One of the most frustrating things about studying Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century frescos is rarely being able to get really close-up. I am usually straining my neck to look at something ten metres above me. ‘Art History Neck’ is a real affliction. Today I had the wonderful experience of seeing a fresco as the artist would have seen it as he worked on it. The accidental accumulations of subsequent building projects have meant that floor level now in this early sixteenth century confraternity room in Perugia is probably just about at the height the artist would have had his scaffold to paint this serene and harmonious crucifixion. What a treat to be able to come face to face with this Magdalene. To appreciate, and to wonder, just how the artist was able to reproduce the folds of her white linen undershirt as they gather along the neckline so carefully that now, after five hundred years and a lot of damp and decay notwithstanding, they are as clear to me as if she was standing here. Which of course she almost certainly never was, because the speed required of the fresco painter meant that this wall must have been completed in a matter of days, rather than months. Studies for the figures must have been completed beforehand and were ready for transfer to the surface before the artist* got on the scaffold to start work.
And just to continue my rant about Why Art History was never intended to be just for posh people; this was painted for a confraternity whose members ranged from shoemakers to wool merchants, and shopkeepers to stonemasons. Art for everyone.
*The identity of the artist is still the subject of debate.
I haven’t written anything on the campaign that has been running in the UK to raise the profile of art history as a taught discipline. The prospect of the extinction of Art History A- level appeared, and then disappeared, at the end of 2016. I did not feel I had much to add – the arguments were already being made. After all, as Michael Baxandall, always ahead of his time, almost said in 1972; ‘Money is very important in History of Art’. Not quite what he meant, I know; but it was no surprise when it turned out that money, rather than any pressing academic issue, was behind the exam board AQA deciding to drop the subject.No doubt Pearson are stepping into the breach because they believe there is money in it.
I am going to add my piece now purely because today, as happens intermittently, I see something which reminds me why I am an art historian. Something that makes my soul leap, and moves me to tears. Something that makes all those freezing mornings trying to make my camera work with numb fingers in ancient churches worthwhile. More of that in my next post. But it also moved me to wonder why on earth the debate about the worth of art history is happening at all.
No-one, as far as I know, even in these straightened times, is suggesting that we ditch English Literature from schools – are they? The subject may have been ‘dumbed down’ in recent years, but it’s still taken as a given that the study of our written culture is ‘A Good Thing’. Can anyone explain to me why the study of our visual culture is any different? It has the same ability to inform us about the time, and the place, in which it was produced, and to teach us about ourselves, as human. When did Art History become a subject just for posh people? It didn’t start out that way. For hundreds of years art was the medium through which Church and State projected their view to the majority of the population. Elizabeth I was as careful with her reproduced image as Kim Kardashian. Wherever you stand on the ‘Art as books for the illiterate’ debate, it is clear that fresco cycles in medieval churches brought Christian texts and ideas to life for many in a pre-literate and pre-photographic age. Art enabled communication on a large scale to those who could not read. Art really was for everyone.
Why is it now only studied in private schools, when literature is on the National Curriculum?
There. I knew I could get quite angry about that when I thought about it properly…….
The period I work on in Umbria,(the end of the fifteenth and the start of the sixteenth centuries), saw a huge amount of money being spent on chapels and altarpieces in town churches. Commissioning documents repeatedly tell us that patrons were looking at what others had commissioned, and requesting that their work be similar, equal to, or ‘better’ in some way, than another. There cannot have been much chance of quiet contemplation in any of these churches at this time. They must have been alive with the sound of frames being hammered into place, of artists shouting at their assistants to bring paints and implements, and the rustle of parchment as notaries itemised the agreement between patron and artist. All these things took place IN the church. The proximity of trade and the Almighty, at a time when God was very much part of every-day life, was unremarkable.
We, the creatures of a secular age, have perversely assumed over-reverent hushed tones that we imagine to be the appropriate demeanour of the believer, as we creep about Italian churches in our quest to glimpse the masterpieces of this frenetic business of art production.
Last week I had the luxury of being almost the only tourist visiting the Duomo in Spoleto, in Umbria. The main doors of the church were being revarnished, and so were flung open throughout the chilly, bright, December day.
Inside, three men in brown overalls took noisy measurements for a new lining for the font, while the decorators sang as they varnished. Sunlight flooded into the church and illuminated the Lippi frescos in a way that the ubiquitous horror of the Italian church, the coin-in-the-box-spotlight, never does. For a moment I had a glimpse of what it might have been like to have stood there at the end of the fifteenth century, when this was a place of business; as deals were being struck, careers being made, and as the daily grind of making things went on. Baxandall’s “church-going businessman” felt close by my side.