Classical antiquities and fine art

Giovanni Morelli trained in medicine and the natural sciences but his professional career was spent in politics. After the unification of Italy in 1870 he took an interest in the organisation of national art collections and used his background in medicine and comparative anatomy to scrutinise details in paintings and drawings. As a young man he had copied anatomical drawings; in his maturity he sketched details from drawings and paintings by the Great Masters.

Drawing of Morelli in study
  • Giovanni Morelli in his university room
Bust of Morelli
  • Bust of Morelli by Lodovico Pogliaghi
Portrait of George Cuvier
  • Portrait of George Cuvier
Photo of Charles Darwin
  • Photograph of Charles Darwin

The French geologist George Cuvier (1769-1832), and to a lesser extent, the English (Oxonian) geologist and theologian William Buckland, had established a typology for the antiquarian study of the natural world. Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published in 1859, had stimulated the development of typological classification systems. Morelli effectively adapted these scientific methods to serve art. The culmination of his efforts was the publication of Critical Studies of Italian Paintings from 1880. The English translation appeared three years later. Morelli is reputed to have seen the usefulness of line by line analysis while visiting the Uffizi in the 1850s at roughly the same time that Crowe, Cavacaselle and Eastlake were beginning to append sketched details to their commentaries on individual paintings and drawings.

A major change had, however, been proposed for methods of looking at paintings more than a century earlier. In 1719 the English portrait painter, Jonathan Richardson, had published Two Discourses - on the 'art of criticism' and 'the science of a connoisseur'. Richardson had endeavoured to demonstrate that there were straightforward, rational, ways of acquiring knowledge about paintings, such as looking at details of hands and ears. This type of process was, in the 18th century sense, scientific, because it was based on observation, not on personal opinion. Four years later, with his son, Richardson published the first discerning account of paintings and classical sculpture in Italian collections.

Morelli's drawings - ears
  • Morelli's drawings of 'Typical Ears' after various Masters
Morelli's drawings - hands
  • Morelli's drawings of 'Typical Hands' after various Masters

Morelli's 'Critical Studies ..'
  • Morelli's English Critical Studies of Italian Painters. (1883)

In Critical Studies Morelli advises a young would-be connoisseur to begin by looking at drawings by the Great Masters, because there the lines are easier to see than they are in their paintings, and to rely on anatomy as a guide, rather than drapery or landscape. The morphology of the human body does not change: the torso has four limbs, each limb has five digits, and so on.

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