted in battle when Italy entered WWI. Given that the Futurists were strong advocates as war as a “cleansing agent” for society, it is not surprising that Boccioni enlisted. However, contrary to what is written in Marilyn Stokstad’s “Art History,” vol. 4 (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011, p. 1034), Boccioni did not die in combat. Boccioni died while being thrown from his horse (and subsequently trampled by the animal) during a training exercise. The artist died on August 17, 1916.


Let’s Reconsider (and Republish on) the “Well of Moses”

Claus Sluter, detail of David and Jeremiah from the "Well of Moses," 1395-1406. Chartreuse de Champol, Dijon. Image courtesty simonsara via Wikipedia.

I didn’t plan on spending my winter break rooting out an error in Stokstad’s Art History textbook. I promise! I just happened upon this error when looking for more information about the lost Calvary composition, which was originally part of Claus Sluter’s “Well of Moses” (1395-1406). In truth, the “Well of Moses” originally served as a base for a large sculptural composition, which included a crucifix. Today’s “Well of Moses” is just a shadow of the original work produced by Sluter. On a side note, you may find it interesting that the “Well of Moses” is a relatively recent nickname for this work of art, having first been used in the late 18th century. Instead, early sources refer to this monument as “The Cross” or “The Great Cross.”From what I can gather, the original crucifix composition largely was destroyed in 1791, during the French Revolution. One can get a general sense of how the “Well of Moses” appeared by looking at a 16th century copy that is located at the Hôpital Général in Dijon, although there are no figures included with the Calvary scene (see below).

Copy of the "Well of Moses" group, 1508, Hôpital Général, Dijon. The cross is a nineteenth century reconstruction. Image available on Wikipedia via Christophe.Finot

Anyhow, Marilyn Stokstad’s recent art history book points out that that the Calvary group on top of the “Well of Moses” included three figures at the base of the crucifix: the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene.2 In the mid 19th century, a model of the Well of Moses was created by Joseph Moreau which showcased these three figures at the base of the crucifix. (It should be noted that sculptural fragments of Christ and Mary Magdalene both exist, but there never have been any fragments found of John the Evangelist or the Virgin Mary.)

I am disappointed that Stokstad’s Art History does not take recent research on the “Well of Moses” into account. A study published in 2005 reveals a very different (and unexpected) result of the crucifix composition. As part of a three-part series of articles on the “Well of Moses,” Susie Nash (of the Courtauld Institute) points out that the Calvary composition only depicted one figure at the base of the cross: Mary Magdalene.3 During the relatively recent restoration of the “Well of Moses” (a fifteen year project that ended in 2004), Nash was able to analyze the top of the “Well of Moses,” including the original mount for the crucifix. Nash also analyzed the remaining fragments from the Calvary composition, too, including the arms of Mary Magdalene. Nash concluded that the composition of the remaining base and extant fragments reveal that only one figure was located at the base of the cross. She also concluded, based on the fragments of the Mary Magdelene figure’s arms, that the Magdalene was originally embracing the foot of the cross. She supports her argument which archival evidence too, including an 18th century drawing of the Hôspital Général “Well of Moses” copy (see below).

Maurice Bauthélier, "La Belle Croix," c. 1760. Drawing of the 16th century copy of the "Well of Moses," located at the Hôspital Général in Dijon

Although there are some problems with this 18th century drawing (the figure depicted has short locks instead of the flowing, long hair of the Magdalene), it seems pretty obvious that the crucifix composition did not originally include figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. (Nash concludes her 2005 article by promising to discuss later how the crucifix itself also appeared differently than usually supposed. This topic ended up being the premise for the article, “Claus Sluter’s ‘Well of Moses’ for the Chartreuse de Champol Reconsidered: Part II,” published by Nash in July, 2006.)

In some ways, perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on Stokstad for mentioning three figures at the crucifix base instead of just one. Nash herself points out, “The belief that Sluter’s Calvary had three figures is so entrenched in the scholarly literature of the last 160 years that their existence has never been questioned.”4  But, as I have said before, I do feel like such a major art history textbook should be better at keeping up with current scholarship. Is Stokstad’s Art History so confidently “entrenched” that it doesn’t feel the need to include groundbreaking ideas? Omissions like Nash’s scholarship on Sluter reinforce to me that Stokstad’s book is not “the most…inclusive art history text on the market.” Although I think there are some great things about that textbook, I don’t think that Art History should be the art historian’s bible.

P.S. Don’t forget that my giveaway on the Irene Duclos book ends tomorrow!

1 Susie Nash, “Claus Sluter’s ‘Well of Moses’ for the Chartreuse de Champol Reconsidered: Part 1,” The Burlington Magazine 147, no. 1233 (December, 2005): 798. Article available online on Nash’s faculty webpage. I have translated the contemporary sources from French, which read “la croix” or “la grant [sic] croix.”

Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren, Art History, vol. 4 (Prentice Hall, 2011), p. 564.

3 Nash, 799, Susie Nash also has two other publications on the Well of Moses, which were published in The Burlington Magazine in July 2006, pp. 456-67 (Part II) and November 2008, pp. 724-741 (Part III). These two articles are also available on Nash’s faculty webpage.

4 Ibid., 799.


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.


