Obituary: Ernst Kitzinger ; Influential Historian of Byzantine Art

By Gardner, Julian | The Independent (London, England), February 8, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Ernst Kitzinger ; Influential Historian of Byzantine Art


Gardner, Julian, The Independent (London, England)


ERNST KITZINGER, the great historian of Byzantine art, was the last survivor of a prodigiously gifted group of German art historians, which included Richard Krautheimer, Erwin Panofsky and Kurt Weitzmann, whose working life was predominantly spent in the United States.

The son of the Munich lawyer Dr Wilhelm Kitzinger and his wife Elisabeth, Ernst Kitzinger was born in 1912. He studied first at the Max-Gymnasium in Munich and subsequently, between 1931 and 1934, Archaeology, History of Art and Philosophy at Munich University, where he counted among his teachers the classical art historian Ernst Buschor and Wilhelm Pinder, a dominating scholar who strove to emphasise the fundamental Germanic qualities of medieval art.

Kitzinger never worked on German painting or sculpture - Pinder's great field. But it was Pinder, as supervisor, who saw him through his doctorate at the blazingly precocious age of 21 on 29 November 1934. The doctoral thesis analysed Roman painting from the early seventh to the middle of the eighth century. Barely 40 pages in length, its influence on subsequent study of medieval art in Rome was incalculable. It depicted Roman painting as both creative in itself, whilst subject to influences from the Eastern Mediterranean, so persuasively as to constitute a powerful counter- argument to the prevailing orthodoxy of a hegemonic "Alexandrian" style.

Two years after the Nazi seizure of power Kitzinger left Germany. It was, as Krautheimer later remarked, already abundantly clear that there was no place for Jews in the new German academy. Kitzinger emigrated first to Italy, where he studied briefly with the Italian art historian Pietro Toesca in Rome, and subsequently to England, where between 1935 and 1940 he worked in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities at the British Museum under the sympathetic Keeper T.D. Kendrick. Here he produced the seminal brief guide Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the British Museum (1940).

While others of the great emigre generation of art went directly to America, Kitzinger's London sojourn nurtured a love of England: Oxford was the chosen place of his initial retirement. His years at the British Museum, where he worked on the silver objects unearthed in 1939 at the great ship- burial of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and Coptic sculpture, developed his gifts for subtle analysis of the stylistic characteristics of objects, and refined a prose style of marmoreal concision.

In 1941 he was on the move again, reaching the United States via Australia, learning Russian en route from a fellow internee. He reached Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, where he came under the eagle eye of its Director, the great Carolingian manuscript scholar Wilhelm Koehler. Kitzinger was to remain at that haven in one role or another for 26 years, with a break for war service in the Office of Strategic Service between 1943 and 1945. In 1944 he married Susan Ranby, a Quaker and a painter, whose warmth and tireless enthusiasm were an immeasurable support.

The years 1950-51 were in many ways the turning point in Kitzinger's scholarly career. As a Fulbright Scholar, he worked on the Byzantine mosaics of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, an inexhaustible topic that was contemporaneously interesting the distinguished Austrian emigre Byzantinist Otto Demus. Kitzinger reviewed Demus's pioneering book The Mosaics of Norman Sicily (1950) with scrupulous fairness, and his own monograph The Mosaics of Monreale was published in 1960.

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