Crucifix of Gero Conundrum

Okay, Ottonian art experts, I need help. I’m trying to resolve an issue regarding the Crucifix of Gero (c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, shown left). The most recent editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages and Stokstad’s Art History mention that this statue functions as a reliquary. According to both books, a cavity in the back of Christ’s head contains a piece of the Host.1

HOWEVER, I recently read here that no cavity exists behind the sculpture. “Despite older sources even citing the exact dimensions of such a reliquary opening in the Cologne sculpture, the restoration of the Gero Cross in 1976 revealed that no receptacle exists in the corpus’ head.”2

What’s the real story behind this? Who should I believe? I’m inclined to believe the 1976 restoration news, but it seems incredulous that both major art history textbooks would have missed the “There is no reliquary cavity!” memo that was written almost 35 years ago. Did any further evidence come about after the 1976 restoration? Or should I continue to lose faith in canonical art history textbooks?

One other thought. Despite that there might not be an opening in its back, I think this statue could still function as a reliquary: in the 10th century Archbishop Gero allegedly placed the Host and True Cross in the once-cracked wood of the statue (see footnote #2 below). But I guess there’s no way to prove that miraculous story through scientific analysis, is there?

1 Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 448. See also Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Backpack Edition: The Middle Ages), 13th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth: 2010), 201304.

2 Søren Kaspersen and Erik Thunø, Decorating the Lord’s Table: On the Dynamics Between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006), 59 (available online here). This same book also mentions the tradition of how the Crucifix of Gero came to be a so-called reliquary: “The early eleventh century Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg contains a miracle story involving Gero of Cologne, who served as archbishop from 969 to 976. The passage in Chapter Two of Book Three reads: ‘Meanwhile, Archbishop Gero of the see of Cologne died. As I have only spoken briefly about him, I will not relate a few things which I previously held back. He had a crucifix artfully made out of wood, which now stands above his grave, in the middle of the church. When he noticed a fissure in the crucifix’s head, he healed it, trusting not in himself, but rather in the healthy remedy of the highest artisan. He took a portion of the body of the Lord, our unique comfort in every necessity, and part of the health-bringing cross, and placed them together in the crack. Then, prostrating himself, he tearfully invoked the name of the Lord. When he arose, he found that the damage had been healed through his humble benediction.'” See Kaspersen and Thunø, 45-46 (available online here).


Naram-Sin Inscriptions

Bah! I found another problem with something in Stokstad’s recent Art History text. I promise that I’m not spending my time scouting out errors in this book – they just happen to pop up. I like a lot of things about Stokstad’s approach to art history, but these minor errors and misleading statements are making me question whether I want to use this textbook for my classes. (Plus, it’s making me wonder: what other incorrect or misleading statements in the text could have escaped my notice?) Man, if I ever decide to give up teaching, maybe Pearson Prentice Hall would hire me as an editor for their future editions of Art History.

Right now I’m bothered about Stokstad’s discussion of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BCE, shown left). Stokstad writes about the significance of “the inscription” on the stele – which suggests that there is only one inscription.1 In reality, though, there are two inscriptions: one that was written by Naram-Sin, and another inscription (which is most prominent and recognizable) that was written about 1,000 years later. Not only does Stokstad fail to recognize that there are two inscriptions, but she also implies that the second (clearly visible) inscription is the one that was written to commemorate Naram-Sin’s victory. This simply isn’t true.

To prove my point, let me show you the inscriptions. Here’s a detail image of the first inscription that was made:

This inscription is partially worn off (it is outlined by a rectangular shape over Naram-Sin’s head) and states that Naram-Sin was victorious over the Lullubi people of the Zagros Mountains. The inscription was likely made at the time when the rest of the stele was fashioned.
Here is a detail image of the second (and easily recognizable) inscription:
This inscription was written by Shutruk-Nahhunte, an Elamite king who raided Sippar in the 12th century BC and carried the stele back to Susa as booty. Shutruk-Nahhunte recorded his actions in an Elamite text: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, son of Hallutush-Inshushinak, beloved servant of the god Inshushinak, king of Anshan and Susa, enlarger of my realm, protector of Elam, prince of Elam. At the command of [the god] Inshusinak, I struck down the city of Sippar. I took the stele of Naram-Sin in my hand, and I carried it off and brought it back to Elam. I set it up in dedication to my lord, Inshusinak.”

This week my class has been reading a fascinating essay by Marian H. Feldman which discusses this latter inscription. (It is because of Feldman’s article that I noticed the misleading information in Stokstad’s book. Only after sorting out the two inscriptions did I discover that the most recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages correctly describes the two different inscriptions. At least one general survey text has the correct information!) Feldman uses the Elamite inscription as a springboard to discuss how different Mesopotamian monuments became loot and booty after multiple wars in the ancient Near East. She discusses the various ways that conquering Mesopotamian groups would mutilate or deface artistic spoils of war. It’s a really interesting essay, and I especially like her comparisons between ancient looting and the 2003 raiding of the National Museum of Iraq.

In regards to this stele, I liked Feldman’s discussion of how Shutruk-Nahunte chose to associate himself with Naram-Sin in the second stele inscription. Feldman writes, “That Shutruk-Nahhunte did not overwrite or obliterate Naram-Sin’s original inscription, as he did with other captured Mesopotamian monuments, and moreover, that in his own inscription he attributed the stele to Naram-Sin by name, suggests that this particular monument possessed a significance beyond simple war booty. Rather, Shutruk-Nahhunte’s knowledge of the stele’s association with a charismatic, if dishonored, ruler of the first great Near Eastern empire imbued the monument with added value.”2 It’s neat to think about how the value and meaning of this stele has changed over time.

Anyhow, thanks to Marian H. Feldman, I’ve now got my two inscriptions straight. Let’s hope that Stokstad straightens out her own error in future editions of Art History.

1 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 36.
2 Marian H. Feldman, “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of Mesopotamian Monuments,” in Dialogues in Art History, from Mesopotamian to Modern: Readings for a New Century, Elizabeth Cropper, ed. (London: National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009), 44.


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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.